Do you own one?

Do you own any decorative bourbon decanters? I have recently encountered some people who have collected decanters for years, and their collections contain many variations. This post contains critical information you will not want to miss, along with a warning about drinking the contents.

Collage of Four decorative bourbon decanters
Decorative bourbon decanters. Pearl Harbor Survivors, Australia, PGA of America, and Michigan are shown clockwise from the top left.

Surplus bourbon                     

In today’s world, there are not many distillers that are asking the question of how to sell surplus bourbon. I am not sure surplus bourbon would even exist anymore. It appears almost automatic that you can slap a creative label on a sourced bottle, and it will sell. If the whiskey inside is unique, it will likely sell for a higher price. Lately, the liquor does not need to be great; it only needs to be better than average to create interest.

We need to sell “Old Bourbon”

There was a time when distillers were sitting on vast stocks of bourbon whiskey that were not selling. Declining sales alone is a problem, but adding tax issues to your unsold inventory will add another layer of complexity and financial need. Jim Beam began releasing these decanters in 1953 to sell “Old Bourbon.” Some of these bottles contained bourbon that was over twelve years old. Take a moment to digest that statement. Twelve-year-old bourbon was not selling, so they placed filled unique containers to sell the idle inventory. It is hard to imagine that market conditions would ever force that to happen again.

Vodka and taxes

One of the things that helped create the decanter boom was that vodka sales were on the rise and brown water was not in favor. The Jim Beam company began producing decanter products in 1953. Placing straight bourbon in decanters made by the Regal China Company was a way to create excitement for a lagging product. In the sixties and seventies, people collected whiskey decanters. Wild Turkey began issuing a decanter each year starting in 1971. Stitzel Weller created Rip Van Winkle editions, and Ezra Brooks even made one in the shape of a potbelly stove.

Beam's Choice Collectors Edition Volume II
An example of the Beam Collector’s edition volume II. Kentucky Straight Bourbon is packaged in a tribute to fine art. A unique example of a decorative bourbon decanter from 1967.

Fine art collectors series

Take a moment to view the photo above of the decanter released in 1967. The George Gisze-Holbein bottle was part of the Beam Collectors Series Volume II. It contained eight-year-old 90-proof bourbon. A good friend of mine located this bottle for me, including the original box. George Gisze was a merchant who sat for the painting in the 1500’sand the artist was Hans Holbein, the younger. It is an exciting reminder that distillers went to unusual lengths to sell their products.

A Warning about older ceramic decanters. Beware of possible lead contamination.

Many discussions can be found about lead leaching into the whiskey from the mid-century ceramic decanters. Some enthusiasts drink the whiskey anyway, throwing away any concerns. I found the following information regarding the testing of bourbon from a decanter. The lab conducted the test and found that the whiskey had a lead content one thousand times higher than the acceptable limit in water. Those are results worth considering before you crack open that 1970’s era Corvette decanter or any decorative bourbon decanter to sample the bourbon.