Whisky Memorabilia

Collecting beyond the bottle
By Hans Offringa
Collecting whisky seems as normal as drinking whisky today. It can be an expensive hobby, or even a way of life. Those whisky enthusiasts who want to invest less may have a closer look into the world of whisky paraphernalia, or memorabilia if you prefer.

In each issue of this new series of Whisky Magazine, I will be presenting a certain object that has collectable value or is just fun to chase.

I am a collector of many things related to my favourite drink, even empty bottles and packaging. I usually end up drinking and sharing the whisky with friends. About 15 years ago I started to collect whisky glasses, coinciding with the first Whisky Festival in The Netherlands, where a specially designed glass was offered to the visitors. Now I have more than I can count and even display properly.

When you look at your whisky glass of preference, a tumbler, a high ball, a shot glass or snifter, you may not realise how old this artefact is. As early as the Stone Age glass was used in its natural state - obsidian, a black volcanic glass of which weapons and jewellery were crafted. That is a far stretch to the modern Glencairn glass seen at so many festivals.

In-between some interesting events occurred. Archaeological findings prove that the first manufactured glass dates back to approximately 3000 BC, mainly in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Around the 16th Century BC, hollow glass became en vogue. The first manual on glass making was available around 650 BC as part of King Ashurbanipal's library.

At first the production of glass took a lot of time and craftsmanship. Hence only the rich and famous could afford such luxury. The invention of glassblowing in the 1st Century AD meant a huge leap forward. Glass now became available for the common people and slowly made its entrance into households. During the Roman Empire the glass making industry blossomed and found its way to Western Europe as well. It would have still been of a darker colour until AD 100 when Alexandrians discovered how to produce clear glass.

Glass making conquered the Northern European countries in the late 1400s and early 1500s. An English glassmaker invented lead glass in 1674, which is considered a breakthrough in the industry's development. The Industrial Revolution gave its own push to glass production by mechanisation and mass production. In 1903 Michael Owen invented an automatic bottle-blowing machine, capable of an hourly production of 2,500 bottles.

Another famous glass manufacturer is the French/Swiss company Lalique, founded in 1885. At first René Lalique concentrated on the design and production of exclusive jewellery. One of his most famous customers was Sara Bernhardt, who wore her jewels on many stages in the last decade of the 19th Century. Around 1910 Lalique switched to making glass and never stopped. His son Marc decided to switch to crystal in 1950. Lalique glassware is of high quality and design. The Macallan developed a whole series of limited whiskies bottled in Lalique decanters, and they are now highly collectable although few can afford them. They are very limited, but beautiful pieces of art nevertheless. Prices run into the tens of thousands of pounds.

Now you know the pedigree of what you use as a drinking vessel. Let's have a closer look at some of today's whisky glasses. They are at a more affordable level for the discerning collector. They come in various shapes and forms, from various manufacturers, among which the German Riedel company who produce an extensive range.

First there is the shot glass, made popular in many Western saloons. The first written reference is from a 1913 book by Dr Powell titled A History of Cass County Indiana from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. In it an incident is described of a staunch temperance movement supporter who shot a hole in a barrel of whiskey on a train platform in New Waverly, Indiana. The whiskey leaked out, leaving an empty barrel for the next-door saloon. After that incident customers kept asking for a 'shot of red eye'. If you want to down a small amount of whisky in one go, this is your glass.

Then there is the tumbler. Originally it was designed with a pointed bottom to prevent it standing up. It had to be emptied before it tumbled and spilled the contents. Many tumblers have flat bottoms today, but try this: set one on its side, empty. If it rights itself you have a real one. Whoever likes whisky on the rocks, might prefer this type of glass. Visitors to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival will be familiar with the variety of tumblers presented at the annual gala. There is even a bag check for those who have managed to obtain a glass from each distillery present.

The highball is a tall glass, in which cocktails are usually served. Hence, the name of the glass has become synonymous with the word cocktail. Its origins are not exactly clear. Some sources refer to the railway, where the word highball was used to describe a signal meaning 'clear track ahead'. By the way, that would make a nice name for a new cocktail. Who dares?

Last but not least is the snifter. Originally it was a wide glass with a round body and a tapered top to enjoy brandy or cognac. The unique shape helps the liquid to breathe while concentrating the aromas in the upper part. Many different shapes and sizes have seen the light of day, with and without stem. The one you will encounter most is the Glencairn glass, introduced in 2001. Various master blenders from the Scottish industry were involved in its design. In 2006 the production company won the Queen's Award for innovation. The Glencairn glass has been a favourite at many festivals since. It is sturdy whilst retaining its purpose. The average purchase price is £6.95, but special editions cost more.

Sturdiness is an important feature. It reminds me of an anecdote about the famous Scottish collector and author, Sir Walter Scott. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 he was reportedly presented with an illegal dram of The Glenlivet by his host. The king liked it so much that he demanded more of it. Scott was so surprised that he asked for the glass that the king had used. He put it in his pocket and apparently forgot about it. After coming home to Abbotsford the famous scribe fell in his chair, exhausted by the day's events, and crushed the glass.

Decanters are interesting to collect as well. They are not solely made of glass or crystal. Many are made of porcelain. This is such a broad topic that, given the space, we will look at two examples. The ceramic decanters from Jim Beam are highly collectible. The Beam decanter collector's club ( advises emptying your decanter and enjoying the whiskey. Here are some of their arguments as listed on their website which are in some instances somewhat strange:

  • It Is ILLEGAL To Sell Liquor Without a License

  • Alcohol Will Eat The China Bottle From The Inside and Ruin The Decanter

  • The Cork Will Dry Out and Shrink

  • The Alcohol WILL Go Bad

  • A Large Collection can be a FIRE HAZARD to keep in your home

  • Full Bottles Are Much Heavier and Can Cause Shelves To Collapse

  • Whiskey Does Not Age in Decorative Decanters - It Won't Get Better So "USE IT OR LOSE IT"

  • Also One Other Major Consideration to Remember: If you display your collection where it is accessible to minors they may swap the alcohol for another liquid knowing you will never be the wiser.

Beam started their specialty decanters in 1952. In the years since, they have issued both glass and ceramic decanters, with general themes of casino, centennial, clubs and conventions, customer, executive, foreign, glass and collectors editions, opera, organisations, people, political, regal china, sports, states, trophy and wheels. Decanter prices range from £10 to £115 for the more common ones and up to £2,000 for the rarest.

One Scottish whisky company has been producing decorative and special edition decanters since the 1920s. Bell's whisky decanters were first made of blue glass and since 1966, Wade Ceramics has made them. On, collectors use a grading system to accurately describe their decanters. Sealed decanters with boxes demand the top prices. One can also request, for a small fee, a valuation of an official Bell's decanter. Prices for the limited edition decanters can run up to £500, but a collector can start with £25 for some of the mass-produced ones.

So, why not start collecting glasses from festivals and distilleries you visit? Or perhaps the colourful decanters. Both are affordable and may be worth a lot in a century to come.