The Vintage Spirits Law does away with the tiered system that kept people from having access to vintage bottles. Here's how that helps bourbon lovers.

Brad Japhe
October 05, 2017

On March 21 of this year Kentucky governor Matt Bevin signed off on HB 100. Known as the Vintage Spirits Law, the bill authorizes the individual sale of rare, often antique booze bottles by bars and liquor stores throughout the commonwealth. This includes liquid from distilleries long shuttered; one-of-a-kind bourbons, ryes (cognacs, even) that can fetch thousands of dollars on auction or in the black market. From there they would typically remain locked away in private cellars, cordoned off from curious mouths of more modest means. Until now. The Vintage Spirits Law was written to increase access to this precious juice. It will land as a sizable boon to tourism when it goes into effect at the beginning of next year. In other words, book your ticket to Louisville now.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail already attracts upwards of a million visitors annually to the Bluegrass State. But aside from a handful of distillery exclusives, much of what they find here can be easily spotted on-shelf at any local liquor store across the country. The new legislation introduces an added level of excitement for enthusiasts willing to travel for whiskey. “This was the missing piece to making Kentucky the absolute complete Bourbon destination,” observes Justin Thompson, Editor in Chief of The Bourbon Review. “This law should make many bar owners and their customers really happy.”

Most states in the country manage alcohol sales thru the so-called ‘three-tiered system’: distilleries sell their product to distributors who, in turn, make it available to retailers. But vintage spirits, usually the dominion of private individuals, don’t easily fit into this chain as distributors can typically only buy from licensed producers. Several parts of the country where retailers are allowed to side-step distributors—most notably in Washington, D.C.—have seen expansive backbars, like the Jack Rose Dining Saloon (pictured above) and its reserve of 8,000 bottles, flourish as a result. So revered in the vintage spirit world is Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas, that he was actually consulted for the drafting of the Kentucky bill.

“We designed it to celebrate what would make Kentucky special,” Thomas tells Food & Wine. “The reason the bill was written was to give restaurants, bars and liquor stores an opportunity to offer unique bottles that were produced in the state throughout the decades, so tourists could have the opportunity to try these historically significant bourbon bottlings.”

In a region responsible for 95 percent of the world’s bourbon it’s not uncommon for caches of historic American whiskey to be passed down the generations as heirlooms. Until now, folks that wanted to share it locally lacked the proper mechanism to do so. They’d have to look beyond the state, to places like D.C. “I’ve been sourcing bourbon from Kentucky for decades, because if you want bourbon, you go to the motherland,” Thomas admits. At long last, this immense supply can pour freely within the land that birthed it, from Louisville down to Lexington.

“We really wanted bars, restaurants and liquor stores to embrace the law, and be able to buy these bottles from collectors, families that have bottles from when they worked at distilleries, and be able to offer them on the shelves so no matter where you are in Kentucky, there can always be a hidden gem in these neighborhoods, driving tourists across the state,” adds Thomas.

And there’s another benefit. Eradicating the black market encourages participation from an overwhelming majority of buyers and sellers who prefer to do things on the up and up. “More people will be legally selling their bottles on the open market, which will put more inventory out there, hopefully decreasing prices by increasing vintage bottle supply.”

Matthew Landan echoes the optimism. He owns the Haymarket, a destination bourbon bar in downtown Louisville. “The vintage spirits law will allow [us] to compete with all the great spirits libraries of the world,” he says. “To be able to offer vintage whiskeys side-by-side with her modern counterparts offers our guests a unique opportunity to taste living history.”

Although — he concedes — many places in town maintain a stash of not-quite-legal selections behind the bar, HB 100 brings it out of the shadows, thrust into the spotlight of open advertising. “For the people who are coming to Kentucky to experience bourbon in a way that they've never experienced it before, this is another tool in our kit that will allow us to provide the best whiskey selection in America.”

To Justin Thompson, the new bill is only fair. “The folks at Jack Rose in D.C. and others like it have done a fantastic job of curating a fabulous collection of Bourbon to offer its patrons, but [they have played] by a different set of rules,” he says. Now it’s Kentucky’s turn. Once they lift the chains shackling their historic largesse, no other region will be able to offer nearly as much. If you thought the state was a whiskey-lovers dream already, wait until you see the fantasy they have in store.