Bottle Art

Vintage Jim Beam whiskey decanters are charming relics of mid-20th-century cocktail culture

Ariana Lindquist

In the 1950s, the federal government imposed new taxes on distilleries, levying all aging liquor—whether bottled for sale or still sitting in barrels—as soon as it turned eight years old. In order to avoid paying millions of dollars, Louisville, Kentucky's Jim Beam Company devised a way to sell off stocks of whiskey: They'd package their bourbon in unique hand-painted ceramic decanters that would look great on the era's fashionable home wet bars. From 1955 to 1992, Jim Beam made hundreds of thousands of trophy bottles annually. Some, like the Great Chicago Fire centennial decanter from 1971, or the football-playing elephant fashioned for the 1972 Republican Convention's original San Diego location, commemorated noteworthy events, people, or places. Others, such as the 1974 Bohemian Girl made for the Bohemian Cafe, a Czech restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, were custom-ordered. Today, given production costs, few are issued. But vintage decanters are sold (albeit empty) through collectors' club websites, charming relics of mid-20th-century cocktail culture.