We live in an age obsessed with nostalgia. Whether it’s a fascination with the cartoons of our childhood or a belief that something made by hand is higher quality simply because it employs centuries-old methods, we have an affinity for older things. Nowhere is this truer than at the bar. There is a pervasive belief that if a distillery has been making whiskey since before the Louisiana Purchase, it must know what it’s doing. And there are a lot of bottles out there that certainly look like they’re the product of eight generations of bootleggers, but in reality, they’re about as old as your nephew Jackson. That is not to say that makes them lesser—many of the bottles on this list are amongst the best in the world. They just aren’t as old as you may think.
The world’s first ultra premium vodka was one of the spirit world’s most inspired works of marketing genius. After almost single-handedly making Jägermeister the drink of choice for America’s college kids, importer Sidney Frank decided to get into the vodka game. He partnered with Cognac producer Francois Thibault and released the first bottles of Goose into the world around the same time Cuba Gooding Junior was winning his Oscar.
The elderflower liqueur’s great touch is its deco bottle. When you buy one, you can close your eyes and envision yourself at Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion during the jazz age. In reality, St-Germain was the brainchild of the then-30-year-old Robert Cooper.
Pappy is so prized, so pricey and so scarce, it’s spawned an army of devotees (as well as an army of whiskey lovers who insist that it’s overrated). But just the name “Pappy” conjures images of a Prohibition-era Kentuckian with a still out back. And while the actual distillery operated by the real Pappy Van Winkle does date back to the 1930s, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve—that most sought after bottle—didn’t come on the scene until the mid ‘90s when Pappy 20 year old bourbon first hit shelves, with the now ubiquitous Pappy 23 coming in 1998.
Bombay is one of those gins that is reliably easy to find when you need a nice dry gin at any bar. Because of that, it also gets lumped in with much older brands like Tanqueray (est. 1830) and Beefeater (est. 1876). But Bombay didn’t begin making its mark on the Gin & Tonic world until almost the end of the Reagan presidency.
Bulleit’s age depends on what you consider “Bulleit Bourbon” to be. The very first bottles ever made with that name do date back to the mid 19th century, and the embossed bottles still used today certainly reflect that time. But, according to an interview with Tom Bulleit who birthed modern Bulleit Bourbon in 1987, the recipe is so different that the whiskey couldn’t possibly resemble whatever his great great grandfather made in the 1830s.
The short, squat apothecary-style bottle and label art reminiscent of an 1860s British tabloid gives Hendrick’s the look of a gin that’s been around for over a century. But in reality it was introduced by William Grant & Sons just before the turn of the 21st century.
Maker’s is actually the oldest of any bottle on this list, but its most distinguishing feature, that traditional wax topper, could make you think that it is from a time before things like foil were invented. But really that wax was just a way to give the bottle a little gravitas at a time when bourbon as a category wasn’t very well respected.
Not only did WhistlePig Rye show up more recently than you might think, but it also comes from a rather unlikely home for a sought after whiskey. In 2007 Raj Bhakta, a former contestant on The Apprentice, bought a Vermont farm with the intent of building a distillery. In the meantime, he began bottling whiskey from Canada and selling it under the WhistlePig label. Today, the distillery is up and running, and the farm is finally making its own whiskey from start to finish.
Maybe it’s because, if you try, you can find bottles of 40-year-old scotch. Maybe it’s because smoky Islay scotch tastes like something that’s been made the same way forever. Whatever the reason, it just seems like all whisky (without an “e”) distilleries are somewhere between 200 and 700 years old. But on the Isle of Arran, a new entrant opened its doors in the mid ‘90s. It’s the only distillery on the island and one of a relatively small number that is entirely independently owned.