At Whisky.Auction we take every opportunity to improve our knowledge of old and rare bottles. In our day job we handle (largely) twentieth century bottles but we also jump at the chance to step back further in time. We took a private tour of the Museum of London’s storage facilities in East London, under the expert tutelage of Dr. Danielle Thom, whose wonderful job title, ‘Curator of Making’, is surely up there with Glenmorangie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden’s ‘Head of Whisky Creation’ in terms of sheer cool.
The museum boasts a dizzying 1.5 million items in total, of which roughly 10% are on display at any one time at their Docklands and London Wall sites. Dr Thom’s approach to the objects and artifacts under her care is one that as auctioneers (for whom authenticity is everything), we could fully relate to: ‘we’re low intervention – the condition (of an item) is part of its story.’ Other museums, we were told, are sometimes inclined to tidy up or clean items, for example to glue handles back on cups and glasses, or re-upholster old furniture for aesthetic purposes.
Naturally our focus was on items with a connection to alcohol and these were some of the highlights:
Jacobite tasting glasses (post 1745/1750s) from illegal drinking clubs which were used to discreetly toast the alternative ‘King over the water’ behind closed doors.
Ritualised drinking glasses for private clubs: used for pledging allegiance, toasting and ceremonial purposes (some of these had us reaching for our i-phones like naughty schoolchildren due to their comedically phallic nature).
Truly ancient two thousand year old ‘red ware’ urns: unglazed earthenware vessels used in all probability for storing beer and wine.
An 1880 whisky urn (and accompanying branded landlord’s decorative flask) from the Rose & Crown pub in Hammersmith: basically an old ‘optic’ type of instrument used for measuring out spirit for Victorian patrons.
A spirits urn from the era of George III, with decorations that were possibly grapes, and presumably for the purpose of storing brandy.
Items from London’s last glass factory of note, Whitefriars, some of which dated back to the early-mid eighteenth century.
In all, these items served as a reminder that distillates, beer and wine have been at the center of much of human culture for many centuries, serving to refresh, invigorate and bond those who shared a dram.
(Oh, and we also learned that teacups didn’t have handles until the 1770s.)