The Gentleman’s Flask
Of all gentlemanly accessories, the flask is arguably the most fascinating: It has been known to fortuitously—and elegantly—shield men from bullet and blade to the heart; in the minds of some people, a man who carries a flask is undeniably a drunkard, albeit a debonnaire one; and for yet other people, there is no more refined a way to “correct” or “adjust” coffee than with Irish whisky or Caribbean rum dribbled from a flask—of sterling silver, of course.
The concept of the flask—a container for conveniently carrying liquids on one’s person—is as old as human history. Even in hunter-gatherer societies man must have concocted ways to conveniently carry life-sustaining water during their hunts and their forages for food. As such, the earliest flasks were probably made of animal skins or gourds. During the Middle Ages, devotees would make their pilgrimages to the Holy Land with “pilgrims’ bottles,” containers typically made of earthenware (but also of leather and other materials) and suspended from the shoulder or around the neck, with a rope passed through loops at the neck of the bottle. Pilgrims’ bottles eventually evolved into canteens (another name for flasks), popular with soldiers and scouts.
But the liquor flask (also called “hip flask” or “kidney flask”) as it is known today—the relatively flat, palm-sized vessel, typically made of stainless steel or sterling silver and slightly concave on one side and correspondingly convex on the other—first became popular as a male accessory in the 18th century.
The first 18th -century flasks were made primarily of glass, silver, or pewter. In the early 1800s, when glass windows came into use, many of the glass-making companies were managed by or were employers of Freemasons since they, too, controlled much of the building construction that utilized glass windows. Glass flasks were made as byproduct of the window-glass industry; and when Masonic Lodges would meet in local taverns, they were served food and drink after their meetings but were required to bring their own liquor. So the Masons used glass flasks to comply with the B.Y.O.B. directive.
The classic concave/convex, palm-sized flask is the result of both form and function. So that the vessel could be carried on one’s person, its concave side was designed to fit against the natural curves of the human body: a man’s chest (which led to “pocket flask”); a waistline (hence, “kidney flask”); a thigh, held in place by a garter (the result, “hip flask”), or tucked away inside the carrier’s boot, worn against his lower leg (the inspiration for “bootleg”). And the relatively small size (Most classic liquor flasks can hold between four and eight fluid ounces.) enabled the carrier to discretely transport his spirit, invisible to the naked eye.
Once the relatively small size of flasks was established in the 18th century, gentlemen began demanding luxurious flasks. Enter: silver. And because silver was believed to be able to ionize liquor, “cleansing” the precious liquid in the process, silver became the material of choice for gentlemen of means. Pewter, “poor man’s ‘silver,’ ” was also used. But with time, it became known that the lead content of pewter produces unhealthy results.
The heyday of the flask came during the first half of the 20th century, with Prohibition laws taking effect in several countries in Europe: the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (1914 – 1925); Norway (1916 – 1927); Finland (1919 – 1932), for example, and in the United States from 1920 to 1933. In the United States, when the “Roaring Twenties” ushered in the era of excess, society simply was not going to consume less alcohol! So as the manufacturing, storage (in barrels or bottles), transportation, sale, possession, and consumption of alcohol became illegal, socialites sought solace in their inconspicuous flasks.
By 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition in the United States, the need for flasks declined. But their place as an elegant, stylish accessory had already been secured. And to this day, there are few gentlemanly gestures more genteel than a perfectly timed, effortlessly executed swig from a flask of sterling silver.
Where there are flasks, there is flask-etiquette:
-The carrying of a flask containing alcohol is illegal in jurisdictions that prohibit the carrying of liquor in “open containers.” Even if shut tight with its cap of luxurious sterling, a flask is regarded as an “open container” for legal purposes, and “flashing one’s flask” in public could get one arrested.
-The traditional liquor used for filling flasks is whiskey. But rum, brandy, cognac, grappa, sherry, and port, for example, are also used. Any spirit or liquor that is drunk neat is appropriate for a flask. But because of the small opening, making the cleaning of flasks somewhat challenging, liquors that leave no residue tend to be most suitable. (Flasks should be washed with hot, soapy water then thoroughly rinsed with clean water before being turned upside-down to drain and dry. A pipe cleaner or some similar device may also be used to clean a flask).
-Flasks are generally sold with appropriately sized funnels for spill-free filling. A gentleman who uses a precious flask should secure a precious funnel for use when filling his flask with precious liquid. Antique funnels may be acquired from online bidding sites such as www.ebay.com
-Though flasks are today made of safe materials such as stainless steel, silver, glass, and plastic (which is excellent for going unnoticed by metal detectors!), the contents of a flask are best enjoyed when drunk on the day of the filling. The general rule, however, is that the contents should be drunk within three days.
-It is correct to drink directly from a flask, avoiding “backwash” of course! But the contents of a flask may also be poured into a glass or cup containing other liquids (such as coffee ) or even onto foods (such as ice cream). When amongst intimate friends, a flask may be passed, person-to-person, each taking a swig. In more formal or reserved settings, the contents may be poured into various glasses for a toast. A flask is regarded as a personal, private accessory. But when in the company of other intimate friends, a gentleman would offer his flask to those in his company.
-A flask is designed for discreet drinking. And it should be handled as such. (Though one should not use a flask as if engaged in some illegal or clandestine act). Like the tipping of a hat, rising for a lady, or offering to light a lover’s cigarette, a sip from a flask is an acquired skill, perfected with practice. A man who uses a flask should do so in a second-natured, nonchalant manner. He should look as if he were born with a silver flask in his hand or as if he drank his milk as a child from a flask.
-Occasionally, flasks, being hollow vessels, dent. And because the typical flask-opening is proportionately small, access to the inside of the vessel for repairing dents can be a daunting task—even for professionals. One of the world’s foremost restorers of luxurious silver items (including flasks, pens, cigarette cases, ink wells, men’s vanity sets, etc.) is Jeff Herman of Rhode Island, USA. (www.hermansilver.com )