Aging well: The allure of vintage spirits

Aging well: The allure of vintage spirits

This Thanksgiving it might be worth a look in the back of your grandfather's liquor cabinet, because those old dusty bottles you may have assumed had gone bad may in fact be a gift from holidays past.

While renovating his Keyport, New Jersey house this past September, Ron Lewert found a stash of Gilbey's Dry Gin, still wrapped in straw hidden in a crawlspace in the roof – 12 bottles in a big, burlap sack.

They're almost certainly as old as the house, which was built in 1926, during Prohibition. "It would appear that it was placed into the roof when they were constructing the house," said Lewert.

"That's wild!" said correspondent Lee Cowan.

"Yeah, that's pretty crazy, pretty cool!"

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A stash of Gilbey's Dry Gin dating back to 1926, uncovered during a house renovation.  CBS News

Now, old booze doesn't necessarily mean good booze, but it might be. A bottle of Macallen Scotch whisky, distilled in 1926, just broke a record at auction, selling for nearly $2 million.

"If you've got probably 40 pours from the bottle, you can give, you know, 40 people the greatest whisky that's ever been made," said Jamie Ritchie, who was the Sotheby's auctioneer that day. "It's fun!"

"I want to be at that guy's house at Christmas!" said Cowan.

Old spirits are, indeed, rising from the dead.

At Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco they even have a vintage rum club.

At The Office, a high-end "speakeasy" in Manhattan, Mark Dipasquale can make you a pre-Prohibition martini using Vermouth from 1906, and gin from the turn of the century. It will set you back $600. 

"The gin is really cool, the vermouth is really interesting," said Dipasquale. But, he adds, the most interesting is the martini's bitters, dating from 1896 or before. "If you take a sip of it, and coat your mouth with it, it has a life to it that modern spirits don't," he said.

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Bitters dating from 1896 or before. CBS News

Which is why some go to any lengths to find these bottled treasures.

Last month, divers in the Baltic Sea hauled up nearly a thousand bottles of cognac and liqueurs from a steamer sunk by a German U-boat in World War I.

At a 1920s bowling alley in Los Angeles, bottles of old whisky were found forgotten in an office in pristine condition.

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While restoring a Los Angeles bowling alley, a trove of spirits, believed from a 1973 liquor order that was packed away and then forgotten, was found undisturbed.

Some now have dedicated their lives to becoming alcohol archaeologists of sorts. Edgar Harden is founder of the U.K.-based Old Spirits Company. His collection includes thousands of "old soldiers" standing at attention, waiting to be honored for their service.

"You get to sort of experience the past through, you know, rose-tinted glasses in the best way," Harden said.

So, who better for Ron Lewert and his wife, Alicia, to call about that mysterious find in their roof?

"I think, just for what they are, they're probably worth maybe $750 each, something like that," Harden said.

Well, that's worth a toast, but opening a nearly hundred-year twist top needs less delicate methods. Pliers come in handy.

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Opening this nearly century-old bottle of gin requires pliers.  CBS News

Just maybe this is what a sip of Gilbey's might have tasted like during Prohibition. "I'm impressed!" said Lewert.

"Maybe you're not selling them?" Cowan asked. 

"Maybe Edgar's not getting these!"

The spirit of Thanksgiving, courtesy of generations past. Cheers!

      
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Story produced by Jon Carras.