An intoxicating obsession: Long Beach man collects itty bitty liquor bottles

At first glance, Joe Fleming's neat home in Long Beach seems like pretty much any other ranch-style house. But take a look in that cabinet in the dining room. And that one and that one in the living room. And that one in the den. They're full of miniature liquor bottles, the kind you find in displays at the counter of package stores, on flights or sometimes in hotel mini-bars.

Hmm. What's in this one? Exotica such as Admiral Nelson Spiced Rum, Agwa De Bolivia Coca Herbal Liqueur, Caribbean Rum Runner, 1921 Tequila, Bird Dog Peach Whiskey. It goes on and on, and that's just one display cabinet.

"This is my only dedicated cabinet, and it's all Scotch whisky," Fleming said, indicating a nearby china cabinet bereft of china. Instead, scores of true Scotch whisky bottles fill the shelves.

Lots of little liquor bottles

Altogether, Fleming now has "in excess of 5,600" little (50-milliliter) liquor bottles in his home. And there's not a duplicate in the bunch.

Well, not anymore. He recently had a potluck party where friends were invited over to polish off some 300 unintentional duplicates. It's understandable. After all, if you have more than 5,000 bottles at home and a slight obsession with collecting, you're bound to forget you already have one or two or 300. His guests, many of whom had not seen the collection, were astounded and fascinated -- and more than happy to help him pare down the extras.

Just how dedicated to his collection is Fleming?

"As they fill up, I get another cabinet," he said. "I've been accused not collecting liquor bottles as much as collecting cabinets."

Lots of space

It's not just cabinets.

"Take a look at this," Fleming said, leading to the closet in the foyer. He opened the door to reveal row after row of shelves in the closet. Behind the expected coats and other such closet residents, the shelves hold -- you guessed it -- more bottles. "They (the shelves) go down to the floor."

A bedroom holds more displays as well as his carefully maintained cataloging system. Each bottle has its own printed index card, which bears a color photo of the bottle as well as its price, date of acquisition, manufacturer and, perhaps most important, where it's located. He has a numeric system which tells him the cabinet the bottle is in, as well as the shelf and location on the shelf. The system also is on his computer, giving faster access.

Lots of decades

It all began decades ago.

"I've been collecting since August 1971," Fleming said. He was on a business-related trip in Europe and at the end of his trip, he was in London. As he was walking down the street, he was wondering what souvenir he wanted to take back.

"I had three criteria," he said. "It had to not cost a lot of money, it could not weigh a lot and it couldn't take up a lot of space."

Just then, he walked by a store with a display of miniature liquor bottles. It was his "aha" moment. On the next trip, he did the same, then the next and the next. It all started with that one bottle. Fleming consulted his catalog and pulled out the bottle, a miniature of Drioli, a

marachino liqueur.

Lots of vodka

Vodka, he said, is probably the most common mini bottle variety.

"It's in vogue right now," he said. "Seven or eight years ago, they began to flavor vodka. Now, there's in excess of 200 flavors of vodka. But rum is definitely making a push now. They're starting to flavor that, too."

Among the more unusual beverages in his collection, Fleming said, is a bottle of bison grass vodka, which, yes, is flavored with bison grass. In Poland, it's known as Zubrówka.

Fleming is especially proud of a miniature bottle and shot glass presentation set that has its roots in the nation's first president.

Lots learned from a catalog

"This," he said, opening a small square box, "is George Washington Vatted American Whiskey."

He first learned of the brew when he was traveling through Virginia and saw a catalog listing it on a store's counter. It was the right size bottle; the problem was, the store didn't carry it. Nor did store after store he contacted. Finally he was told he could order it. Well, yes, but it couldn't be shipped to him. He would have to go pick it up in person from the source, which was the gift shop at Mt. Vernon, Washington's historic home -- which he did.

Is there one he's still trying to find, that elusive bottle that will complete his collection?

"I don't know. I'll know it when I see it," he said with a smile.

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