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Cocktail shakers

These decadent design icons of the 1920s and 1930s are stirring up interest among both art-deco collectors and modern mixologists, says Alice Lascelles

November 22 2012
Alice Lascelles

A drink well served is worth two that lack in presentation.” So said William Schmidt, author of one of the world’s earliest, most respected cocktail books, The Flowing Bowl, in 1892. He was right: a truly great cocktail pleases the eye as much as the palate, beginning with the tantalising rituals employed in its preparation – rituals that, as a growing number of epicureans are realising, become all the more alchemical when performed with the very object that first popularised those recipes.

“Vintage shakers are coming back into fashion,” says Daniel Bexfield, an antiques dealer in London’s Burlington Arcade. “I think it’s partly because people now choose to entertain more at home, and also due to the current revival in classic cocktails from the 1920s and 1930s.”

While the earliest cocktail shakers date back to the 1870s, their golden age is still considered to be the interwar decades, when the likes of Tiffany, Asprey and Gorham were producing designs modelled on tanks, planes, penguins, polar bears, fire extinguishers and artillery shells, combining Prohibition-era ingenuity with postwar frivolity.

Few boast a more jaw-dropping selection than the Pullman Gallery in St James’s, a top-dollar shrine of silver shakers presided over by Simon Khachadourian, author of leading guide The Cocktail Shaker (Philip Wilson, 2000). “When Prohibition ended in late 1933 there was an explosion of designs in silver, silver plate and chrome, and these still sit very well in a modern interior,” he says. “And they’re a damn sight more fun than a pair of Georgian candlesticks.”

Some of the knockout designs at Pullman include the Boston Lighthouse (£28,000), a huge edifice created in 1927 by the International Silver Company; an original 1930s Napier Penguin by Emil Schuelke (£3,600); the rare 1932 Asprey Fire “Thirst” Extinguisher (£8,500), and one of the most sought-after shakers of all time, the large Zeppelin Aeroplane set by JA Henckels (£75,000). This art-deco masterpiece was made to celebrate the Graf Zeppelin’s first intercontinental flight in 1928 and comes with 20 components: cups, measures, a spirit flask and even a nut holder. Khachadourian also has smaller “travelling” versions from £12,500.

The Zeppelin is wonderfully typical of the ingenuity that characterises so many shakers of this era, designed for covert drinking as well as glamorous travel. In England, where Prohibition did not prevail, shaker portability was prized by a generation that enjoyed “making drinks at the races and at outdoor concerts”, says London dealer Andrew Nebbett, whose current stock boasts a gorgeous 1930s pigskin-cased example by Dunhill (£725), comprising everything a roving mixologist could require. One high-profile fan of cocktails on-the-go was Wallis Simpson, whose travelling kit sold at the famous Sotheby’s New York auction in 1998 for about $50,000.

Beauty and practicality are also combined in one of the most copied shaker designs of all time, Asprey’s Tells-U-How, released in silver plate in 1932 and in the much rarer sterling silver in 1949. So named because of its rotating outer sleeve that, when turned, reveals an inner gilt sleeve engraved with recipes for a series of classic cocktails, it has produced a multitude of cheap, badly made knock-offs – therefore, invest in this model with care. Yet while the vast majority of vintage shakers are silver plate, collectable models can also be found in glass (such as the cobalt blue, green and silver-inlayed black glass shakers by West Virginia Glass Specialty), and pastel- or brightly-hued Bakelite – a highly rare example of which is currently available at Wax Antiques in London’s Islington, a hotspot for vintage cocktail accoutrements, for around £850.

“It amazes me that something 80 to 90 years old can be so contemporary looking, functional and beautiful,” says William Crouse, a retired general partner of American biotech venture capitalists HealthCare Ventures and a prominent collector of art-deco artefacts. “I love the clean, modern, stylised lines and streamlined design of the period,” he explains, singling out a fluted Kay Fisker and a rare Lurelle Guild as particular favourites from his collection of more than 50 shakers.

Possibly because of the strong cocktail bloodline, it’s the Americans who tend to be key collectors, with other names including Arrow Electronics vice chairman John C Waddell, part of whose collection is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Visakay, whose website, Visakay.com, and book, Vintage Bar Ware (Collector Books, 1997), are key resources for collectors around the world. Having started his collection in the flea markets of New York, the self-effacing former sheet metal worker went on to amass more than 2,200 designs, 29 of which sold at Phillips de Pury New York in 2001 for nearly $250,000.

“There hasn’t been a major auction of one person’s collection since,” says James Zemaitis, senior vice president of 20th Century Design at Sotheby’s New York, and a collector in his own right who favours the Manhattan by Norman Bel Geddes for mixing cocktails. “But what I do every year is include masterworks of cocktail shaker design in our design auctions,” he says, promising that we can expect some “major shakers”, such as the 1930s Nocturne set (estimated at $10,000-$15,000), going under the hammer this month.