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

And 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.

In 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 commodity.

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

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