Living with Antiques: Hold Your Liquor

From antique beer bottles and vintage mini-bottles to absinthe memorabilia, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum has a vast array of boozy items on display
cheryl gerber photographs

I’ve always been fascinated by unusual antique collections. The possibilities are endless. But a recent visit to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, or SoFAB, really grabbed my attention. Artfully placed amid the antique cookware, accessories and stacks of books and utensils were three collections of antique liquor bottles and accouterments.

Who knew that collectors could be so passionate about booze? But then, this is New Orleans.

The first collection to capture my imagination involves all things absinthe. Absinthe has rituals and traditions unlike any other alcoholic beverage. Many believe it may have been invented by an 1800s physician as a panacea for illnesses. A century later, it was falsely deemed poisonous and banned from the U.S. It remains mysterious today.

SoFAB’s collection of antique glassware, bottles, spoons, fountains and plates dazzle the brain. Topettes, cruet-like glass containers, mark each “dose,” as servings are called. The collection is on long-term loan to the museum from New Orleans collectors Ray Bordelon and his brother B. J., who began purchasing absinthe antiques a dozen years ago.

“The whole collection began when I found a simple, flat, trowel-looking spoon with diamond holes punched in it,” Ray Bordelon says. “It was in a local antique shop, and I’d never seen anything like it. One question led to another, and I began researching and collecting.” Today his vast array rivals that of the great museums of the world, and what is displayed at SoFAB is only a fraction of his wares.

Just across the way from the absinthe display are custom-made shelves bearing more than 1,200 miniature liquor bottles, once owned by Carl Henry Allen, a bridge contractor from Elton, La. The small bottles, many still bearing the beverage and with labels intact, were known as “straights.” Beginning in  the 1960s, Allen purchased the bottles on airplanes when he traveled the country on business.

Many of the vessels are in the shapes of popular figures of the time and are made of bisque, delft and porcelain. “My father was basically a teetotaler,” says Carol Allen, whose family donated the bottles to the museum. “We never had alcohol in the house. But he loved collecting these bottles and left them unopened. Dad was always on the search, especially for the bisque bottles. He’d order many of the fancy figurine containers from Ski Country Bottles as soon as they were available. It became a lifelong hunt for him!”

Carl Allen eventually had finely crafted cabinets made for his home in which he displayed his small treasures. These are in SoFAB, as well.

A third collection consists of more than 12,000 antique beer bottles. Although only a small fraction is on display, the bottles vary in sizes, shapes and colors. The earliest beer bottles are made of crockery and are traced to the early 1900s. Heavy and without labels, they could be mistaken for antique milk bottles. Moving on from these are the mid-century square brown Jax Brewery bottles and later long- necks.

“All of these collections tell an important story of how liquor was made and when,” says Liz Williams, director of SoFAB. “These bottles are 3-dimensional documents that validate a part of our country’s culinary and foodways cultures. They tell us about a bygone era and how we lived and what we drank.

“From the absinthe collection, we can validate how the Victorians loved utensils and had one for every conceivable task,” she continues. “From the miniature liquor bottles, we can see what many of the popular themes of the day were and what alcoholic beverages were popular. From the beer bottles, we can see the evolution of bottle-making, labeling and refrigeration. It’s all very exciting to food historians and antique collectors.”

For some collectors, the beginning of a passion starts with a single object, as with Ray and B.J. Bordelon and Carl Allen. The items don’t have to be costly or rare; they just have to light something within you.
“From the moment I held that simple spoon, I have been on a quest to know and own everything I can about absinthe,” says Ray Bordelon, who even built a replica of the Old Absinthe House Bar in his elegant Uptown home. “Collecting is a giant hunt. It’s never a chore. I’ve chased some of these items for years, and I’ve always loved the chase.”

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