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Confessions of a retailer: Old Spirits Company

Spirits from times gone by continue to intrigue consumers, according to Edgar Harden, founder and director of London-based Old Spirits Company.

Edgar Harden, founder of Old Spirits Company

*This interview was first published in the July 2017 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

How did you first get interested in vintage spirits?

I was first interested in vintage wines while working at Christie’s – the wine department was next to the furniture department, where I worked. They taught me how to taste at their infamous pre-­sale tastings, and the samples served were incredible – ’45 Lafite, ’61 Domaine de la Romanée­-Conti, and so on. But it wasn’t until I left the auction world that I worked with vintage wines alongside furniture. I discovered vintage spirits by accident during a routine cellar clearance; it was a case of 1960s Gordon’s, which the client said I could dispose of because the sale of their first-­growth clarets was their chief concern. One dram of room temperature gin and I was sold; some market research revealed that there was little activity in the field. The rest, as they say, is history.

What qualities do you look for in a vintage product?

In the best cases – meaning the spirits that I sample, deem to be very good, then stock and sell – a vintage spirit was clearly well-made of good ingredients, has a high-enough abv, and was stored well enough to continue to display its good pedigree over long periods of time. If you go back far enough, by default all ingredients were organic; this relative purity can make such a big difference in vintage spirits because there are no impurities that negatively alter the flavour profile. Flavours can change dramatically from what the manufacturer intended. But this is not a bad thing, it’s just plant distillates decaying at different rates and recombining into unintended combinations or flavours. Bitterness leeching out of an inorganic ingredient could ruin a vintage spirit. But more rough-­and­-ready distilling and assembling of spirits, and no­-chill-­filtration can positively add to the character of a spirit years down the road and actually perpetuate its subtle quality.

What’s your best-selling spirit product?

Campari for vintage Negronis and, by default, London Dry gin and sweet red vermouth. But I don’t have the same trouble keeping the last two in stock, as there are many brands to choose from.

What do consumers look for when buying spirits from you?

People want something different that will make their taste buds say “Wow!” and transport them back to another time and place. Part of my work is done for me by very well-­made spirits from the past and their beautiful, classic, fun or enticing packaging. The other half is done by classic cocktail recipes. Although not cheap, vintage spirits provide incredibly good value for money – given that a new bottle of gin can cost £40 – and confirming to people that they have made a good investment, even if they are going to drink it, helps them to enjoy their purchase. Unless somebody is a real connoisseur, they won’t be familiar with more than a handful of brands in a huge category such as gin. There are fewer brands from the past, and some of them are completely unavailable, which makes a customer’s choice now much easier.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? And what’s the most exciting part?

Identifying and acquiring new stock is the most challenging part. Discovering unknown types and brands of spirits or ones that I had only heard of is definitely the most exciting aspect. I am half archaeologist, half sleuth.

What sets Old Spirits Company apart from other spirits retailers, and how do you stay one step ahead of your rivals?

We are an internet­-only retailer, which is not unusual. The niche market in which we operate – and helped to establish – makes us more unusual, but what really sets us apart is our customer service. Helping people find what they want or educating them so that they can choose what they want, but didn’t know it, and going that extra mile to help them meet deadlines or make in­-person deliveries is something we are becoming known for.

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