An outline of Georgian and Regency decanter appearance, and the drinks they would contain

now for one of our occasional diversions where the focus is less on the glass vessels
themselves and more on the nature of what they were designed to accommodate. It’s
reasonable to be of the opinion that decanters nowadays are largely for display
purposes, but if one looks back to 18th century these sometimes substantial
containers had a distinctly practical purpose on a day to day basis. The
libations for which they were designed – products of constantly evolving
processes where presentation was not always one of the prime considerations –
lacked the clarity of their modern counterparts, to a significant extent in
some instances, with a great deal of sediment and other impurities settling out
once the contents had been allowed to stand for a while. The lack of
sophistication in the brewing or distilling processes of the time resulted in
products which, in simple terms, were wont to look distinctly unappealing. The
use of isinglass or other finings was at a premium, and primitive filtration
processes would result in “finished” products that could present with an
unwholesome sludge. To counter this, you will note from the selection of period
decanters that we have listed in this category that many of them have some sort
of physical “opaquing” applied to the lower portion of the body. This may be in
the form of differently-cut facets or slices, mouldings, patterns, wrythen
texturing and less commonly engravings – but all share the common purpose of
being intended to add a degree of opacity towards the base of the vessel to
hide the noisome sediment within from view.

order to achieve this same effect of concealment, it was not unusual to find
decanters and carafes being made from more translucent coloured glass – Bristol
blue and green, peacock blue, amethyst, cranberry and amber – all the popular
hues of the time – were utilized, once again with the intention of obscuring
what lurked in the murky depths. There does not seem to have been any real convention
with regard to a definitive correlation between colour and content, and it was
far more likely to have been a hanging neck label, or an engraved or gilt
applique name, that was used to identify what a particular decanter may have
contained. The most interesting variety, in my usual humble and uninformed opinion,
are the decanters which bore direct engravings specifying the name of the
drinks with which they were intended to be used. There are a relative abundance
of examples with the more common names – ale, claret, madeira, rum, brandy and
the like – but there are also pieces which bear more intriguing and now archaic
names. Champaign is simply a non-standard spelling of a clearly well-known libation,
but what of Mountains, Hollands, Ratafia, Negus, Malmsey, Usquebaugh and Shrub
– all of which are to be found engraved upon 18th century decanters ?
Hollands is perhaps the best known of these – being the name of a precursor of
gin which in itself was less commonly known as Jenever or – very occasionally –
Tittery or Collonia. A staple in the low countries from the 1600’s, this grew
sharply in popularity in Britain as the nobility sought to affect the tastes of
the Dutch house of Orange Nassau, personified by King William III (see also our
information about the Gin Craze which swept England in the 1700’s)
Mountain was, and still is, a fortified dessert wine produced in Malaga,
Southern Spain and the surrounding mountainous area (specifically Antequera).
Although made from white Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes, it’s a dark drink
as the fruits were allowed to significantly over-ripen before being harvested
to maximise their sweetness. Oak-cask aging after the initial production
darkens the product even further, and the most popular variety in Georgian
England – Trasañejo – was rendered virtually black by six years of earnest
maturation !

A similar product, though primarily from north eastern
France rather than Spain, is Ratafia. The name can refer to a non-alcoholic
liqueur or cordial, but it is the fortified wine (occasionally also known as
Mistelle, though I have never come across an appropriately engraved decanter)
which was to be found on 18th century dining tables. Being a derivative of
pomace (a previously-fermented mash) and made without any aging, it was of a
considerably lighter hue that Mountain, though its origins made decanting more
necessary as the residual grape or apple pieces made for a particularly
unappetising sediment.

