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Drink in American whiskey history from kitsch collectible decanters at SF’s Bottle Club Pub

About 15 years ago. Brian Sheehy “caught the collecting bug” scouring antique fairs and flea markets for authentic Prohibition-era artifacts to fill Bourbon & Branch, the San Francisco speakeasy that would redefine the cocktails in the city.

As he and his team at Future Bars continued to open new drinking places, the search for interesting decor continued, with one theme that kept coming up: the iconic decorative whiskey decanters of mid-century Americana. He bought them and stored them without hesitation. Then, serendipity entered the opening night of Sheehy’s downtown underground bar. Local Edit: A woman who had worked in the same Hearst building for 50 years walked into the bar to celebrate her retirement and she offered her late husband’s bottle collection, a stash of 100 of those same collectible decanters, whiskey still intact.

“At the end of the night we opened one and tasted it and it was phenomenal. It blew our minds and we knew we were on to something. So we put them in storage and said if we ever had enough of those carafes, opened a bar for us,” Sheehy recalled.

Then fate struck in 2020 when Izzy’s Steakhouse restaurateur Sam DuVall passed away. His daughter called and offered her father’s collection of hundreds of decanters. This year, all of those forgotten pieces of American history have taken their place on the top shelf—well, on every shelf—of Future Bars’ latest venture, Bottle Club Pub.

The history of these decanters dates back to Prohibition when everyone drank whisky. But that all changed after World War II, when troops returned with a taste of flavors and drinks from around the world. Interest in wine, beer, rum, and vodka grew, and American whiskey distilleries found themselves with far too much product and no one to drink it. Desperate to offload the excess, Jim Beam created special bottles, commemorating the brand’s home state of Kentucky, to give away as gifts. Commemorative decanters became widespread and people started collecting. The very first “bottle club” was born in Berkeley in 1952, followed shortly after by a second in San Francisco. The bottles had their heyday until the 1980s.

It is estimated that around 3,000 unique whiskey decanters exist today; Bottle Club Pub, which is decorated with Mad Men vintage atmospheres and advertisements, boasts a collection of some 1,600 decanters that serve as both display and containers for cocktails and large punch bowls.

Check out some of the most notable decanters from the Bottle Club Pub collection.

(Courtesy of Bottle Club Pub)

Jim Beam Kentucky State decanter, 1967

Although Jim Beam made his first Kentucky decanter in the 1950s, Sheehy explains that 1967 was a banner year when decanters really took off. He sees this bottle as a glimpse into how the brand defined Bluegrass state priorities at the time, which included tobacco and coal. “The question is, if you were to redo this decanter in 2022, what would Jim Beam and Kentucky put in it now?”

(Courtesy of Bottle Club Pub)

Jim Beam Bottle + Club Foxes Specialties

In 1958, the first Bottle Club Association held a convention. There were around 200 people in attendance, but as it grew in popularity and reached 1,000 attendees, the group decided to make their own jugs. Although Sheehy was unable to identify the year this foxy decanter duo was made, he does note the accessories – the lady fox holds a rolling pin behind her back while the male fox holds a cane – as a clue to their time of origin.

(Courtesy of Bottle Club Pub)

100th anniversary of the America’s Cup, 1970

This decanter was made to mark the 100th anniversary of the America’s Cup, which was held in Newport, Rhode Island. The winners of each race over the years are listed on the back of the bottle. Sheehy was particularly excited about this bottle because it contains the highly sought after Pappy Van Winkle whiskey, made by the Stitzel-Weller distillery. If anyone found that bottle completely sealed today, they would have “strike gold,” he says. The bottom of the decanter reads “Old Fitzgerald”, which Sheehy says is the name of the distillery where Stitzel-Weller moved to in the 1980s. A history treat for true whiskey lovers.

(Courtesy of Bottle Club Pub)

RNC, 1962 / DNC, 1976

Even the Republican and Democratic National Conventions got in on the jug action, giving away special bottles shaped like elephants and donkeys to candidates and party members. The 1962 Elephant Decanter is also a great example of how distilleries tried to pass off old whiskey (which people didn’t want at the time) as younger than it actually was. They aged it by months, “100 months” being more ambiguous than eight years. At the 1976 DNC, there were two versions of the Democratic donkey.

(Courtesy of Bottle Club Pub)

Kentucky Derby, 1969

Another 100-month-old Jim Beam whiskey, this time for the 95th Kentucky Derby in 1969. The back of the decanter calls out Aristides, the very first winner in 1875.

Above all liquor, 1969

This one speaks with its time. Sheehy explains that as decanters became popular, companies such as, in this case, Chicago-area liquor store Foremost Liquors, began approaching distilleries to commission their own designs. These would often be offered to the top seller in the store.

// The Bottle Club Pub is open 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 555 Geary St. (Union Square), bottleclubpub.com.