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What Are Whiskey Decanters & Why Do They Matter?

Photo: Waterford Irish Dogs Madra Decanter

Few pieces of glassware are as immediately recognizable as is the iconic whiskey decanter. Whether it’s Jack Torrance pouring himself a splash in The Shining or James Bond quaffing a cup in Casino Royale, this versatile vessel has become a regular feature on the silver screen. It provides an instant cue to the viewer that the person before them has an important role to play — one that’s usually central to the plot’s development. More often than not it’s someone as suave as Ian Fleming’s 007, but it could just as easily be a character as crazed as Stephen King’s caretaker. In any case, the decanter is a container chock-full of meaning, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t have a movie scene associated with its mentioning.

However, for all of its cultural clout, there’s little consensus on what this type of glassware is actually used for. Sure, it’s widely accepted that when it comes to wine, serving your vintage in a decanter is an easy way to elevate your drinking experience. But is there any actual benefit to doing so with a dram of whiskey? Does it make for anything other than an aesthetic upgrade? In short, yes and no. As is often the case, the answer is complicated, but if you’re wondering what a decanter is and what exactly it does, you’ve come to the right place. So kick back, help yourself to a sip, and read on to see why.

What Are Whiskey Decanters?

The Basics

Despite all of the pomp and ceremony that’s associated with decanters, they’re a very straightforward piece of glassware in principle and one whose purpose can be understood by even the most novice of whiskey enthusiasts. Simply put, a decanter is any vessel that is used to store the decantation of a liquid and its accompanying sediment. As such, it follows that the process of decanting whiskey, wine, or any other variety of alcoholic beverage is merely the act of pouring it from its original container` into the decanter. (Hardly the arduous procedure it’s made out to be then.)

Typically made out of glass or crystal, decanters have grown increasingly decorative in design over time. For though those used for wine were once pretty plain affairs and by and large free of adornment, they’ve since taken on a status unto their own. These days, decanters can be found in all manner of shapes, sizes, and intricacies, with humbler options coming in around the price of a meal and the most expensive alternatives fetching four, five, or even six figures.

It’s worth noting that the key to a decanter’s designation is its included stopper and wide, stable base. While carafes are a similar piece of glassware that is also used for the storage of alcohol, they differ in that they typically forgo these features. In practice, this is because carafes can be used for serving anything from water to juice to wine. So, where a decanter is made to preserve its contents’ flavor and guard against any stray knocks, a carafe is typically made for more immediate serving, with as small a footprint as possible in order to free up any extra table space. Thus, apart from its notable lack of a stopper, you can usually tell a carafe from a decanter because of its elongated body and its relatively modest base.

Where Did They Come From?

Some History

Originally intended for wine storage, decanters first saw widespread use throughout England around the turn of the 18th century. At the time, drinkers were spending vast sums on expensive fine wines, and they needed an appropriate container to store and serve their purchases. Because most wines were shipped unfiltered and full of bitter sediment (lees), the decanter was developed in order to fulfill an important need. That is, in contrast to the opaque containers traditionally used to serve wine — such as dark bottles or earthen pottery — the clear decanter allowed the server to see the lees and prevent it from contaminating the glass.

But decanters had another yet another benefit over that which they replaced: aeration. By increasing the surface area of the air content inside, these pieces of glassware effectively oxidized the wine that they were storing. In layman’s speak — wine’s exposure to air triggers a chemical reaction, resulting in the evaporation of individual compounds within the liquid. Given that the most undesirable — or “off” tasting — of these compounds have a tendency to evaporate first, the remaining liquid is typically thought to taste better, with richer, more consistent flavors and aromas. However, it’s worth noting that while some aeration is beneficial to one’s experience of a wine, too much of it contributes to an accelerated aging process, and, as a result, some staleness.

As such, by 1730, British glassmakers had introduced stoppers to their decanter designs in order to prevent the wine within from experiencing unwanted exposure to air. And along with the adoption of the stopper came the implementation of decanters for use with all kinds of spirits, including aperitifs, cordials, rum, and yes, even whiskey. With it being preferable to store wine in glass bottles, public drinking houses and other establishments gradually began keeping their spirits tapped from aging barrels and casks in lead and crystal decanters.

Since that time, decanters have stayed largely the same, albeit with subtle differences in their materials and finishes. However, as the upper class took to serving their spirits in decanters, they became increasingly associated with status. And with their depiction in films and on TV, they’ve become much more significant than a humble crystal container. In fact, even in today’s drinking culture, decanters are typically reserved for social settings where presentation is a primary consideration.

Why Do They Matter?

Reasons For Being

Appearance: No matter which way you spin things, the main reason for owning a decanter is for its aesthetic appeal. For starters, their elegant glass designs give one the impression of being a character of sophistication, refined taste, and class. While this is primarily due to their representation throughout popular culture, a good decanter does add a certain element of ceremony to any occasion — if only because of the extra effort that goes into the presentation of that day’s druthers. Sure, it’s a bit superficial, but then again, there’s a reason we clean up whenever we’re expecting company.

