In the last issue of Indulge, we took an in-depth look at different whiskies from across the globe, focusing mainly on its homeland—Scotland. However, wherever the product that you love to quaff is made, be it Delhi or Dundee, it has somehow travelled great distances to make its way into your home for you to happily enjoy it at your leisure.
But if, like the iconic Johnnie Walker striding man, you just love to get out and about and you want to take your precious hooch with you, there is one very handy solution—the hip flask. Round and thin or square and fat, engraved with a distillery logo or leather bound in club colours, the hip flask provides the perfect travelling companion. So how did this small but perfectly formed object develop into such an iconic item?
Well, the earliest versions of such containers were first seen way back in the medieval era. Travellers would carry water bottles made of leather that were designed to be slung from the saddle of their horses. Flat on one side and bulbous on the other, this increased the carrying capacity to maximum without causing undue irritation to their trusty steed.
In the second century AD, religion began to spread fast across the globe, with pilgrimages becoming increasingly more commonplace. Often, pilgrims would return home with expensive trinkets serving to document their arduous journey. These ornate, bejewelled vessels came to be known as Pilgrim Bottles, a fine example of which can be seen at the British Museum in London, which describes them as early examples of ‘‘luxury items”. It’s nice to know that even back then, luxury was sought after and valued.
Shortly after this period, glass became the popular choice of material for the bottles. Having a seethrough bottle not only allowed the owner to keep an eye on how much liquid they were carrying, but it also opened the bottles for use as wider containers for safeguarding holy souvenirs and icons acquired on his travels; the Samsonite of its day, perhaps.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that hip flasks changed into something more akin to the ones we see today. Gone were the opulent, coloured glass and bright jewels and in came sterling silver as the material of choice; a robust and desirable metal that, unlike alternatives such as copper or lead, did not pollute the contents with unwelcome metallic flavours. The refined industrial manufacturing methods, which came in at this time, allowed for complicated additions to the bottle; the most noteworthy being drinking cups that were either hidden away as a slide-out compartment on the base of the bottle or incorporated into the screw-on cap.
As the industrial revolution took hold in the West, the hip flask became the accessory of choice for many young men in the upper echelons of society. What better way to enjoy your hunting or fishing trip than with a quick nip of Scotch from a silver hip flask, embossed with your family crest or insignia.
The hip flask became a must-have for soldiers in both World Wars. In the field of combat, a quick swig from a hip flask was rudimentary self-medication that fuelled courage, killed fear and banished pain. The contents were, of course, of paramount importance, but more so the medium: each hip flask would have been customized, engraved with a personal message from parents, wife or brothers, which served as a constant reminder of the loved ones back home.
Personally, I find a flask very useful. My own is well used, picked up on a trip a few years back to Lagavulin, one of my favourite distilleries on the Isle of Islay in Scotland. It’s made, as most are these days, of stainless steel, bound in leather and comes adorned with four small cups that are fixed over the lid. It’s an accessory that has become as much mainstay in my travel bag as my iPad and Moleskine notebook. It took me some time to get over the stigma that carrying alcoholic beverages around was the domain of the drunkard; of course, the volume of content in a standard hip flask shouldn’t be enough to inebriate one, but merely to provide a taster, a snifter of your chosen tipple. But these age-old luxury products are now being produced by some of the world’s leading luxury brands such as Aquascutum and Aspinal, providing an opportunity to create an heirloom in your family and share your spirit on your travels. Cheers! I
Joel Harrison is a drinks writer and consultant and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net
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