Decanters and Carafes
Georgian glass decanters, rather than being mostly for display as is the case with many a modern crystal decanter, had a distinctly practical purpose. The libations which they were intended to contain lacked the clarity of their more modern counterparts, significantly so in some instances, with a great deal of sediment and other impurities settling out once the contents had been allowed to rest for a while. This, in simple terms, looked distinctly unappetising, and you will note from the selection of period pieces that we have in this section that many of them have some sort of “opaquing” applied to the lower portion of the body. This may be in the form of different cut facets, slices, mouldings or less commonly engravings – all intended to add a degree of opacity towards the lower reaches of the decanter to hide the unappealing sediment from view.
Similarly, it was not unusual to find decanters or carafes made from coloured glass – Bristol blue, peacock blue, green, amethyst, cranberry and amber for instance. There seems to have been no convention with regard to any sort of link between colour or content, and it was far more likely to have been a hanging neck label, an engraved of gilded name that was used to identify what a particular decanter may hold. The most interesting, in my opinion, are the decanters which bear engravings that specified 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 names. Champaign may be a non-standard spelling while still clearly a well-known but what of Mountains, Hollands, Ratafia, Negus and Malmsey, all of which are 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. 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.
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 are 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 additional 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 appropriate engraved decanter - which was to be found on 18th century dining tables. Being a derivative of pomace and made without any aging, it was of a considerably lighter hue that Mountain, though its origins made decanting more necessary as residual grape mash 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 variety of fruit. It was imported in to Britain from the Canary and Balearic Islands, and Madeira and it has 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 !
And finally, 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, as were port, orange, spices and warm water. It could, however, be made as strong as the person preparing it wished, and it is noted in the 1792 tome "The New Cheats of London Exposed" as being used to incapacitate a gentleman caller at "a notorious brothel" where the resident girls were subjected to "disgustful importunities", in order to render him less able to argue for the imposition of lesser fees for their services !
So, while Georgian decanters in their own right are eminently collectable as captivating pieces of glassware in their own right, it may provide additional interest to try and track down as many of the differently engraved variations as possible for some added intrigue and – who knows – a well-decanted sample or two may even result in the opportunity to explore some "disgustful importunities" should circumstance dictate – living history indeed !