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What Is a Ship Decanter?

By B. Turner
Updated May 16, 2024
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A ship decanter is a container that was historically used to hold liquor on-board a sailing ship. Today, a ship decanter can be found in homes and restaurants, where it is used as an alternative to wine bottles or carafes. These containers are prized for their classic style, which adds a touch of elegance to any table setting. While decanters are commonly associated with wine, they may also be used to hold spirits ranging from scotch to cognac. Antique ship decanters are particularly prized today for their attractive design and rich use of materials.

The traditional ship decanter features a very wide base that curves in towards a long, narrow flute. This large base was designed to give the container added stability while the ship was riding the waves at sea. These decanters may have a rounded base, or a square one, with squared models often referred to as port decanters. While most ship decanters utilized a long neck, or flute, shorter units are also available.

The earliest ship decanter vessels were made from glass or ceramics. Later, craftsmen turned to metals like silver or bronze, as well as natural clay. By the time of the Renaissance in Europe, glass decanters had once again become widely used. Since that period, the average ship decanter was made from glass or leaded crystal, with elaborate etchings used to add decoration to the container. Ceramic units from this period often featured complex scenes of politics, war, religion, or other topics of the time.

Historically, a decanter would have been found only in the captain's quarters of a ship. Today, these decanters are found on both ships and land, where they are used to store and serve alcohol. A decanter differs from a traditional carafe in that it features a stopper or plug. The stopper allows users to plug the bottle, which keeps air out and preserves the taste of the liquor. These stoppers often feature elaborate designs of their own, including monograms and crests.

Compared to other liquor containers of the time, a ship decanter could sit stably on a table, though it would likely have been secured during rough patches. Despite their stability, they also offered a sense of elegance and style. The shape of a ship decanter may also help to improve the taste of liquor by allowing users to separate out the heavy sediment found at the bottom of a standard wine bottle. Decanting also aerates wine and liquor, which releases aromatic compounds to improve taste and smell.

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