With bourbon popularity soaring, aficionados can sip their favorite drink in the tradition of Central Kentuckians of 200 years ago, from a small cup shaped like the oak barrels used to age Kentucky's favorite whiskey.
"They're perfect for drinking bourbon. They just fit your fist," said Fran Taylor, founder of Lexington Silver.
The small company is reproducing the bourbon barrel beaker by noted Lexington silversmith Asa Blanchard, who worked at Mill and Short streets, where Cheapside Bar & Grill is today, from about 1810 until his death in 1838.
In the early 1800s, there were as many as 10 silversmiths in Lexington, said Clifton Anderson, a Lexington antiques dealer specializing in early Kentucky furniture and silver.
Blanchard's pieces were highly sought after because of their fine craftsmanship, as well as their design. The late historian Thomas Clark called Blanchard the Paul Revere of the South. A list of Blanchard's customers read like a Who's Who of the Bluegrass, Anderson said, and included Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky.
"He wasn't just a craftsman, he was an artist and exercised a freedom of expression that artists do," creating unusual pieces like the bourbon barrel beaker, Anderson said. The beakers required skill to get the oval form exact, and then have delicate threads of silver laid in precise rows around the side. Anderson said he knew of only one other silversmith in Kentucky who made the unusual beakers.
"The popularity of Blanchard's bourbon barrel beakers and julep cups far outnumbered all the other silversmiths put together," Anderson said.
The idea for Lexington Silver came together quickly. It started when Taylor, who was executive director of the Keeneland Foundation at Keeneland Race Course, market development administrator for the Keeneland Association and founder of West High Publishing, received a Christmas gift last year.
Guy Hurley, a metal manufacturer in Rhode Island, sent Taylor a metal Christmas ornament. The two met when the movie Seabiscuit was being filmed at Keeneland. Hurley made polished brass replicas of a Seabiscuit horseshoe, which Keeneland gave as mementos at the premiere of the movie held at The Kentucky Theatre.
Taylor responded to Hurley's gift with "a photo I had kept of a Blanchard beaker that appeared in Antiques magazine, along with a note: 'As popular as bourbon is, what about it,' " she said. "Guy picked up the phone and said, 'Let's do it.'"
Now, Lexington Silver is selling a three-inch original-size barrel beaker in polished lead-free pewter for $115. The four-inch slim barrel beaker in lead-free pewter is $128. The beakers may be purchased at L.V. Harkness in Lexington and at Lexingtonsilver.com.
Business has been pretty good . The Kentucky Distillers Association bought 40 beakers recently for a meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference as a way to promote the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Council of State Governments purchased 50 to give as gifts at the dedication of their renovated building in the summer.
In addition to the beakers, Lexington Silver plans to copy a few of Blanchard's other classic pieces, including julep cups, plus offer new designs inspired by Blanchard's work such as baby cups and barrel-shaped jiggers for the Asa Blanchard Collection. Craftsmen in Massachusetts and Connecticut are making the items, Taylor said.
Because few bourbon barrel beakers were made by Blanchard, they are pricey items when they come up for sale today, which isn't often, Anderson said.
"If I had one in real good condition, I would probably ask $10,000," he said.
David Downey, owner of Isaac Shelby's house in Lincoln County and a collector of early Kentucky art and furniture, said he knew of only one, privately owned Blanchard bourbon barrel beaker.
"It sold probably five years ago," he said. "I don't know where the guy bought it, but I know he gave $25,000."