Decanters come in many shapes and sizes. There are square decanters made of cut glass or crystal, which come with stoppers, which are traditionally been used to serve liquors. There are rounded decanters that are used to aerate and decant wines. These come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes with various spouts. And, there are various devices that can be used to help decant the wine directly from the bottle to the glass or to a serving vessel.
The square decanters have been used traditionally to serve whiskey (or whisky), brandy, or cognac. Traditionally they were made of cut lead crystal, and were a way to serve fine liquor without the crassness of using a bottle. Putting liquor in a decanter also provides a more sophisticated and pretty presentation. My guess is that some people (yes, you dad) have used it as a way to serve cheaper liquors without anyone being the wiser! Since liquors don’t really need to be decanted to dispose of sediment or to “open them up” as in wine, the use of a decanter was just for beauty and show. These types of decanters come with some sort of stopper and often a hanging label, traditionally in silver. Since the lead in crystal has some health concerns attached, it is best to not use the lead crystal decanters for long term storage. Today, lead free decanters provide a similar look without the health issues. Now they also make decanters with glass or crystal made with other metal oxides vs. lead. Some people, like me, actually want to see the bottle so they can sip and compare brands, and they don’t use a decanter at all. However, there is still some nostalgia and glamour attached to serving liquors in beautiful decanters.
There are two main reasons to using decanters for wines. The first is to decant the wine from the sediment that may be in the bottle. The second reason is as a way to aerate the wine helping to add a little oxygen to the wine to open up the flavor. But, there are so many kinds of decanters to choose from! Which is the best kind? Some like the wide/flat bottom decanters that have a large open area for aeration The broad base provides maximum air contact. Others don’t like them at all, complaining of the difficulty of the pour, especially when you get to the last drops! Others like the “duck” style of decanter saying there is less spillage. There are also plain vase style decanters that do the job. And, I even bought a cheap glass decanter for $15 that I really like a lot. It is easy to handle, and allows for a very easy pour. The bottom line is that you have to test them out and see what works for you; or, my answer was just to buy many and use them all – they do come in handy when you have a crowd!
In addition to decanters that are used for serving, there are several devices that can be used for decanting/aerating straight from the bottle to your glass or serving vessel. There is a funnel type that comes with a strainer to catch the sediment. There are several types of bottle top attachments that assist with aeration, decanting and pouring – including a bubble type and a plain spout type of pourer with holes for aeration. And, I personally like the Vinturi aeration device, when all you want is a good glass of wine and don’t have the time to aerate the old fashioned way!