Decanters are sometimes associated with wine, whose sediments such as lees sink to the bottom of these usually clear containers when poured from their original bottles. But cut- or blown-glass decanters are more often used as decorative serving objects, even if the liquid within them is not strictly in need of decantation.
The widespread use of decanters dates to at least the Middle Ages, when wines and ales were stored in unwieldy wooden barrels, heavy stoneware bottles, and leather skins. For the upper classes, pouring or scooping directly from these bulk containers to one’s cup or goblet would be unacceptable, so decanters served the role as an intermediate delivery device. By the 17th century, blown-glass decanters, known as shaft-and-globes, had long necks and round, flattened bases, perfect for storage on cool, sandy cellar floors.
The Venetians, of course, led the way in glass decanters, but glassmakers in Germany, England, Spain, Scandinavia, and Bohemia also made important contributions to the form. Some of the most identifiable decanter shapes include the bulbous ewer with a handle and gooseneck spout; the flagon, which is similar to an ewer but lacks the spout; the Rodney ship’s decanter, whose flat base was extra wide to give it a low, tip-resistant center of gravity; and various decanters shaped like classical urns and cylinders.
Decanters were also designed to complement the properties of the liquids inside them. For example, powerful spirits were poured into modest-size square or flat-sided bottles via funnels, while more frequently filled claret jugs had wide mouths so that a funnel would not be necessary. While many decanters were enameled to decorate them, and others were blown or cased in colored glass, cordial or liqueur decanters were usually left clear, since the color of the liquid inside them made their contents so instantly identifiable (Chartreuse is green, Campari is red, etc.).
Some glass decanters have metal mounts attached to their outsides. Made of everything from silver to gold, these mounts can give decanters feet, handles, and fittings for stoppers. Sometimes, though, they are purely decorative, as in the chased and pierced silver mounts than adorn some decanters like frilly skirts.
The most respected glassmakers of the last couple of centuries produced decanters. The 17th-century English glassmaker George Ravenscroft, who introduced lead into crystal, made decanters, as did later glass pioneers, including Barovier, Moser, Baccarat, Gallé, Lalique, Tiffany, Steuben, and Northwood.
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