Collecting Curiosities: Whiskey on wheels

Ron Kowalke |

By Ron Kowalke

Like most of you, I’m extremely time-challenged. Television is the one thing I’ve almost eliminated from my life to gain back time I can put to better use than being a couch zombie.

My limited TV viewing tends to focus on those shows that dramatize the thrill of the hunt. Because shows such as “American Pickers,” “American Restoration” and “Pawn Stars” have been generate huge audience numbers, I’m sure most everyone is familiar with these programs. All are well done and showcase vintage items plucked from barns, attics and other obscure places that are probably better left unsaid, brought in for valuation (and possible sale) or brought in to be returned to their original appearance.

Anyone who collects anything for pleasure or business can relate to these TV shows. I count myself among both categories as I collect several categories of vintage automotive-related items and also operate a hobby business that caters to auto racing memorabilia from the 1930s to ’70s.

I find myself rooting for the guys from “American Pickers” when they uncover a great old piece of petroliana and dicker with the owner to get a lower price. Been there, haggled that. When they fail to negotiate an agreeable price and sulk away empty handed, I feel their pain. But soon, the disappointment is in the rearview mirror and the adrenaline surges as the hunt begins anew for the next treasure. I’ve always believed that in collecting, the anticipation of an acquisition offers equal reward to the actual acquisition.

In my decades of searching through automotive swap meets, antique shops and estate sales across the country, I’ve come across many interesting items — both automotive and non-automotive related. I’ve featured a few of my automotive toy-related discoveries in print articles published in Old Cars Weekly, but creating this web-exclusive column allows me to present my automotive findings in a more consistent and broader fashion. I will focus equally on both the collectible subject and its investment potential (and/or pitfalls).

The column will become a regular feature of the Old Cars Weekly website. People in the collecting fields are extremely reliant on the internet, and it’s the main medium in which they devote their search for information.

Having now properly introduced this new column, I’d like to launch this initial outing with an interesting category that involves alcohol. How’s that for out-of-the-gate drama?

Total investment in this trio of good-condition (but empty) decanters was $30. Each represents a different collecting theme, such as race car or antique automobile, which can provide a beginning collector with a starting point rather than trying to obtain them all and overspend.

Total investment in this trio of good-condition (but empty) decanters was $30. Each represents a different collecting theme, such as race car or antique automobile, which can provide a beginning collector with a starting point rather than trying to obtain them all and overspend.

Whiskey wagons

There was a time when getting caught hauling “hooch” in a souped-up car earned a one-way ride to prison. Transporting moonshine created in backwoods stills was highly frowned upon by our federal government, whose agents were termed “revenuers” by those running the ’shine and trying to outrun the law.

Now, hard liquor production has been a large and legal industry in our country for many decades. Major distillers have gone “mainstream,” to the point of being associated with sporting event sponsorships, such as NASCAR, and having gift shops and group tours in their plants. One of the offshoots of this “mainstreaming” of hard liquor has been the proliferation of collectibles associated with the producers of these adult beverages. From monogrammed hunting knives to neon signs to upscale apparel, there’s little that hasn’t been tried to capture the favor of a wider audience.

Within this diverse lineup of hard-liquor collectibles, though, one category stands out as both being early to the fold as well as gaining wide-spread acceptance among collectors — both imbibers and teetotalers. That category is the decanter.

While there are countless categories of hard liquor decanters, this column is devoted to those possessing an automotive theme. And there are many.

The three decanters illustrating this column are from three different distillers: Double Springs, Ezra Brooks and McCormick. The Double Springs decanter, from 1972, is a 1911 Mercer raceabout. The Ezra Brooks example, from ’71, is a dirt track sprint car and the McCormick representative, from ’75, is an Ararat (Kansas City, Mo., builder of Shriner’s Sand Buggies) dune buggy. Each could represent a collection direction, such as race cars only or antique automobiles only, etc., or would be fine additions to a general-themed automotive decanter collection. That is what my collection consists of, as each of these examples has excellent detail and eye-appealing color.