Malmsey was yet another fortified wine, specifically made using Malvasian
grapes and with the name being an Anglicisation of this particular variety of
the fruit. It was imported in to Britain from the Canary, Balearic Islands and
Madeira, and it had been popular here for at least 300 years by the time that
it was embraced by Georgian tastes. It’s fair to say, however, that George
Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence may not have been one of its keenest
proponents, as folklore suggests that he was drowned in a butt-full of the
stuff to effect his execution for treason at the Tower of London in the 15th
century !
Negus which was a type of warm punch or mulled wine, sometimes considered to
have restorative effects due to the inclusion of herbs amongst its constituent
parts, along with port, orange, spices and warm water. It could, however, be
made as strong as the person preparing it wished simply by the addition of more
alcohol, and it is noted in the 1792 tome “The New Cheats of London
Exposed” as being employed to incapacitate a gentleman caller at “a
notorious brothel” – where the resident girls were wont to engage in
“disgustful importunities” – in order to render the customer less
able to argue aginst the imposition of extravagant fees for services rendered !

Usquebaugh was both an alternative name for whiskey
(the Irish version, hence the “e”) derived from the original Gaelic term uisce
beatha or water of life, and also specifically the name of a brandy derivative.
It was this second incarnation which more commonly bore the name, to
differentiate it from the unadulterated form which would be labelled with the
“proper” appellation. Contemporary recipes call for brandy to be used to steep
a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, aniseed, caraway, coriander, liquorice,
saffron and sugar in order to produce the basic version, with Royal Usquebaugh
being further augmented by the addition of figs, raisins, ambergris (that much
sought after secretion from a sperm whale’s intestinal tract) and gold leaf – a
quite extraordinary concoction !

And what of shrub of all these archaic distillates and
fermentations, perhaps the one which is still most readily available ? This was
a fruit liqueur, made by mixing citrus fruit juice with rum or brandy, and prolonged
infusing the same with the rinds. It was a popular drink over the Yuletide
period, being used as the basis for a festive punch with the addition of honey,
raisins, cinnamon, almonds or pretty much anything else that came to hand. It
also served the somewhat nefarious ends of smugglers who would sometimes deliberately
weigh down and sink their ankers of illicit contraband in shallow waters just
off shore at the end of a frenetic smuggling run. The intention would then be
to return to the scene of the ongoing crime and retrieve the booty at their
leisure and at a more opportune moment. Unfortunately the cooper’s craft in the
18th century was not an exact science and seawater was prone to seep
in to incompletely sealed barrels, thus tainting the contents, The addition of
a healthy dose of shrub, however, would serve to mask the taste of the brine
and ensure that the otherwise spoiled consignment would remain a sellable

The form of these decanters, regardless of their
intended contents, was wide ranging and somewhat ad hoc. Although there are
about a dozen recognizable and reoccurring basic shapes, there was much scope
for adaptive and adoptive designs, and there are innumerable variations which
defy any comprehensive listing. It should also be remembered that the stoppers
for particular decanters would be almost infinitely interchangeable, and for all
but the most carefully cossetted of pieces, it is entirely likely that enduring
matches of original pairings do not endure to the present day.
So, while Georgian decanters are eminently collectable as captivating pieces of
glassware in their own right, their lack of uniformity may mitigate against
properly exhaustive collecting, and it may – instead – be of more practical
interest to try and track down as many of the differently-engraved variations
as possible.

And once your antique piece has been secured, it may
be that a judiciously-decanted sample or two result in the opportunity to
explore some “disgustful importunities” should circumstance dictate –
living history indeed and something well worth pursuing !

The link below will take you to our catalogue of decanters, including some of the named versions as detailed above:

site link to Georgian decanters and carafes

For more articles about glass in a historical context, see the following links:

A Regency wedding ale glass - love, criminality, deportation and death

A moulded Regency wine bottle with links to the Irish gentry, and medieval battles

A porcelain castor rest which links Hartlepool to Napoleon's military nadir

Some traditional, alternative uses for ales and beer

A Georgian tumbler cognate to letchery, murder, execution and dissection !

The invasion of Europe by Ottoman Turks is dashed against The Wall of Christianity (part one)

The invasion of Europe by Ottoman Turks is dashed against The Wall of Christianity (part two)

Competitive pineapple growing - passtime of the idle rich

Glassware on the apothecary's shelves in the 18th century

Lynn glass - an enduring puzzle solved ?

Sedition and religion come together in an engraved wine glass from 1750