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What Happened to the Whiskey Decanter?

Watch the backgrounds depicted in any old movie—say a fizzy cocktail-splashed caper like The Thin Man, a Charlie Chaplin farce like City Lights or a society romp like The Philadelphia Story—and one easily finds a sideboard full of liquor and drinking paraphernalia. There are highball glasses, seltzer bottles, stainless-steel shakers and an array of cocktail coupes. And, of course, decanters.

Those decanters depicted in classic cinema often appeared to be made with cut crystal and featured gaudy stoppers. Characters who drank whiskey housed in a glorious decanter were often depicted as genteel and refined, but nothing shouted Skid Row quite like a half-drunk bottle of hooch. 

Until the middle of the 20th century, leaving a bottle out was decidedly declassé, so decanters filled with clear and brown spirits abounded. Today, however, the average at-home bar cart is stuffed not with elegant glass vessels, but with the original bottles in which liquor is sold—all the easier for connoisseurs to show off their esoteric Islay or short-run rum.

But is the decanter ripe for revival? We investigated.

What Is a Whiskey Decanter and What Does It Do?

detail shot of Crescent Spirits Bar
It used to be that displaying whiskey in a crystal decanter signaled an excellent spirit, but now drinkers are more likely to display the actual bottle. Wine Enthusiast

First things first: A whiskey decanter is a glass vessel, usually but not always made of crystal, with an airtight stopper. It’s used to store and serve whiskey. 

But spirits decanters aren’t exactly functional tools. Unlike wine decanters, which can open up a wine’s aromas and flavors before consumption, whiskey decanters are merely fancy bottles. 

“Decanting spirits doesn’t serve a purpose,” says Wine Enthusiast spirits reviewer Kara Newman. “Distilled spirits generally are pretty stable… transferring a spirit to a decanter usually won’t hurt it, but it likely won’t improve it either. Decanting a spirit is purely a decorative choice.”

Maximilian Riedel, CEO and president of the eponymous Austrian glassware giant, concurs. “Do spirits benefit from decanting? No,” he tells me.

Though Riedel is thrilled to talk about wine decanters, he nearly cuts me off when I change the subject to spirits. “We don’t sell them anymore,” he informs me, “because nobody buys them.”

The news gets worse. 

When I asked Lewis Baer, managing member of Newel—a New York City art and antiques gallery that also provides props to period productions like Boardwalk Empire, Goodfellas and The Godfather—how the lovely and expensive antique decanters I found on his website sell, he replied tersely: “They don’t.” 

What Does A Decanter Do for Whiskey?

Art Deco Glass and Pewter Decanter
At the New York City antiques gallery Newel, decorative decanters, like this Art Deco piece, rarely sell. Image Courtesy of Newel

So who pulled the stopper on decanters? Baer has a couple theories—one to do with furniture design and the other with Madison Avenue. 

He told me that Victorian homes rarely had bar cabinets in which one could ostensibly store unsightly bottles. “People would display their decanters openly on a tray on a desk or a sideboard,” Baer says. “You’d see this beautiful cut crystal or some interesting shape. They were works of art.” 

But later on, as the Art Deco period gave way to mid-century design, the bar cabinet came to prominence. Now that drinkers had a handy place to easily store a lot of liquor bottles at home, there was no need to display it in a decanter.  

The rise of the bar cabinet coincided with another explosion: advertising. 

“Since the advent of the marketing of alcohol, the decanter has gone by the wayside,” Baer continues. “I’d say it was the ’60s when the promotion of liquor became a really standard vehicle. Hell, I can even remember jingles for alcohol from back then.”

Baer thinks such advertising shifted how consumers signaled status, which played a part in the decanter’s demise. 

“You can't show off that you have a supreme Scotch in a decanter,” he says. “It doesn’t have the cache that I'm pouring you an expensive Scotch if you’re not going to see [the label]. Today, it’s all about displaying the name. That’s how society has been marketed, whether it’s a car or jewelry. People want to see the brand.” 

Add to this fact that many brands today invest in making their bottles art objects, with elaborate label designs and small-batch signifiers. One could say that although decanters once served to elevate a drinker’s status, today they obscure it.

Charles Fulford, co-founder and creative director of Pinhook Bourbon, can see it both ways. 

“My interior design self loves a gorgeous set of crystal decanters with some kind of animal horn or hoof on the top,” he says, “but [with] the state of packaging design in booze, you really get some pieces that are actually artful on the shelf, too.” 

Pinhook’s branding—which includes artist-designed bottles—aims to be just that. Pinhook even went so far as to design an augmented reality experience around its bottle, which connects consumers with stories associated with each bourbon’s release. One would be hard-pressed to achieve this effect with a traditional decanter.

The Revival of the Statusy Whiskey Decanter

Boris Decanter
The Boris whiskey decanter by LSA. Wine Enthusiast

Decanters still have their defenders, however. 

Monika Lubkowska-Jonas is the creative director of LSA, a London-based design studio specializing in handmade glass. She sees a high-end decanter, like their cylindrical Boris decanter, as a kind of spiritual cousin to a well-made whiskey. 

“We design spirits decanters to elevate the storage, presentation and ritual of drinking spirits,” she says. “A mouth-blown and handmade decanter has a closer relationship to a well-crafted spirit than a mass-produced, machine-glass bottle.”

LSA’s decanters are decidedly modern in form and aesthetic, conjuring not so much the smoky, wood-paneled rooms that a cut-crystal decanter suggests, but more a well-appointed Danish apartment. 

Lubkowska-Jonas believes that her brand’s more contemporary aesthetic will attract a younger customer, “who are becoming increasingly attracted to, and more knowledgeable, about spirits,” she says.

For what it’s worth, the French crystal company Baccarat says it noticed an uptick in spirits decanter sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued in the years after. “Many people renovated their homes with a more concerted design effort around practical function, such as entertaining,” says Adam Banfield, president and CEO of Baccarat North America. 

“There was a boom in home bars and bar cart business,” he continues. “This trend, coupled with an increased consumer interest in rare and unique brown spirits, has led to an increase in sales of decanters, particularly whiskey decanters.”

Banfield has also noticed that many of the people in the market for decanters these days are “men looking for gifts for a major celebration or milestone, such as a wedding, retirement, birthday or the closing of a notable business deal,” he says. 

Personalizing decanters is one way to make these vessels feel more unique. Wine Enthusiast’s minimalist Astor decanter offers that option.

For Baer, however, the days of doing a rough trade in decanters is done. Though he still keeps a collection at Newel—“I’ve got decanters that would knock your socks off!” he says—he primarily rents them out as props to movies and Broadway shows. But even though he doesn’t sell many, he still loves them. 

“It exudes class to pour your Scotch out of a decanter,” he says.

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Boris Whiskey Decanter and Tumblers Set

In Stock | $325