When you sip a Manhattan, you are sipping on a drink invented in the 1870s. An Old Fashioned is a taste of the 1880s.
Now, one of Melbourne’s favourite cocktail bars, The Everleigh, has taken the idea of pouring this history into your glass as literally as it can with its new Vintage Spirits menu. While there isn’t anything quite as old as the original Manhattan, owner Michael Madrusan likens the new list to “time travel”.
“I really like the idea of trying something that was made many, many moons ago and becoming familiar with the way it tasted back then, the way it’s aged, and connecting with that time,” he says. “The idea of having a Gordon’s Martini using Gordon’s 47 per cent gin bottled in the ’50s.”
After experimenting with cocktails using older spirits, the Everleigh has assembled 18 spirits spanning decades and flavours. There’s Bacardi from the ’70s, Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon from 1943, and you can even try three decades of Plymouth Gin – one from 1970s, one from the ’80s and its current bottling.
To encourage drinkers to try these rare spirits, the markup is minimal and the bar offers half pours. That means you can get an Old Overholt Rye from the 1980s for $12. On the other end of the spectrum is the same Rye from 1936, which is $110 for a full pour (still less than it costs to try sought-after contemporary bourbons, such as a recent bottling of Pappy Van Winkle for $185 a pour).
“At the end of the day it’s pointless having them in that shelf where people are looking at them and not buying them,” Madrusan says.
The process of sourcing and buying rare spirits isn’t easy. After cost, shipping and taxes, the liquor also needs to taste good, which, given age and history, isn’t guaranteed. The bar will warn customers if it suspects a bottle isn’t in the best shape. “It’s one thing to have these available to customers, but it’s another thing to make sure they are getting a quality product,” Madrusan says.
But for many customers, he adds, curiosity and experience often outweighs taste as the primary allure. A 1940s bottle of Black & White Scotch, for example, arrived with unusual flavours due to oxidation. The same Scotch from the 1930s leaked in transit, but still tastes fantastic.
For Madrusan, the journey is part of the pleasure.
“I think it’s the start of a bit of an obsession,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to find in the bottle.”