Mr. DeMille, I’m Ready for Your Booze Stash

“There have been a whole slew of recent dusty finds because so many people are bored, stuck at home, and have started going around searching stores,” Mr. Goodman said, noting that there must still be vintage stuff lingering in liquor store back rooms that is finally being put out front. He also suspects distributors have finally had time to reorganize their warehouses and are now sending lingering bottles from the late 1990s and early 2000s into retail. “It kills me when I see people on Instagram posting something they just found in Atlanta. Kills me.”

While the legalities of buying and selling vintage liquor for personal use fall into a bit of a gray area, some completely legitimate businesses have opened to showcase dusty hunting’s spoils. One of the first was the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., founded in 2011 by Bill Thomas. That same year, Jamie Boudreau hung the shingle for Canon in Seattle, having amassed a good portion of his dusty collection on eBay, back when that was a legal avenue for buying vintage.

Mr. Moix and Mr. Livigni used their collection to open Old Lightning, a high-end speakeasy-style bar, in the Venice neighborhood of L.A. in 2013, but it is currently on hiatus because of the pandemic and they are now focusing on their restaurants, Scopa and Dama. Recently, longtime dusty hunters Justin Sloan, 35, and Justin Thompson, 40, opened what could be called a brick-and-mortar ode to the hobby, Justins’ House of Bourbon, a shop and tasting room with locations in both Lexington and Louisville, Ky. Since 2018 it has been legal for businesses in that state to buy and sell vintage spirits, giving them a leg up on dusty hunters in 48 other states (North Carolina is the only other state that allows “antique spirituous liquor” sales.)

If happening upon a great score at a liquor store or estate sale typically involves a snap judgment calculus of how much cash to offer, Mr. Ackerman was given a little more time for the DeMille collection. Ms. Debbané, a wine importer who had been tasked with brokering the deal, left him alone in the cellar for a good 20 minutes to assess what was there, to hold bottles up to the light to see their clarity (if the liquid appears milky it is usually no good), to examine the “fill” levels (how much liquid is still in the bottle), and to see if the tax stamps and bottle cap seals were still intact. It was a stunning array of some of the greatest bottles in American whiskey lore.

“These are all unicorns,” Mr. Ackerman said, using the parlance of collectors who have come across something they never expected to see.

There were 10 bottles of Old Overholt Rye barreled in 1936, five bottles of 1930s Belmont Bottled in Bond, bottles of Kentucky Tavern, J.W. Dant and Old Taylor bourbons, some 1930s Jameson Irish whiskey, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin champagne from 1929, and a near-flawless case of extremely rare Green River Straight Bourbon Whiskey from 1936. The funny thing was, DeMille wasn’t considered much of a drinker. Unusually health-conscious for his era, he had a mere ounce of bourbon in his nightly Old Fashioned, according to his biographer, Scott Eyman.

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