A Treasure Trove of Forgotten 70s Liquor Was Discovered in an Old LA Rock Venue
When LA's iconic Mr. T's Bowl underwent renovations to become the new Highland Park Bowl, the owners discovered a cache of rare booze in pristine condition.
All photos by Danielle Bernabe.
In the process of restoring a shuttered LA music venue and bar, the new owners unearthed a treasure trove of unopened and rare spirits, all bottled in the 1970s.
The members of 1933 Group—which also owns old-timey bars around the Los Angeles, including Idle Hour, Sassafras and Thirsty Crow—have been revamping the iconic and dive-y punk hangout Mr. T's Bowl into the newly rebranded Highland Park Bowl since they bought the property last year. In the meanwhile, they've unearthed all sorts of fascinating artifacts in the historic building that once housed a bowling alley and a pharmacy, from an entirely hidden mural from the 1930s Arts and Crafts Movement to retro candy and cigarette machines.
"Upstairs [from the bowling alley and bar] was pretty much completely packed wall-to-wall with all sorts of really strange things left over [from before]," Highland Park Bowl's director of operations Jared Mort tells me. "There was a room with just mannequins and another room full of strange Halloween decorations."
But some of the most interesting finds were the cases of more than 500 dusty liquor bottles stored upstairs in another room. (The staff is still working on opening all the cases, so the bottle count could even grow up to 1,000.) Bobby Green, co-owner of the 1933 Group, was the one who discovered the vintage bottles and asked Mort to go through them. "I was very excited," Mort says.
Mort believes the hidden bottles were from a liquor order made back in 1973 by the property's former owner, Joseph "Mr. T" Teresa, who bought the space in 1966 and continued to own Mr. T's Bowl until he died in 2005. The former staff must have stocked away the booze and forgot all about it, Mort believes.
The room they discovered the bottles in once served as a doctor's office, which Teresa turned into a storage room when he ran Mr. T's Bowl. Back when the Prohibition-era property was built in 1927, the rooms on the second floor of the building were used as a pharmacy for doctors to prescribe medicinal alcohol to their patients, a practice the US Treasury Department authorized during that time. Patients would get their prescriptions filled and then enjoy the bowling alley and music venue for live performances.
Many of the liquors are rare finds in pristine condition, and all of them were bottled in 1973, as indicated by tax strips that the government used to require to be taped across the top of liquor bottles. Mort, who's been working as a bartender for 15 years and has overseen five bar openings for 1933 Group, says, "There's a lot of really strange stuff I didn't even know existed in the first place."
Mort recently tested out Wolfschmidt premixed vodka martinis that were each encased in a dark green, twist-off, beer stein-like bottles. He was worried the drink might have gone off because dry vermouth will spoil when it's left in a hot space, but they turned out fine; Mort believes that the vodka may have saved the drinks. He has 30 bottles of Wolfschmidts and plans to sell them as specialty items.
Alongside the vodka martinis, Mort also discovered small glass flasks filled with alcohol and covered in "Austin Powers-like Christmas wrapping paper," as well as tiny Sauza tequila airplane bottles. There are also "weird liqueurs," including a case of vintage Southern Comfort that "tastes just as bad then as it does now," he says.
"Everyone was afraid to try it for good reason," Mort adds, laughing.
But he also discovered rare finds of old whiskey. A friend of Mort's who deals in vintage whiskey sales told him that some of them are now impossible to find or are no longer being made.
The haul includes old bottles of Dewar's and Four Roses, as well as some Old Taylor and Old Crow. The latter was a special surprise for Green, Mort says, since he owns a vintage race car spot called Old Crow Speed Shop and a bar named Thirsty Crow.
The team plans to host "then-and-now" tastings with the vintage whiskey bottles, when whiskey experts can teach the clientele about the spirits, or guests can sample the whiskeys on their own and discuss among themselves.
Mort says that in contrast to wine, which ages in the bottle, whiskey only ages in the barrel. Once it's been bottled, the spirit's initial taste profile won't change. "You're getting a time capsule of what it was back then," he says.
But what Mort finds interesting is that whiskey production and blending methods have changed over time, either because of changing recipes or changing distillers, so the vintage liquor will taste different from contemporary stuff.
There won't be any cocktails made with the vintage whiskeys, however. "Adding juice or sugar will mask the taste of alcohol, and you won't be able to pick out the subtle notes that changed," Mort says. The spirits will be served straight up.
As for Highland Park Bowl, the space will open on later this week as a bowling alley, music venue, and spot to grab cocktails and Neapolitan-style pizza—serving a sip of history with it all.