The dusty decanters and older bottles are very much in vogue. There aren’t many reviews for this old stuff because most people can’t get their hands on a similar bottle so many of those reviews just would not be relevant. I’ve tried my share of older product, and there is certainly some upside to opening a bottle that is (potentially) older than you. But there is also quite a bit of downside. You may find the “basement funk” and “moldy cardboard box” descriptions enjoyable while some may find them undrinkable. There is quite a variability in the quality and quantity of juice in these dusties; particularly when you enter the world of porcelain decanters.
You may have a friend that reminds you to “be careful of the lead” when venturing into the porcelain decanter realm. Interestingly, the symptoms of lead poisoning and drunkenness are similar, so if your buzz continues well after it should, you may want to get checked by a medical professional. I have never personally met or heard of anyone getting lead poisoning from drinking whiskey. This seems to be a whiskey old wives’ tale that has perpetrated the fear of the old into the minds of the new. I did purchase a couple of home lead test kits that were great at confirming my tap water is safe but were pretty worthless when testing the whiskey. I’m not a chemist, but all the various tests proved inconclusive when testing whiskey, even of varying proofs. The best guidance is moderation in general.
Most of the cautionary writing on lead poisoning and whiskey from the post-war era is directed at crystal decanters. Those old crystal decanters seep lead into their contents. Even a short duration of time can yield substantially unsafe levels of lead, so crystal decanters are best avoided altogether or poured into just before serving and emptied just afterward. This seems like a tremendous amount of work for the presentation of a whiskey when entertaining guests.
The porcelain decanters were primarily a lead risk when the decanter was fired incorrectly and the glaze used to color the porcelain contained lead. Although lead-based paints were banned for use in homes in 1978 in the United States, it is possible lead-based paints were used in such decorative work as porcelain decanter glaze in the 1970s and 1980s. Almost all whiskey decanters used for wide commercial distribution were professionally kiln fired and inspected. Certainly, some of these porcelain decanters must have been fired incorrectly.
To get some perspective, I went to the most experienced source on consuming long-stored porcelain decanter whiskey that I know: Mike Jasinski. You may know him better on social media as the Bourbonturtle. The guy drinks forty-year-old whiskey on a Tuesday just because it’s a Tuesday. I asked Mike a few questions and thought it best to post our chat virtually unedited:
Matt: What has been your experience with porcelain decanters – good/bad/varied?
Mike: My experience is that they are incredibly variable mostly due to (bad) corks.
Matt: The word is that porcelain decanters decay over time.
Mike: I don’t think the porcelain decays over time. I think some just weren’t fired right from the beginning which is why you see a lot of sealed but empty decanters.
Matt: What’s the best way you’ve found to filter from porcelain into the glass?
Mike: For filtration, I only do it if the cork breaks upon extraction. Then I just push it in and pour the liquid through a tea strainer.
Matt: So, if a 30 to 40-year-old decanter is still full then it likely was fired and sealed correctly, and the cork is the main issue which you can address by straining?
Mike: 100%. Storage is a huge, huge, huge issue with decanters even more so than bottles. I have had a bunch that came out of crappy damp musty basements that taste crappy and musty. My only advice I give for decanters is to not over pay as you have to remember when they were being sold the goal was to dump a lot of whiskey quickly. People shelled out the cash for the collectible bottle and not necessarily for the whiskey within. So, the distilleries didn’t always put their best whiskey into them.
Given the likelihood that the empty porcelain decanters are the likely culprits for lead poisoning, an empty decanter may be a blessing in disguise. Be wary of low fill, sealed decanters. It’s likely not the best juice from the distillery and tasting results are widely varied. This was the main reason listed by Bill Thomas for avoiding porcelain decanters in the relentless acquisition of great whiskey for Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. Given the quantity of old whiskey out there, Bill decided a long time ago not to buy porcelain decanters at all.
I attended a meetup and bottle share back in January at the Steelespeakeasy in Nashville, TN. There were over 20 bottles in a wide variety of proofs, ages, and mash bills. Some notables were E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving, 1970s Stitzel-Weller, and 1990s Old Grand Dad 114. The consensus winner of the night was a 1974 dusty porcelain decanter filled with 86 proof, 15-year old whiskey distilled in the 50s by Jim Beam! Granted, we might open fifty of the same release and not get a similar result, but there is some upside potential in the dusty porcelain decanter realm. The famous Old Crow chessmen decanters may be the most famous and well regarded as consistently delivering a great tasting experience. The king, queen, bishop, knight, castle, and pawns made up a thirty-two-piece set complete with a rug-like chessboard. But even these vessels stored in the wrong conditions with years of exposure could produce low or no yield and a musty flavor. So heed Mike’s advice – don’t overspend. There’s nothing wrong with taking a flyer on a cheap porcelain decanter. Drink curious. And be careful of the lead.
Had an experience with a dusty porcelain whiskey decanter? Tell us about it in the comments.