The lure of Harden’s hoard transcends novelty. As classic cocktails came roaring back at the turn of the millennium via the craft-cocktail movement, kickstarted by the likes of the late Sasha Petraske at New York’s Milk & Honey bar, they created a thirst for original ingredients—and a market for forgotten, old bottles. Harden was one of the first to leverage this new craving, but he isn’t alone. Other firms offering similar services for sourcing old bottles include the Netherlands-based Old Liquor Company and Soutirage in Yountville, Calif., which has broadened its initial wine services to spirits. Harden, though, is inarguably the most respected and connected vintage liquor broker in the world.
He is also an insightful guide to this unexpected market. Don’t assume, he warns, that a martini mixed with vintage liquor will taste the way it did when Kennedy was in the White House. Liquor, like wine, evolves in the bottle. The botanicals in gin, for instance, mature at different rates, with the flavor of juniper falling away and the citrus becoming more prominent, as Harden discovered with his epiphany martini. Rum, often bottled at 120 proof, becomes lighter and subtler with age. “Drink the old ones,” he explains, “and you can taste the sunshine.”
Reformulated recipes are another reason cocktail purists flock to Harden’s aptly named Old Spirits Company. A 40-year-old bottle of Southern Comfort, Harden says, is a far cry from the cloying treacle now stocked by college bars. “The older stuff has Irishin it,” Harden says, passing me a bottle from the 1970s. “And it isn’t artificially colored.” Harden says manufacturer Brown-Forman tweaked its formulation in the ensuing years to appeal to female drinkers, resulting in what he dismisses as “that sickly red, hen-night shooter.” (New Orleans–based Sazerac Company bought the brand in 2016 and reformulated it yet again; a spokesperson says it has readjusted the recipe to include whiskey once more, “to ensure it was kept as close to the original recipe as possible.”)
Other brands deny they’ve tampered with the formulas or insist that any small adjustments have not altered the taste. Take Drambuie. Harden says that a bottle of the Scottish liqueur from the 1950s will have a more pronounced peaty or smoky whisky flavor due to the higher-quality malts used in it. In newer Drambuie, Harden suspects that cheaper whiskies might have been used in lieu of the original malts. To an amateur palate, the older version certainly tastes smoother, but is that a result of in-bottle aging or ingredient-tampering? Current Drambuie master blender Brian Kinsman insists that the recipe used now is the same one first documented in 1914, with a base of blended Scotch whisky. He does acknowledge that the sugar supplier changed at one point, because the liqueur was prone to developing sugar crystals once opened. The new sugar supply, Kinsman says, “is sweeter, but there was a lot of work done to ensure the final product retained the original level of sweetness.”
Harden’s clients are primarily fine cocktail bars around the world, which increasingly offer premium-priced vintage versions of Manhattans, martinis, and such, using old liquors, often listed on stand-alone request-only menus. Stateside, San Francisco’s Smugglers Cove is a regular buyer of old rums, which owner Martin Cate adds to his 400-strong stock in an area of the bar he calls The Vault. The Aviary in New York and Seattle’s Canon are among his other customers. Harden works on a project basis with private clients, too—the most popular request is a 40-year-old bottle to gift for 40th birthdays. He also helps individuals keen to build their own throwback cellars, like a recent buyer who tasked him with a top-secret mission. For her 25th wedding anniversary, she wanted him to curate a dozen-strong cabinet for her husband, with bottles of gin, whisky, and the like dating back to the era of their marriage.