Mr. Demille, i’m ready for your booze stash
By Dan Bilefsky
Kevin Langdon Ackerman had a good lead, so he left his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Beachwood Canyon on a Tuesday morning in August and drove 18 miles northwest to Sylmar, California.
He guided his metallic black BMW off the 210 and up the winding road to the top of Little Tujunga Canyon; on the right side, Middle Ranch, an equestrian facility and popular wedding venue, on the left, multimillion-dollar estates, everything surrounded by the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. Eventually he reached his destination, a Santa Fe-style home built in the early 1900s.
There he met his contact, Caroline Debbané, who took him not through the front door but around to the back of the property. There, a modern lock code opened the swinging cellar doors, and the two descended a flight of concrete steps to the bunker.
One entire wall had built-in wine turrets, with dusty bottles of wine and champagne lying on their side. Another wall acted as a liquor cabinet, with more bottles of bourbon, Irish whiskey and rum, untouched for more than a half century. Ackerman had found the booze collection of Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary director and producer.
“I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap! I want this, and I need to get this,’ ” Ackerman said. “In my mind, this was born of and ultimately the fruit of me being incredibly vigilant over the last eight years.”
Ackerman, himself a filmmaker by trade, is also a dusty hunter: an antique collector who only searches for still-sealed bottles of vintage alcohol, usually American whiskey. Discussion of dusty hunting, and the use of that exact term, appears on the internet around 2007, mostly on whiskey enthusiast blogs and message boards, such as Straight Bourbon. (Collectors of vintage nail polish, chronicled by The Times in 2014, are also considered dusty hunters.)
Though this is a fairly new hobby, it is one already facing its end days, as there are simply fewer and fewer undiscovered bottles still out there to find. Ackerman took up the quest in 2012, after coming across an online article about a group of friends who had specifically flown to Kentucky to search liquor store shelves for old bottles of bourbon from the much lauded but by then defunct Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
Drinkable Time Capsules
For the next several years Ackerman would go dusty hunting several times per week, alternating between working on a film project one day, driving around the greater Los Angeles area on the others. If the city has more than 1,500 liquor retail outlets, he figures he has hit most all of them.
“In a very real manner, six years ago or so, people started to realize that buying old bottles is building an investment portfolio in a sense,” Ackerman said. “They will appreciate in a similar way to pork bellies, silver or gold. Bottles that cost me $20 became worth $800 and to me that’s a lot more fun than buying a muni bond for the Los Angeles water department. I’d much rather hound liquor stores.”
Pablo Moix was one of America’s first dusty hunters. Back in his Mudslide-slinging, fern bar mixology days of the late 1990s, Moix, 45, a longtime bartender, began grabbing any intriguing old bottles he saw at liquor stores. “I was accumulating weird things just to have them at the house,” he said. “Eventually I started asking myself the question: ‘Why is this so valuable? Why is this collectible?’”
When Moix became more intentional with his dusty hunting in the early aughts, it was in pursuit of tequila; a lot of brands had gone defunct and he yearned to find them. Come 2011 he was noticing a fervor developing for American whiskey, with more collectors invading the scene. By then a bar’s beverage buyer in Los Angeles, he immediately began stockpiling cases of well-aged Rittenhouse ryes, Vintage Bourbon 17 Year Old and Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, which was once made at Stitzel-Weller when Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle was literally at the helm.
Eventually, he and a business partner, Steve Livigni, were spending 10 hours a day, every day, searching for bottles throughout California and Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. On one road trip they visited nearly every single liquor store between Detroit and Los Angeles. “We later learned we were apparently hitting liquor stores in neighborhoods that are essentially considered war zones,” Moix said.
Though they might be sheepish to admit it, dusty hunters have long believed that the more crime-riddled the neighborhood, the more liquor stores there are with cashiers standing behind bulletproof glass, the more likely they are to find great vintage scores. Ackerman has been nearly mugged a few times and once had a sawed-off shotgun held to his head when he peeked into the back room of a Koreatown liquor store and then started rifling through boxes without permission.
The most well-known dusty hunter today might be Eric Witz, 42, a senior production editor at the MIT Press, who posts his scores on Instagram at @aphonik, often with detailed analysis of the origins of each bottle. A lover of antiques and enthusiast of cocktail history, he began dusty hunting around 2010 with the purchase of a 1940s bottle of Forbidden Fruit, a strange grapefruit-and-honey liqueur which has not been on the market for decades. Witz collects not just whiskey, the obsession of most current dusty hunters, but vintage rum, brandy and Chartreuse, all of which are soaring in value at the moment.
“I love the idea of being able to taste something that was made a few generations ago,” he said. Spirits have a higher alcohol proof than wine, so they don’t really age in the bottle or go bad; in that way, they are like drinkable time capsules. In fact, most all dusty hunters believe vintage spirits are superior in taste to what is being made today, even if they can’t quite explain why. Maybe better quality materials and more artisanal production methods were being used back then, maybe international beverage conglomerates weren’t yet mucking up quality, or maybe something magical is happening in the glass over all these years.
“When some alcohol has blown off, the concentration is deeper,” said Scott Torrence, 52, owner of Chapter 4, a supplier of fine and rare liquids in Culver City, California, who has tasted plenty of Prohibition-era bourbon. “The depth and richness is like the difference between simple syrup and maple syrup.”
Dusty hunters like Ackerman, Moix and Witz got in at the perfect time. In 2010, bourbon was a $1.9 billion industry in America; today it’s worth more than $4 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. More and more people are drinking bourbon, buying bourbon and even making bourbon. This enthusiasm has led to more collectors wanting to revisit bottles from the so-called “glut” era, the decades of the 1960s through 1990s when the rise of vodka and a general lack of interest in brown spirits led to many great bottles never being purchased, sitting on retail shelves, gathering a fine coating of time’s grime.
Still, it takes a certain amount of skill to dusty hunt: an awareness of shuttered brands from the past, the ability to read esoteric laser coding and to notice bottle sizes, like quarts, that no longer exist. But the internet has made it easier. When Ackerman started, he only had a Razr flip-phone; now he can quickly call up Facebook, Reddit or bottlebluebook.com, an online pricing guide, to see the value of whatever oddity he has just stumbled upon.
Though some say the glory days of dusty hunting are long past, with almost all liquor stores in the U.S. now completely picked over, there are still optimistic youths getting into the hobby, like Jonah Goodman, a 22-year-old restaurant consultant in Atlanta. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, by a father who loved bourbon, he became precociously fascinated with the spirit. By 2018, barely old enough to legally drink, he was trawling Kentucky liquor stores, even finding a 1984 Eagle Rare 101 in his earliest days on the prowl. Goodman believes that the pandemic has injected new life into the hobby, like so many others.
“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,” 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.”