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When distilleries started to create brand names for themselves, they started advertising. They knew that the secret to good sales was getting their brand name out before the consumers who were purchasing whiskey. Even before bottling whiskey became an affordable practice for distilleries, they were advertising their brands. The best value for their advertising dollar was to spend their money in taverns and saloons where people were already drinking whiskey. That meant they would send those establishments advertising pieces such as wall hangings, mirrors and bar and tip trays.

In the 1850s the invention of the lithographic process allowed full color printing not only on paper, but also metal. Metal bar and tip trays were relatively inexpensive to produce and they were a practical item for a bar server to use and seen by the customers. The distillers created many of these items and sent them to the popular bars serving their products. The Geo. T. Stagg Distillery created a very popular bar tray for O.F.C. Bourbon with a stag head in full color that can often be found in antique stores today.

Yellowstone Distillery created one with a bottle of their Bourbon set in the foreground of the Waterfall of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. These are just examples of the pre-Prohibition advertisement trays to be found. The larger companies with popular brands are the most common bar trays found, but there are examples of smaller brands to be found. The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History has several examples of pre-Prohibition bar trays in their collection.

Prohibition of course ended this practice for thirteen long, dry years. There were bars but they were not legal bars so advertising in this manner ceased. With the repeal of Prohibition the distilleries went back to the tried and true methods of advertising, so bar and tip trays were once again produced for bars serving their whiskeys. Some of them were just as elaborate as the pre-Prohibition trays but many were not.

A simple tip try pressed out of aluminum with the brand name embossed on the tray were simple and inexpensive to make so even smaller brands were producing them as advertisement of their whiskey. They also began to use other materials such as plastic for bar trays and glass for tip trays.

Schenley produced a very large bar tray for I.W. Harper with the “bowing man” figure surrounded by the flags of all of the countries where I.W. Harper was sold, stating “The only Bourbon enjoyed in 110 countries”. National Distillers produced a bar tray made from black plastic with Basil Hayden and the Old Grand-Dad name on it in gold with the slogan “Head of the Bourbon family”. They also produced metal trays for Old Crow featuring illustrations from their print advertisements discussing the history of James C. Crow.

This practice lasted up till the 1960s but became less popular as the decline of whiskey sales proceeded through the 1970s and 80s.The focus shifted from bar and tip trays first to ash trays and then to more inexpensive items to produce such as swizzle sticks, napkins and bar mats. It is rare to sit in a bar today and to be served from a bar tray or receive the check on a tip tray with a whiskey advertisement on it.

Smaller artisan distilleries may want to look into the cost of bringing back this type of advertisement because a bar is still the place to reach customers that are drinking whiskey and this is a great opportunity to get your name before these potential customers.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller