Production

You don't flask, you don't get

You'll find the hip flask in every distillery across the world. How did such a simple and practical item become the midfield general of the gift shop. Joel Harrison reports
By Joel Harrison
As distilleries strive to assert their individuality, you can find yourself browsing at branded items as diverse as a spare wheel cover for a 4x4 car through to lycra cycling tops. However, round and thin or square and fat, engraved with a distillery logo or leather bound in club colours, the mainstay of any whisky brands merchandise is the hip flask. How did this come about?

It all started back in the medieval era when travellers would carry water bottles made from leather, which were designed to be slung from the saddle of their horse. Flat on one side and bulbous on the other, this cleverly maximised carrying capacity without causing undue irritation to their trusty steed.

As religion spread across the globe, travelling on pilgrimages became increasingly prevalent with pilgrims striving to return home with expensive trinkets serving to document their arduous journey (This sounds a lot like the Islay Festival to me!). These ornate, bejeweled vessels became known as Pilgrim Bottles, a fine example of which can be seen in the British Museum in London.

Around this time glass became the popular choice of material. Having a see-through vessel not only allowed the owner to keep an eye on how much liquid they were carrying, but it also opened the use of the bottles as a wider containers for the safeguarding of Holy souvenirs and icons acquired on their travels; almost the Tupperware box of its day.

It wasn’t until the 19th Century that hip flasks changed into something more akin to the ones we see today. Gone were the opulent coloured glass and bright jewels and in came sterling silver as the choice material. A robust and desirable metal that, unlike alternatives such as copper or lead, did not pollute the contents with unwelcome metallic flavours. Refined industrial manufacturing methods also allowed for complicated additions to the bottle; the most noteworthy being drinking cups which were either hidden away as a slide out compartment on the base of the bottle or incorporated into the screw-on cap.

As the industrial revolution took hold, the hip flask became the accessory of choice for many young gents in the upper tranches of society. What better way to enjoy your hunting or fishing trip that with a quick nip of Scotch from a silver hip flask, embossed with your family crest or Latin insignia?

It was around this time other clever alternatives to the hip flask were introduced, such as the ingenious ‘tippling stick’, a walking cane with a hollowed out compartment in which a vial of whisky or other spirit could be stored.

Typically, the vial is made of glass much like a long test tube, with a corked top and accessed by removing a screw-off head on the cane. To save the glass from damage while out walking or hunting, a spring would cushion the glass tube at its base. This also allowed for quick and easy access to the vial via a spring-load effect. All very clever!

As the 20th Century rolled around, the hip flask became a must-have with soldiers in both World Wars.

In the field of combat a quick swig from a hip flask was rudimentary self-medication which fueled courage, killed fear and banished pain. The contents were important, but more so the medium: their flask would have been engraved with a personal message from parents, wife or brothers and served as a constant reminder of their loved ones back home.
There is a vibrant collectors market for such individual pieces which not only document the savages of war, but add a very personal side to conflict.

So what of the hip flask’s place in society today? Personally, I find a flask very useful. My own is made, as most are these days, from stainless steel, bound in leather, and comes adorned with four small cups which are fixed over the lid.

It’s an accessory that has become as much a mainstay in my travel bag as my laptop and moleskin tasting book.

It took me some time to get over the stigma that carrying alcoholic beverages around was the domain of the drunkard; of course, the volume of contents in a standard hip flask shouldn’t be enough to inebriate one, but merely to provide a taster, a snifter of your chosen tipple.

I now see my hip flask in the same bracket as a music lover’s iPod or a bookworm’s favourite tome as well as serving as a reminder of my first trip to that magical island.

I say: hip flask carriers, be proud of your flask! Create an heirloom in your family and share your spirit on your travels.