Kentucky is home to 95 percent of the world's bourbon, but until recently, what you've see in stores and on bar shelves is limited to what's currently available — or what the seller has been able to hang on to. Antique bottles are relegated to museum displays or private collections.
But a new law signed last month by Kentucky governor Matt Bevin that will allow individuals to sell their vintage bottles to licensed retailers changes all that.
"It's going to unlock a bunch of treasures that are truly going to transform the Kentucky bourbon experience," Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory told NBC News. "We really have no idea what's out there... generations of bottles that have been trapped with no way to see the light of day because there was no way for people to sell them. Now they can sell them legally and locally."
Laws vary from state to state and some larger markets allow people to sell their so-called "dusties" to retailers, Gregory explained. "You go to these places in New York and D.C. and they are meccas for whiskey lovers around the world."
"With the success of these incredible whiskey bars around the country, we said 'Why can't we do that here?'" Gregory told NBC News. "We are the birthplace of bourbon. We believe the world's largest bourbon library should be here in the commonwealth."
Lawmakers agreed. In a state divided on many topics, "bourbon brings people together," explained Gregory.
A Rare Win for the Consumer
"A lot of bars and restaurant owners are really excited about the opportunity," he said, but "this is about the consumer."
Bourbon expert and author Fred Minnick agrees. Spirits laws are "usually about restricting or empowering distilleries. Very rarely is there a legislation that you can pinpoint directly to benefiting consumers," he told NBC News. "While wine drinkers have long been able to access rare wines, in American whiskey we've never had that."
"The [bourbon] connoisseur group is growing at a rapid rate and that group can get bored real quickly if there's not something there to retain them," Minnick went on. "And now we have something that will retain them... they can get vintage whiskey here in Kentucky."
Minnick joined bourbon fans on Twitter in toasting the new law.
Others counted it a positive accomplishment for a controversial governor.
A Taste of History
"The bourbon and whiskey world is very interested in tasting history," said Chris Zaborowski, who owns Westport Whiskey & Wine in Louisville, Kentucky. That said, it may not necessarily be what consumers expect. Zaborowski and his family had a tasting of a pre-Prohibition bourbon they found when his mother passed. "It was a surprisingly rough and raw whiskey," he said. "It was an interesting curiosity. By modern standards people would have thought it was too harsh and astringent — but I was glad we had the experience."
"A lot of it is just the experience of getting to taste history," said Larry Rice, an avid collector himself who owns the Silver Dollar whiskey bar in Louisville. "But there are differences [in modern and vintage whiskeys]. The main thing is chill filtration. I jokingly say it's like cooking bacon and taking the fat out — bacon is better with fat. There are a lot of richer notes lost in the process [which is standard among many distilleries now] and that didn't start happening until the '90s."
During tastings with friends from his personal collection of more than a thousand bottles, Rice also likes to compare brands through the decades as they've moved from house to house or changed mash bills (the grain recipe), proof, or water source.
When Rice launches his bar's vintage offering after the new law takes effect in January 2018, this sort of insider knowledge will be offered as part of the experience, providing historical context along with tasting notes and theories on what makes these whiskeys different. "You need more service in a purchase like that than just pouring a shot," he said.
So What's the Price Tag on Vintage Bourbon?
Depending on how rare the bourbon is, it could cost up to $400 an ounce, said Rice.
Does this mean people who unearth dusty old bottles in the attic have won the lottery? Don't get too excited, warned Zaborowski. Old doesn't necessarily translate to valuable. "The expectation is they're going to have a cash cow. But the reality is they're not going to find a lot of bars and retails shops that are going to give them cash cow prices."
Still, there's fun to be had wondering what will surface. "Word will get around," said Rice, "and people will realize, 'I should looking at those old bottles of booze in the back of grandma's cabinet.' Then they can just walk into a whiskey bar in town and ask the guy behind the bar if he's interested."