Jim Beam decanter collection in MC may be ‘world’s largest’

Star Staff Writer

Visitors to Miles City’s Main Street are treated to a variety of businesses and buildings that tell the stories of the community’s vibrant past. Often the only visible record of a building’s history is contained on the plaques provided by the Montana Historical Society, but in the case of the Cellar Casino, owned by local resident Denis Leidholt, history is on display for all who step through the doors.

Above and around the bar and gaming area in the casino is Leidholt’s collection of Jim Beam liquor decanters, said to be the largest in the world by the previous owner.

The collection of decanters — many are empty — started out in Miles City in the Olive Hotel, but was taken to Red Lodge when the Olive was sold. Leidholt said he thinks the collection left town in the early 1970s.

The decanters were sold to Pius Meier, who operated Natali’s Café and Lounge in Red Lodge, where the collection was displayed for years. A postcard picturing th business and the decanters proclaims the collection to be the “world’s largest.”

During the renovation after a 2009 fire, Leidholt was told about the collection by his architect, Jim Bos of A&E Architects in Billings. When Leidholt saw the collection, despite having nearly finalized the design for the new Cellar, he said he knew he had to have it for the Cellar.

The collection includes 1,174 decanters — primarily Jim Bean — of which 650 are on display. They range in designs from political figures and the Statue of Liberty to state centennials and casinos.

Dan Cohen, senior director of public relations for Beam Suntory, the parent company of Jim Beam, said “1,174 (decanters) is impressive!”

“There is an extremely passionate community of Jim Beam decanter collectors on an ongoing hunt for the many unique decanters that are out there in personal collections and antique shops across the world,” he said.

Securing the decanters in their display cases was a four-man process, which included one person pulling decanters, one bending the custom-made mounting tabs and two holding and mounting the bottles while standing on scaffolding.

Leidholt said the process took two weeks and was like fitting the pieces of a puzzle together. “We tried to group them by theme, or style. I had a little fun with it, too.” In the middle of the case of politically themed decanters is a bright-green Poulan chainsaw decanter.

The standout decanter in the political case, Leidholt says, is the Agnew Elephant. The delicate elephant figurine sits with its trunk lifted up, commemorating a 1970 fundraiser for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, according to a historical record assembled by the International Association of Jim Beam Bottle and Specialties Clubs. Just three years later Agnew would resign amid allegations of widespread corruption, the first vice president to resign in disgrace, according to history.com.

In the casino area Leidholt has displayed regional and state decanters, including a 1963 Montana decanter commemorating the centennial of the incorporation of the Montana territory. Below it is the Montana State Bicentennial decanter, celebrating the 200th year of the founding of the United States.

Upstairs a rather unassuming decanter reads simply “Beam’s Pin-Bottle” and is fashioned after a bowling pin. This is the oldest bottle in the collection, Leidholt notes, which was made in 1947. It contained 8-year-old bourbon at the time.

Do they sell a lot of Jim Beam with all that memorabilia on the walls? Kelly Madsen, who has been a bartender at the Cellar for the past six years, said the decanters are popular with out-of-town visitors. With the locals? Not so much, she said.

Same goes with Jim Beam’s bourbon. She said she sells “more to people traveling through, but not really much to our regulars.”

Leidholt said his favorite decanter is the Binion’s Horseshoe Casino bottle. “When I was a young man working at the Buttrey’s Market [in Miles City] I remember when [casino and local ranch owner] Benny Binion would come in. All the bag boys would try to be the one to do the carryout for him because he would always tip generously.”

He added that the older bag boys would usually swing in and take the groceries out. “I may be dating myself here, but a $20 tip when you’re making $1.75 an hour is a lot to a kid,” Leidholt said.

(Contact Austin Lott at mcstarreporter@gmail.com or 406-234-0450.)