The best part of decanter collecting is that it is a budget-friendly pursuit. My total investment in the three pictured decanters — all in excellent display condition — is $30. A random internet search comprised of more than 50 various automotive-themed decanters from different distillers found asking prices for the majority of between $10 and $60. Many of these were offered in “sealed” (full) condition and several included their original packaging.

Ezra Brooks #21 sprint car decanter from 1971. Features a removable tail section with cork stopper.

Ezra Brooks #21 sprint car decanter from 1971. Features a removable tail section with cork stopper.

One of the big decisions of collecting decanters is what to do with the contents if purchased full (whether new or second-hand). That may not sound correct, but keep in mind if these decanters are full and will be stored in a family environment (kids, grandkids, pets), having lockable, glass-fronted display cabinets is a good idea to avoid underage inebriation and/or dealing with potential alcohol poisoning. Decanters are fragile, so keeping them inaccessible to young children and pets is also a good idea to protect their longevity.

For those with youngsters and/or pets unable to afford secure display cabinetry, pouring out a decanter’s contents into a clean glass container to lock away elsewhere or gift to a friend is an alternative. Regardless of whether you drink hard liquor or not, pouring perfectly good aged whiskey down the drain is wasteful.

Also not having enclosed cabinetry to display your decanters brings up another down side to this type of collectible. Dust. Decanters displayed in the open are dust magnets. When I purchased the three examples illustrating this column from a 50-plus decanter collection at an estate sale, they were coated with both dust and a filmy residue that may have been caused by the previous owner being a smoker. It all came off quite easily by thoroughly wiping each decanter with a non-caustic disposable wipe infused with glass cleaner. Any cleaning product that contains harsh chemicals and/or gritty-type particles should be avoided.So let’s review the category of automotive-themed decanter collecting:

McCormick Ararat dune buggy decanter from 1975. Middle of folded cloth top has the hole for cork stopper, which has been removed from this example.

McCormick Ararat dune buggy decanter from 1975. Middle of folded cloth top has the hole for cork stopper, which has been removed from this example.

Pluses

* Most decanters can be purchased second hand inexpensively, making this an attractive area of collecting for those on a budget. Sources to search for decanters are many and include: internet, automotive swap meets, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales and antique shops.

* There are many niche sub-categories of collectible decanter within the overall automotive-themed category. A few are race cars, antique automobiles, ’50s cars, Corvettes, sports cars, etc. A collector also has the option to acquire by distiller (Jim Beam, Ezra Brooks, McCormick, Double Springs, etc.).

* Full decanters (whether purchased new or second hand) offer a premium, aged hard liquor that can be enjoyed as is or gifted to a friend who drinks hard liquor.

Double Springs 1911 Mercer raceabout decanter from 1972, with hidden cork stopper exposed.

Double Springs 1911 Mercer raceabout decanter from 1972, with hidden cork stopper exposed.

Minuses

* Full decanters must be displayed in a manner not accessible to children and/or pets to avoid accidental inebriation or alcohol poisoning.

* Decanters are fragile. If displayed where accessible to children and/or pets, they are prone to breakage.

* Decanters displayed openly are also prone to gathering dust and smoker’s residue if kept in a smoking household. Regular dusting/cleaning is a necessity to maintain top appearance. Cleaners must be non-caustic and non-abrasive to avoid harming decanter surfaces and colors.

* The contents of a full decanter purchased second hand may be suspect in its drinkability. If in doubt, toss it out.

Want to learn even more about decanters? Enjoy this article about figural whiskey bottles from Antique Trader, our sister site.

 

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2 Responses to Collecting Curiosities: Whiskey on wheels

  1. Robert Bacchi says:

    Hello Ron,
    Recently I gave one of these decanters to a close friend, who has a “man cave” with all automotive memerorbilia and lots of it. The decanter is a 1923 Stutz Bearcat that contained Jack Daniels whiskey. It is quite large, measuring about 14″-15″ long and a guesstimate on the age is 30 or more years.
    Any idea what the value of this item may be? I hope it’s fairly valuable, so I can tell him and get a free lunch!
    Thanks, Robert

  2. JayCee says:

    Ron,
    If the tax seal is still intact over the spout portion of the car bottle, the liquor is untouched. Enjoy.

    JayCee

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