And their visual benefit isn’t solely born out of vanity. On the contrary, should you decide to serve your guests with whiskey in a decanter, you remove the inevitable bias that comes with the brand featured on the bottle. Granted, it won’t make your garden-variety, bottom-shelf stuff taste like the crème de la crème; however, it will go a long way towards furthering your guests’ appreciation for what’s placed before them. And because you’re displaying your whiskey in a clear, colorless container, you’ll also be able to better judge the spirit for its color and texture — key elements of any serious connoisseur’s evaluation.

Crowd Control: When it comes to hosting, there are also plenty of practical reasons for one to own a decanter, chief among them being the ability to keep your supply in check. Because although your brown liquor is best enjoyed when shared, ultimately, everyone will reach a limit in how much they’re willing to give. With a decanter, you have the advantage of limiting your guests’ intake without the awkward exchange that comes about because of a particularly thirsty drinker. For as far as they know, once the decanter has been drained, that’s all there is for the evening (just be sure not to let your generosity get the better of you).

What’s more, serving your whiskey in a decanter acts as an extra precautionary measure. With their wide, stable base and low center of gravity, these types of glassware are far safer than off-the-shelf bottles in settings that are apt to be crowded. For though a careless gesture or an errant elbow might send a fifth of whiskey flying, a decanter is far more likely to keep your spirit safe and upright, even if a bit of spillage occurs. Chalk it up to overprotectiveness if you’d like, but if you’re sharing scotch that’s old enough to vote, it’s best not to take any chances. Besides, if it gives you even a bit of extra peace of mind, your investment was well worth it.

Preservation: What few people realize is that whiskey doesn’t get better over time. While a nice wine will improve its flavor through the aging process, the same logic does not apply to your favorite brown liquor — in fact, it will only change for the worse. In practice, this is because leaving it in a bottle with extra air (also known as “head space”) accelerates the oxidation process. The more head space that’s left above the whiskey, the faster oxidation will occur, leaving the spirit tasting skunky and stale. Sure, you’re safe to keep an unopened bottle on your shelf for as long as you’d like, but if you’re going to crack the seal, your best course of action is to invest in a smaller storage bottle.

Subtleties: Although decanters are proven to help aerate wine and improve its flavor, the jury’s still out as far as whiskey is concerned. For that matter, even sunlight and temperature have minimal effect on the spirit’s smell and taste. Of course, a whiskey will always be better given some time to air out; however, the reaction is much more immediate than that of a bottle of wine. Because it occurs once it’s poured into the glass, it doesn’t require hours of aeration before serving. There may be a slight difference, but you shouldn’t buy a decanter expecting to drastically enhance the flavor of your whiskey.

That being said, you do have complete control over the contents of your serving vessel. So, while you may not be able to alter its aromas with additional exposure to air, you can create a blend of several different varieties. Whether you consider it a sacrilege or a stroke of genius, you’d be hard-pressed to attempt such an experiment if you were working within the original bottle.

What Should You Buy?

Our Picks

James Scott Crystal Decanter

Just because you’re after an elevated drinking experience doesn’t mean that your decanter has to break the bank. For instance, this pick from James Scott is plenty affordable but it also looks the part. Made from high-quality hand-cut crystal, it can hold up to 750ml of your preferred spirit.

Purchase: $23

Brixton Decanter

This Brixton decanter is similar in shape to the above pick, however, it features a unique geometric texture for a new take on an old favorite. As an added bonus, it’s dishwasher safe, so you can rest assured knowing that there will be no risk of cross-contamination once your scotch is spent.

Purchase: $40

William-Sonoma Spirit Decanter

Crafted from lead-free glass by master glassblowers, William-Sonoma’s spirit decanter is durable enough to handle everything from everyday use to formal entertaining. And because of its smooth, squared shape, it makes for a design that can do your whiskey the justice it deserves.

Purchase: $70

Vicara Cerne Carafe

Vicara’s Cerne Carafe takes its name from the Portuguese word for heartwood, the very material from which its molds were made. Boasting a flowing shape and pattern of natural wood, each piece is unique because of subtle variations in the production process.

Purchase: $156

Waterford Crystal Irish Dogs Madra Decanter Beagle

Since 1783, Waterford has been crafting some of the highest quality crystal glassware on the market. Named after the Irish word for dog, this Madra decanter features a Beagle stopper as an homage to one of Ireland’s most popular breeds.

Purchase: $295

How The Glencairn Became The Official Whiskey Glass

If you’re interested in seeing how another influential piece of glassware got its start, be sure to check out our guide to how the Glencairn became the official whiskey glass.