Let’s Decant With This Decanter, It’ll Be So Fancy

I have been blessed with a collection of decanters in all shapes and sizes, and all for different purposes. My aunt gave me a couple, my friends have given me a couple here and there as well. The result is an impressive amount of glass in a small New York City apartment, and a very impressive-seeming home bar to boot. Sure, some of those decanters are made for wine, but a lot of them are made for liquor. Specifically for brandy, whisky or cognac. It’s that second category I’d like to talk about today, the day that I’m going to clean and fill a decanter and show you how to do that. And why to do that.

Why Use a Decanter?

When you’re decanting wine, the answer is obvious: some red wines change significantly when you let them breathe outside the bottle and their taste changes for the better, and any sediment present during the bottling process is left in the bottle. Those decanters are the big-bellied sort. The decanters made for liquor generally make me feel like I’m in a Jane Austen novel and look somewhere in the family of this:

That’s the one I’m going to clean and fill today, in fact. Why decant whisky? Well, the truth is, if you put a twelve-year bottle of whisky into this decanter and let it breathe for an hour, a day, a month…it’s still going to taste like a twelve-year bottle of whisky. Once whisky’s out of the barrel, it doesn’t change. So why do it?

Well, I can tell you why they used to. It was vulgar to pour directly out of the bottle. Totes “lower class” (vom). Or! If you really wanna get classist about it, a tantalus, the device shown below, was apparently used to keep “servants and younger sons” out of the fine whisky. It locks so only the person with the key can flip the front and open the decanters.

But I can tell you why I do it: Using a decanter feels like tucking my favorite distillations into a fine bed. It makes my bar look awesome. Decanters are not just for Don Draper and fictional TV presidents! We can treat ourselves sometimes. We can have a gorgeous decanter that makes us feel nice and put our favorite whisky in it and share it with our friends.

How To Clean a Decanter!

It looks more intimidating to clean a decanter than it actually is! Because decanters are a) thin-necked and b) often delicate, much ado is made of getting them to sparkle from the inside out. But I am here to tell you that you need only two things and a sink. And those two things are:

Salt and vinegar, like potato chips. Rinse the decanter first to get any remaining liquid out, then pour a teaspoon of white vinegar in. Fill the rest with water and let it sit for a hot minute. Then pour it out, and fill the bottom of the decanter with salt. Then VERY VERY CAREFULLY shake the decanter. That’s right. Shake it. The salt is abrasive enough that it’ll residue out of nooks and crannies, but not abrasive enough to scratch your decanter. When you’re finished, pour a little more vinegar in and fill the decanter with water. Dump it all out and rinse a few times. This will result in a squeaky clean decanter, ready for filling.

In this case, I’m going to fill with:

Actually one of my campers is visiting my city right now and brought me this whisky (HI ABBY THANK YOU!). I figure I’ll give it a nice, nice home in my decanter.

Beware of Leaded Crystal!

But wait, why aren’t I filling that tantalus? Hold your horses, folks. When you’ve got antique crystal, likely you’ve got the one thing that you shouldn’t store alcohol in: lead. Not all crystal contains lead, but most of the older stuff does. You can tell you have crystal if, when you hold the decanter up to the light, the patterns cut in it create a prism effect. The decanter I filled with The Irishman is glass; the two in the tantalus are crystal. You can test for lead a couple of different ways, with a surface test or a water-leach test.

In conclusion: give yourself a fancy time, don’t give yourself lead poisoning.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. These are so classy, I decant even.

    Also I love the “nyah nyah” connotations of naming that hands-off-my-liquor thing after Tantalus.

  2. Ah I love this, both the decanters and the article!
    Can I ask a practical question: how do you remember what you put in what decanter? (Please teach me how to be fancy :) )

    • This has always been my question, too! I feel like a masking-tape label would detract from the fanciness of the decanter…

    • Decanter labels. Older ones will usually be metal plates on chains to hang around the neck, but you can also make them with chalkboard paint and wood, etc. They are easy to order online or if you’re crafty you can make them!

  3. i had a decanter i put gin into with some fresh rosemary (rosemary-infused g&ts are a joy). highly recommend, though it will start to taste like a savoury meal if it sits for more than a month.

  4. I recent bought and cleaned four decanters for my liquor to put them on a beautiful bar cart. But I noticed as I was cleaning them that pouring water out of them was very sloppy! Is there a secret to pouring your liquor into a glass without getting it everywhere? Thanks!

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