There is an art to dusty hunting. It has been going on for many years now and many of the easiest and best bottles have been scavenged by the early pioneers. I don’t plan on talking a lot about dusty bottles but simply for reference I would like to talk about a few rules I go by when looking for old bottles. This mainly applies to American spirits (not just whiskey) as some of the regulations, bottles, etc… from other countries vary.
You walk into a sketchy liquor store and an old appearing bottle with a dated label catches your attention. “I wonder if that is any good, valuable, unique, etc…” runs through your mind. You don’t want to make a scene and you don’t want to spend all day scouring the shelves so how can you tell quickly if it is worth your money? This is just a short synopsis of things I consider when out hunting for dusty bottles…
1. Is it less than $15?
Why not just buy it and find out later? Fifteen bucks is not that much (an I know it is an arbitrary amount, but it is what I use) and you will occasionally get a bottle of nasty good for nothing when you use this approach but as you get better your instincts get better. Your gut feeling will be right more and more but early on expect these purchases to be learning experiences. Of course as you learn there are indicators of good finds but acquiring this knowledge takes time and experience – lots of time. For now if you think you have a good find you have two options, either buy it or take a picture with your phone of the labels, bottle tops, bottle stamps, UPC codes, etc… When you get home I would start online looking at prices, bottle pictures, researching distilleries and some of their lesser known products. Note important barcodes, government warnings and tax stamps. This is my favorite but many shop owners get suspicious with you photographing their store, bottles, etc… Besides, you then need to make another trip back if you decided to get it and by then it may be gone (either because store owner looked up values as well or someone else grabbed it!)
2. Bottle Condition
Always look at bottle condition, especially items over $15. Has it been sitting in the sun, what sort of closure does it have (plastic cap, cork?), is the label faded, are the seals broke, is the fill level low? If so pass it up and move on unless the bottle is just interesting and cheap. These various makers of age all help indicate what sort of life this bottle has lived in the 20-50 years it has been sitting on a shelf waiting for you to walk in. Cork contact or rotting is probably the biggest destroyer of booze. The organic compounds in the cork (a tree bark) as well as the adhesives used can impart real nasty flavors. Same with some plastic tops. Bottles should always be stored upright and the cork, if visible, should appear intact and dry hopefully. The sun also has a strong effect as the UV light alters many of the organic compounds of a good spirit, increasing free radicals and accelerating oxidation and tannin degradation. Being stored at high elevation (low atmospheric pressure) or in high heat environments promotes evaporation. It is amazing how much liquid can quickly evaporate especially when you see sealed bottles with plastic caps or cork stoppers sealed with wax. Looks pretty impermeable but these volatile substances find their way out. The hard part with evaporation is that the alcohols, cogeners and water all have different points that they evaporate in different conditions so it is hard to know how it ultimately affects the flavor. If equal parts all evaporate then you just have less of what your had. The other downside of evaporation is that there is now more air in the bottle in ratio with the liquid which can also speed oxidation. Be suspicious of low fill levels but they are not a deal breaker in my book.
3. Dating your Find
Once I get home there are usually two things on my mind – what and when. Hopefully I know what the product is if I bought it but sometimes something new catches my eye. If it is not a known product to me I start digging. Who distilled it, where? What other products have they made? Are they still around or long gone? Second, how old is this bottle? When was it actually bottled? Dating the bottle is the first best step to finding out more about what it is and who made it. Dating a bottle is where the sleuthing comes in and is quite fun. There are clues, piece them together and you can get an exact year if you are lucky or at least narrow it down to a small range. Yes, some lucky bottles have a bottling date on them, but for the less fortunate luckily we had the US Government, regulations and traditions. Finally, if the first few methods fail then there is Google Books and finding product images, labels, etc… in publications can help put a date to a bottle. Also legal actions or changes in ownership may have forced small changes to the label or bottle which helps. Let’s start with the easiest first.
Is there a bottling date somewhere – you got lucky!. I first look for a tax stamp – the old strip of paper used to seal a bottle and prove the government received their cut of the cash. As it is with most records, tax records are often the most accurate as the government did not want to lose track of a single dime. The tax stamps vary by year and some had exact dates of distillation and bottling which made it easy and others had ranges of time for specific details on the strip. Below are the guidelines I use (most of which came from other dusty hunter blogs I have found while looking for this stuff, so thank you to the previous posters of this information) I have added a few things as I find them and will continue to do so.
Federal Tax Stamps (If they are present the bottle is pre-1984)
- 1934-1944: Weight/Proof Marks on ends, no “Series” near Eagle’s feet. Upper-left edge reads “U.S. Internal Revenue”. Strips have volume marking near ends (1 Quart, etc…)
- 1945-1959: Words “Series” and “111” added near Eagle’s feet. Upper-left edge reads “U.S. Internal Revenue” & “Tax Paid” below.
- 1960-1972 The series number changed to “112” near Eagle’s feet. Upper left still reads “U.S. Internal Revenue”. Removed volume markings on ends so same strip can be used on all volume bottles.
- 1973-1976: Upper-left edge reads “U.S. Internal Revenue”and “Tax Paid” but NO “Series” or “111/112” or volume markings.
- 1977-1983: Upper-left edge changed from “U.S. Internal Revenue” to “Bureau of ATF”.
- In 1982 the words “Tax Paid” and “Distilled Spirits” were removed and replaced with simply “Distilled” and “Spirits” on the bottom of the strips.
- The green Bottled in Bond strips were discontinued starting December 1, 1982.
- From 1932-1964 bottles used for spirits were required to state “Federal Law Prohibits the Resale or Reuse of this Bottle.”
- Date stamps (two digits) often the year of bottling but really denotes the year the *bottle* was made within 1 year +/- (Not super accurate because someone may have over-ordered bottles one year and used them for several)
- Metric measurements for the liquor industry were mandated as of Oct 1st, 1976 but it was not fully in effect until 1979 to allow the industry to make the necessary changes. These changes are documented in the Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Bottles from 1978 until 1982 often have both metric and imperial volume measurements either on the label or as a bottle imprint. Prior to 1977 they were imperial only (although some bottles retained imperial conversions until 1987 it seems based on some bottles I have found)
UPC Codes & Government Warnings
- The UPC (Universal Product Code) was devised in the 1970’s as a way of automating checkout of groceries. The first code ever to be scanned was as early as 1974 but in general UPC codes were not heavily used until after 1982.
- The warning statement about alcohol and pregnancy was not law until November 19, 1989 so lack of a warning statement predates this. Also, the addition words “Government Warning” were required as of February 1990.