The earliest known airplane bottle dates to 1862. It was glass and likely held approximately two ounces of whiskey. The fact that it existed at all raises some vexing questions, the most obvious being: How is it that an airplane bottle appeared four decades before the Wright Brothers got airborne at Kitty Hawk?
“It was probably a taster,” said David Spaid, who travels the world in search of mini bottles and has about 4,000 in his collection at his home in Southern California. That is, this was likely a sample bottle used by liquor company salesmen. These were in occasional use prior to Prohibition but then became more widespread after Repeal, when an entire nation had to be reintroduced to liquor, one small sample at a time. The tasters—also known as testers, shooters, minis and nips—also tended to be cheaper for the consumer, since these samples were tax exempt for a time. A fleeting sense of well-being could be purchased at an appealing discount, compared to pints or quarts.
Even after the taxman discovered minis and their prices bumped up, everybody still loved the adorable dollhouse bottles—they’re the spirituous equivalent of the wide-eyed woodland creatures that greeted an awakening Snow White. So cute! But cuteness was soon co-opted by business—first by the airline industry, which found that minis could be doled out to passengers with minimal spillage, with each bottle containing a controlled amount of liquor, generally between 1.5 and 2 ounces. The airlines also produced a generation of collectors, as many pocketed the freebies (true fact: airlines once handed out booze like Chiclets), which made people wonder what other bottles might turn up.
In the early 1960s, the first in-room hotel minibar appeared. These also proved to have an insatiable appetite for mini liquors, which were needed to supply guests willing to overpay for a late-night drink in the privacy of their room.
And so minis enjoyed their golden age in the 1960s and ’70s, and not only because of American travel trends. It was also thanks to the ham-handed efforts of states to regulate tippling. Battles over the sales of minis cropped up like political wildfires, in part because states alternately saw them as routes both toward and away from moderation. In temperance-loving Utah, for example, minis were first legalized in 1969 as the lesser-of-two-evils alternative to the brown-bagging of restaurant patrons. The mini-only policy lasted until 1990, when the state reversed course and again banned minis. (Only 200 ml. and larger bottles are now legal.)
Legalization disputes also flared up in Texas in 1968 and in Chicago in 1995 (focusing on grain alcohol minis, which were used to cook up crack cocaine). In much of the South, puritanical state legislators banned minis, viewing them as a cheap shortcut to inebriation for working men. (Bar owners often supported these bans, as they’d rather someone stop by their place for an after-work shot than detour by the local liquor store.) They’re still restricted in spots, including Louisiana, where the 100 ml. mini—twice the size of the more familiar version—was legalized only in 2014.
Last year, Maine joined the scuffle, alarmed by a surge in sales of minis—from 8.4 million bottles in 2016 to an estimated 12 million in 2017. (In Maine, Fireball sold in minis brings in four times as much revenue as that in full-size bottles.) Litter was out of control, some groused—a person couldn’t walk from Eastport to Westbrook without trodding on mini Fireballs the whole way. So the state legislature proposed a 15-cent deposit, to which the anti-tax governor threatened to ban all minis. In the end, the state bumped up the retail price by 50 percent, and added a 5-cent deposit as a coup de grâce.
The state associated most closely with minis, however, remains South Carolina. Like a clueless soldier fighting a long-lost war, the state required all bars and restaurants to make drinks from minis until 2006. (The state is essentially a lagging indicator of drink; it didn’t legalize the sale of drinks-by-the-glass until the ’70s.) The mini-only rule satisfied no one—the devout thought they contained too much liquor, and everyone else thought too little. Bartenders found them singularly loathsome—not only did they have to incessantly twist off the little caps, but minis put shackles on creativity: any drink involving two or more liquors had to involve equal portions, so the White Russian had as much Kahlua as vodka, resulting in a treacly mess.
Minis are in no danger of being utterly phased out these days, although they’ve been debased. “Unfortunately, probably 85 percent are now of plastic in the U.S., and no collector wants plastic,” says David Spaid. “The nice miniature bottles are coming from small craft distilleries now.” (He also cites the Czech Republic as a great source of interesting, high-quality minis.)
Spaid’s collection of 4,000 minis doesn’t get him close to the top of the collector standings—he met a collector in Spain with 42,000 mini bottles with no duplicates, and another from Latin America who built a freestanding building featuring two stories of shelves solely to house and display his collection.
Yet Spaid is pleased that he has one tiny bottle that provokes fits of jealousy among this tribe: a mini of Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII Diamant, of which only 140 were made. It was sold only in Asia through a lottery, and it cost $1,400. He’s been offered much more for it. This would obviously make a nice nip on a long flight, but if you meet Spaid, don’t ask about it. It’s not for sale.
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