The fundamental purpose of a decanter is to contain a beverage (most commonly wine) that may contain sediment. The decanting process allows the clear, appetising liquid to be separated from the rest of the batch, enhancing the drinking experience. Another traditional benefit of the decanter was that, by separating a small amount of wine (or your chosen beverage) into a smaller container, it could be handled more easily- necessitating only one servant at the dinner table.
Decanters usually hold the equivalent of one bottle of wine and are most commonly found in a teardrop shape. Frequently made out of glass and crystal, they are similar to the carafe- the key difference is that decanters, unlike carafes, feature a stopper.
Although they are most commonly associated with wine, they can contain many other beverages, at their owner’s discretion. Hop and apple based drinks, spirits and liqueurs are also common drinks to be housed in a decanter.
Originally, decanters would have been crafted in glass or crystal. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire however, glass became much more difficult to source; as a result, decanters were more frequently crafted from bronze silver or gold or earthenware. It wasn’t until the Renaissance and the rise of the Venetian empire that glass decanters were reintroduced. It was these decanters that were first crafted in the style that we would recognise today: with a slender neck and a wide body. The only problem with this design was that due to the wide body, the exposed surface area of the wine was increased- causing it to react with the air.
After the glass decanter became an established household item in Britain (during the 18th century) a solution to this problem was found. British designs from around 1730 introduced the stopper to the decanter in order to limit the wines’ exposure to the air. The brits built upon the design features established by the Venetians: the growingly popular British decanters featured long necks and broad shoulders tapering towards a wide base. As the century progressed, the form of the decanter evolved. Straight sided bottles grew in popularity; these items would also often feature engraved labels indicating their contents.
When, in the UK, it became most common to craft decanters from cut glass, the addition of an engraved label became impractical. This led to the advent of silver drink labels- a collectors’ item in their own right.
Other countries had their own successes and innovations when it came to the decanter. In Ireland during the 18th century they were most commonly made from mould blown glass, featuring vertical flutes and necks that would be decorated with multiple rings. Their stoppers saw stylistic evolutions too: bullseye and lozenge shapes reigned for the first half of the century, but by the end the mushroom stopper was most prevalent. Irish decanters saw a surge of popularity around this time, receiving great commercial success and being exported worldwide (namely the U.S, Portugal and the West Indies).
Both British and Irish decanters became so popular that soon enough travel versions were being created. Usually, a travel set would feature four square bottles with ball stoppers displayed in a small mahogany box. The French also had a take on this style. They often chose to include gilded shoulders, focusing on this feature as the shoulders were the only part visible while the decanters were snug in their box.
Many British dining customs relied on the decanter. It was traditional to keep the glasses and bottles on a sideboard during a dinner party rather than on the table- they were only really handled by servants. However it was often the preference of the men of the group to continue drinking after the meal was over and the wives and children had retired to bed.
This lead to a lot of wine being passed around, and the unique shape of the decanter was considered to be more pleasing for this uses than the dark green bottles, as well as less likely to spill while being passed between the men. The business man George Ravenscroft (1632-1683) was one of the first people to notice that a decanter would be more appropriate for this purpose; he therefore pioneered their introduction to the English aristocracy.
The only shortcoming of this custom was the fact that, with decanters, the drinkers would not know the contents of the bottle they had been passed: hence the invention of the silver bottle label/ ticket which would be hung around the neck of a glass or silver decanter announcing its delicious contents.