Bourbon may be known as “America’s Spirit,” but that wasn’t always the case. During the 1960s and the following decades, the industry struggled as more “diet-friendly” drinks like cheaply-made vodka and gin gained interest. With the spirit already aging in barrels, companies were faced with an uphill battle to get people to buy it.
The answer? A “free gift with purchase,” specifically in the form of ceramic novelty decanters. A number of companies created them, including Jim Beam, Ezra Brooks, Wild Turkey, Old Fitzgerald, Michters and Lionstone (which didn’t distill but sourced whiskey from around the state). Jim Beam had begun offering novelty decanters as early as 1955 but they really took off in the 1970s.
The decanters came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes including the likeness of birds, historical figures, Elvis Presley and the Liberty Bell. They were also made for political conventions, state centennials and organizations like the Vietnam Veterans of America. These specialty vessels opened up bourbon to new audiences, including people who weren’t necessarily bourbon drinkers but loved the designs. Charles Barrett started buying them in 1979, despite being a teetotaler; in 2021, his Tennessee town of Granville opened a museum featuring his collection.
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But these decanters also offered an opportunity for actual bourbon fans to collect something rare and limited-edition. The bottles were often aged between eight to 12 years before being bottled and gained a following amongst newly formed decanter collectors’ clubs. They became so successful that Beam actually bought Royal China of Illinois, the company they’d hired to make the decanters. They were also priced at a range that many could afford. At the time, the most expensive decanters sold for around $2,000, which would be a drop in the bucket for today’s Pappy fanatics.
Bourbon returned to prominence by the late 1980s and the production of novelty decanters slowed. The empty vessels can be found online and at antique stores around the country for a wide variety of prices. In fact, a particular style of Jim Beam bottle gained value after being used in the show I Dream of Jeannie. But they can still be found if you know where to look, sometimes with the prized brown water still inside.
If you’re not looking for a hunt, seek out stores that specialize in these rare and “dusty” bottles, like Revival Vintage Spirits and Old Spirits Company, though note that the legality of secondhand spirits varies by state. Otherwise, estate sales are your best bet, which can be found in your area through websites like EstateSales.net.
But keep in mind that they’re always a gamble. Everything is as-is, and some sales don’t set prices but ask you to make an offer. Bourbon should be stored at room temperature in low light and standing up to avoid erosion of the cork; if not stored properly, the bourbon can turn into sludge, with bits of cork crumbled inside.
Before purchasing, be sure to check to see if there’s a paper tax strip from when it was originally sold. If it’s still intact, you may be in for a surprise. You can also shake it a bit to hear the liquid inside. If you decide to get it, check the smell for oxidation and the cork’s status before drinking. It’s also a good idea to decant before you drink. And, of course, drink at your own risk.
The most valuable novelty decanters are usually the ones that were made in the smallest quantities or made during an especially good period. For example, a recent acquisition of the Frazier History Museum, a 1978 Daviess County rifle-shaped whiskey decanter, is one of around 1,000 made and is part of the “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibit, alongside dozens of others from the era. Unopened Willett and Jim Beam Bottled-in-Bond decanters are a great find if you spot them, worth several hundred dollars.
Finally, if you can’t find your own vintage novelty decanter, you still might be able to find a taste at one of the bars and restaurants that are legally able to serve from them. At The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, N.C. — a bar that specializes in vintage spirits — bourbon lovers can get a taste from one of the over 50 novelty decanters including Old Fitzgerald, Old Forester and the famed Michter’s King Tut decanter.
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