The cocktail passes from patron to patron down the bar at Handshake Speakeasy, each guest dipping a short metal straw into the coupe to siphon out a fleeting taste of the 100 Year Old Hanky Panky. Everyone at the Mexico City bar knows they’ll never taste a drink quite like this again—lush and concentrated, its amaro edge softened over time, made with gin and vermouth that predate the Sputnik launch and a Fernet-Branca that’s older still, dating back to 1930.
Although better known for its modernist cocktails, Handshake’s menu has, since last summer, featured four drinks incorporating vintage spirits, ranging from a $55 shakerato made with 1980s Campari to that time-capsule Hanky Panky, which sells for a breathtaking $430. And it joins an elite club of establishments—the Office in Chicago, Seattle’s Canon, and Maison Premiere in New York City—gleaning inspiration from rows of dusty bottles.
London’s Connaught Bar, a perennial favorite on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, also introduced a vintage program last year. “We were ready to give guests a piece of liquid history,” says Agostino Perrone, who heads the Connaught Bar team. Its selection has grown from three drinks—including a martini and a white lady—to seven, to meet overwhelming consumer demand for all things small production, limited edition, and rare. Hence the success of the Connaught’s Silver Jubilee Rob Roy, made with a limited-run Scotch bottled for the former queen’s 1977 Platinum Jubilee and priced at £2,000 (about $2,500).
Jim Wrigley remembers drinking his first vintage cocktail seven years ago, at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast—a Trader Vic’s 1944 mai tai made with period-correct Wray & Nephew rum. “You could never re-create the original with modern spirits,” says Wrigley, who, along with Andrew Copsey, opened Library by the Sea at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa on Grand Cayman last December.
Among other literary themes, Wrigley’s menu includes what he has dubbed rare and first editions. When a customer orders a $350 E. Hemingway Special daiquiri, the bartender ascends a ladder to pull down a Dorothy Thorpe coupe, the 1952 issue of Life magazine that debuted The Old Man and the Sea, and the same 1930s Bacardí rum and maraschino liqueur that Papa Hemingway would have imbibed at El Floridita, in Havana, Cuba.
As distinct as vintage spirits are—thanks to a combination of evaporation, bygone production methods, and defunct sugar sources—it’s the experience that differentiates these drinks.
“There’s this moment in hospitality when you’re connecting with the guest and say, ‘The next time you come back, this bottle won’t be here. This is something just for us,’ ” says Shawn Lickliter, bar director at Manzke, in Los Angeles. A full 85 percent of Manzke’s back bar is vintage, from pre-Prohibition whiskeys to coveted 1960s Campari—even its Chambord and Cointreau are approaching Medicare age. But Lickliter’s no time-travel purist. He likes to mash up eras, with a vintage negroni that uses current-day sweet vermouth and a monte carlo featuring 1996 Rittenhouse rye, 1950s Bénédictine, and Angostura bitters from the 1970s.
As much as vintage bottles define Manzke’s bar program, Lickliter is fully aware that the good stuff will eventually run out. “It’s not sustainable,” he says, estimating that in two to five years, guests will return to find a completely modern back bar. “I kind of love that,” he says. “Like, ‘Remember when this was all vintage? It was such a cool thing to be part of.’ ” And then, like time itself, “We just move on.” Caroline Hatchett
How To: Know When to Fold ‘Em
Robb Report’s resident bartender and Cocktails for Grown-ups host is willing to shell out serious coin for a drink made with vintage spirits—but only under very specific circumstances.
There’s a scene in a movie. You know it, even if you haven’t watched it. A crowded poker table has been whittled down to two rivals. It’s one of those high-anxiety moments, a pile of chips in the middle of the table—he might be bluffing, he might not be. Sweat beads on brows.
“Do you have it?” asks the first.
“You can find out,” says the other, “for $50,000.”
This is all I can think about when I see a ludicrously expensive cocktail at the bottom of a menu: “Do you have it?” I try to read the room, suddenly playing detective. How did the bartender move behind the bar? Were the other cocktails thoughtful or merely competent? Is the menu clean and unwrinkled? Okay, you’re confident enough to put it on the menu—but did you do it right?
People tend to think of cocktails like steak dinners: The spirit is the steak; everything else is accouterment. Through this lens, more money for a vintage liquor makes sense. If someone offered to replace your steak with a more special steak, it would be an obvious improvement—the same thing you were going to have anyway, just better.
But cocktails aren’t like that at all. Each particular liquid is itself a finely honed recipe and creates a unique expression on the palate, like a fingerprint. Truly great drinks have been meticulously tested, with 10, 20, or 30 versions compared side by side just to find the perfectly suited spirit. So, while it’s possible that a rye whiskey exhumed from a 19th-century shipwreck can anchor a sublime manhattan, its ability to do so will be completely unrelated to the specialness of the bottle. No matter how good the Wagyu, in other words, it doesn’t necessarily improve the dish if it’s replacing clams, or duck. It might not work at all.
To be clear, if given an opportunity to try a Sazerac with pre-phylloxera Cognac, say, or an old-fashioned with 1880s bitters and bourbon, or the precise Vesper that Ian Fleming was enjoying when he wrote the recipe into Casino Royale in the 1950s, you’ll find me on my phone, negotiating an increase to my credit limit. But am I interested in a Moscow mule with its price multiplied three dozen times because they found a bottle of vodka that’s older than my mother? Deal me out. Jason O’Bryan
The Flex: Salvatore’s Legacy
Legendary barman Salvatore Calabrese has been on cocktail connoisseurs’ radar since at least 1985, when, at Dukes, in London, he created the extremely cold, dry, and potent Direct Martini-freezer-chilled gin poured straight from the bottle into a glass (also frozen) seasoned with a hint of vermouth—for journalist Stanton Delaplane, who covered it in the San Francisco Chronicle. His current establishment, the Donovan Bar, in Brown’s Hotel, is where many of the city’s top bartenders head when they want an expertly prepared vintage cocktail-because Calabrese is also considered the godfather of the current phenomenon.
“We can see and read history, we can touch and feel history,” Calabrese says. “But one thing no one could do is taste history. So I came out with this concept of selling liquid history.”
Of a cocktail oeuvre that includes an old-fashioned with bourbon from the 1890s, when the drink was invented, and a negroni made using only ingredients from the period when the famed Conte Negroni was battling in the Franco-Prussian War, his masterpiece is surely the Salvatore’s Legacy, once heralded by Guinness World Records as the most expensive cocktail, at £5,500 (nearly $7,000). If the price tag makes it sound like a gimmick, consider the ingredients: The base spirit is a Vieux Cognac, Clos de Griffier, from 1788, with caraway seed–flavored Kummel Liqueur from 1770 and a helping of 1860 Dubb Orange Curaçao. Even the Angostura bitters are from the 1930s.
Asked why he attached his legacy, literally, to a cocktail that few are likely to experience, Calabrese leans into the exclusivity. “Why can it not be my legacy?” he asks. “After all, it is my booze, my creation, with over 750 years of history in one drink, made my way.” Nicolas Stetcher