Mr. DeMille, I’m Ready for Your Booze Stash
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, Calif.
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 over a half century. Mr. 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,’” Mr. Ackerman said. “In my mind, this was born of and ultimately the fruit of me being incredibly vigilant over the last eight years.”
Mr. 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. Mr. 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.
“There were these funny photos of guys standing in front of their cars, holding up dusty bottles as if they were trophy fish they had just caught,” he said. A neophyte whiskey drinker at the time — “I had only had Jack and Jim,” a.k.a. Daniel’s and Beam — he was intrigued. Mr. Ackerman was already a collector of movie memorabilia, and had long had a fascination for objects from a bygone era.
One Monday morning, in the cigar-shaped, 8-by-25-foot office in the Taft Building that he shared with an intern, Mr. Ackerman couldn’t concentrate on the script he was supposed to be writing. He feigned writer’s block, took $300 out of the A.T.M. and drove as far south as Long Beach, with a goal of visiting 100 liquor stores that day. He only hit about half that number but still managed to find 23 vintage bottles, including decades-old gems like Ancient Age, Old Charter, brown-label Wild Turkey from the 1980s and five bottles of Old Grand-Dad from back when it was produced by National Distillers and considered superior in taste to its modern incarnation.
That night before he went to bed, Mr. Ackerman put one of the bottles up on something known as Bourbon Exchange, a buy/sell auction group that had been set up on Facebook. When he woke up the next morning, the highest bid was already at $100. He was hooked.
“It really did seize me pretty quickly,” he said. (He does, however, personally consume a good portion of his finds.)
Drinkable Time Capsules
For the next several years Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 L.A. “We later learned we were apparently hitting liquor stores in neighborhoods that are essentially considered war zones,” Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Calif., 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 Mr. Ackerman, Mr. Moix and Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Ky., 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. Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
A Note to Remember
While the legalities of buying and selling vintage liquor for personal use fall into a bit of a gray area, some completely legitimate businesses have opened to showcase dusty hunting’s spoils. One of the first was the Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., founded in 2011 by Bill Thomas. That same year, Jamie Boudreau hung the shingle for Canon in Seattle, having amassed a good portion of his dusty collection on eBay, back when that was a legal avenue for buying vintage.
Mr. Moix and Mr. Livigni used their collection to open Old Lightning, a high-end speakeasy-style bar, in the Venice neighborhood of L.A. in 2013, but it is currently on hiatus because of the pandemic and they are now focusing on their restaurants, Scopa and Dama. Recently, longtime dusty hunters Justin Sloan, 35, and Justin Thompson, 40, opened what could be called a brick-and-mortar ode to the hobby, Justins’ House of Bourbon, a shop and tasting room with locations in both Lexington and Louisville, Ky. Since 2018 it has been legal for businesses in that state to buy and sell vintage spirits, giving them a leg up on dusty hunters in 48 other states (North Carolina is the only other state that allows “antique spirituous liquor” sales.)
If happening upon a great score at a liquor store or estate sale typically involves a snap judgment calculus of how much cash to offer, Mr. Ackerman was given a little more time for the DeMille collection. Ms. Debbané, a wine importer who had been tasked with brokering the deal, left him alone in the cellar for a good 20 minutes to assess what was there, to hold bottles up to the light to see their clarity (if the liquid appears milky it is usually no good), to examine the “fill” levels (how much liquid is still in the bottle), and to see if the tax stamps and bottle cap seals were still intact. It was a stunning array of some of the greatest bottles in American whiskey lore.
“These are all unicorns,” Mr. Ackerman said, using the parlance of collectors who have come across something they never expected to see.
There were 10 bottles of Old Overholt Rye barreled in 1936, five bottles of 1930s Belmont Bottled in Bond, bottles of Kentucky Tavern, J.W. Dant and Old Taylor bourbons, some 1930s Jameson Irish whiskey, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin champagne from 1929, and a near-flawless case of extremely rare Green River Straight Bourbon Whiskey from 1936. The funny thing was, DeMille wasn’t considered much of a drinker. Unusually health-conscious for his era, he had a mere ounce of bourbon in his nightly Old Fashioned, according to his biographer, Scott Eyman.
What DeMille was, however, was a serial philanderer; after purchasing the 700-acre secluded ranch that he would eventually dub Paradise, he used it to host devoted mistresses like Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Rosson and Julia Faye. His wife Constance, older than DeMille and very much a Victorian lady, preferred not to deal with the snake-riddled outdoors and a ranch that lacked electricity and creature comforts. The director of “The Ten Commandments” and “The King of Kings” also frequently hosted his silver-screen friends for bacchanalian bashes attended by Charlie Chaplin, Charlton Heston and their ilk.
DeMille died of a heart attack in 1959 at 77, having found piety late in life, and in 1963 his family bequeathed the ranch to the Hathaway Foundation which turned it into an orphanage for abused children. Separating themselves from DeMille’s sordid behavior, they sealed off the basement until 2018, when its current owners bought the house for nearly $5 million.
As not just a dusty hunter, but a fan of Hollywood history — he rents an apartment at the Villa Monterey because it was once inhabited by Marlon Brando — Mr. Ackerman, overcome by the discovery, made an offer in the five-figure range. The homeowners said they wanted 24 hours to think about it, to do their own research, to maybe even receive further bids. If the early days of dusty hunting often involved bilking an unknowing bottle owner, everyone is a lot more savvy these days. In fact, with just a little research one could find a similar collection had been discovered just a few years earlier.
DeMille’s longtime neighbor in Little Tujunga Canyon was Jean-Baptiste “J.B.” Leonis, a banker and liquor importer who founded the city of Vernon. Sensing that Prohibition was on the horizon, in the early 1920s he began to stash booze in a 10-bolt bank vault behind a trick bookcase. In 2017, upon the death of Leonis’ grandson, Leonis C. Malburg, the collection was finally unearthed, featuring numerous pint bottles of Old Crow distilled in 1912, Hermitage Bottled in Bond whiskey distilled in 1914, and rye bottled specifically for the iconic Biltmore Hotel. Staff members at Christie’s Auction House were stunned when it sold at auction for $640,000 in 2018.
“You put celebrity on top of that, now you’re talking an order of magnitude seven times greater. That’s what celebrity can do,” said Mr. Torrence of Chapter 4, who was Christie’s senior wine specialist at the time. He recalled Christie’s 2004 auction for tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s wine collection which sold for an astonishing $3.7 million, much higher than he had anticipated. “As an auction house you really want these items that generate news.”
Despite such competition, Mr. Ackerman’s offer was accepted the next day, and he spent several days migrating the collection back to his apartment and the two storage units he rents specifically for his vintage finds. He’d been told that all the good stuff was already lined up on the bunker’s concrete floor and that everything else was junk, but upon inspecting some bottles lying in the wine turrets at random, he unearthed the crown jewel of the collection.
It was something Mr. Ackerman typically doesn’t like to find and certainly never pays good money for: an empty. The filthy bottle of De Goñi sherry was signed and dated by DeMille.
At the bottom, on a hand-attached label, scrawled in the great man’s cursive, it read: “This bottle of sherry was bought in New York City the day Constance and I were married, Aug. 16, 1902. We decided to keep it until the wedding of our first born — we did open it then because the cellar was full of soldiers.”
It was not just the provenance that provided a sort of “certificate of authenticity” for the collection; it was also proof of perhaps simpler, happier times in the DeMilles’ lives. And now, a century later, Mr. Ackerman had captured all of the epic director’s remaining soldiers.
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