When I was archivist for United Distillers, the collection contained many bar decanters from various brands. One of my favorite brands of these decanters were the Mammoth Cave Whiskey decanters. They have a full color illustration of the cave entrance depicted on the decanters and were very decorative. They looked good in a display case.
Bar decanters were an important part of the distilling industry in the 19th century, before bottles became economically produced and whiskey became sold by the bottle. Before that time, distillers sold their whiskey by the barrel to saloons and restaurants. The saloons would then fill bar decanters to serve their customers. It did not take the distillers long to figure out that if these bartenders were pouring from decanters with the brand name on it, the customer would see that and if they liked the whiskey, look to purchase that brand for their own use.
Most bar decanters are simply identified with the brand name enameled in white or gold on the decanter. Some, however, went that extra step and had color scenes enameled on the decanter. Yellowstone had a full color scene of the falls in Yellowstone Park and Mammoth Cave depicts the entrance to the cave. These are just two examples that were in the United Distillers collection, but I have seen other brands with color enameling as well.
Bar decanters are hand blown and the glass tends to be thicker and the bottle heavier than a normal whiskey bottle. There are many different shapes and sizes but this photo illustrates two of the most common shapes and sizes. The tall quart decanter and the pinched pint decanter. The quart decanter often came with a metal cap that was also a measure for pouring the whiskey. This cap simply sat loosely over the neck of the decanter as shown in this photograph. The decanter could also have a glass stopper to seal the decanter when not in use so the whiskey would not evaporate as quickly. These decanters are made to be tough and not to break with the everyday use in the bar. They would usually survive a drop to the floor if the bartender had wet hands and let it slip. The smaller sizes, such as the pint sized pinch decanter would be sealed with a glass stopper or a cork. They were usually used when a customer ordered a pint of whiskey for the table at restaurants or saloons. There were even sizes that were 1/10 of a pint to serve single pours to a table in the restaurant.
The Mammoth Cave brand was created by W. G. Coldewey & Co. in 1869. In 1901, the brand was advertised in the Wine and Spirits Bulletin as having a 16 year old bonded whiskey for sale. W. G. Coldewey & Co. were able to pull this off by sending whiskey over to Germany to age and bringing it back to the United States and paying the import taxes, which were less than the taxes they would have paid after eight years and then letting it age (and evaporate) in Kentucky.
By 1907, W.L. Weller and Sons purchased the brand and it became part of their portfolio of whiskeys for sale. W. L. Weller & Sons sold Mammoth Cave Bourbon as a medicinal spirit during Prohibition and continued to support the brand in certain markets up until the 1960s. The brand disappeared from the portfolio of brands at Stitzel-Weller and is abandoned.
Bar decanters played an important role in the distilling industry in the 19th century, but would begin to disappear as bottled whiskey became more common. Prohibition ended the sale of whiskey by the barrel to saloons and restaurants and the need for bar decanters ended as well. There were many bar decanters made in the time they were used and they are popular collector items for not only collectors of whiskey memorabilia, but also bottle and glass collectors. The next time you are in an antique store, look for such decanters and collect a piece of history.
Photo courtesy of Michael Veach
March 12, 2021 at 2:59 pm
Great article, Diamond Caverns has a nice collection of old bottles including Weller’s.
March 13, 2021 at 5:59 pm
The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History als has an excellent collection of bar decanters.
March 12, 2021 at 6:29 pm
As I recall (from reading, silly, I’m not THAT old) the bar decanters weren’t just for serving customers standing at the rail, although they did that, too. But their most effective purpose was to be filled and taken to the table. Customers poured their own drinks and were constantly reminded of what brand they were drinking. More importantly, passers-by were also reminded, even if they weren’t on a casual conversation basis with those at the table. Thus the decanter made for even better advertising than word-of-mouth. A decently stocked bar might have a few rows of such “back bar” decanters representing their featured brands.