Flasks are complicated and dubious entities and like any piece of material culture, rife with meaning. No matter how well-intended, the flask cannot escape reality: it is a totally superfluous gift for unimaginative and desperate people to give men at Christmas and to thank groomsmen at weddings. With this in mind, the flask-giver, the person who believes a spectacular gift is a small container manufactured for secreting hard liquor, becomes even more interesting than the flask itself.
Flask-givers buy into flask-marketing, which is similar to marketing other seemingly manly goods like cigars, personalized golf balls, and gemstone globes: these “luxuries” summon the image of the proverbial gentleman. With lament, this is not our overseas cousin, the outdoors sportsman, touring his British estate by day and settling into the game room in the evening, tucked in near the fire, slowly savoring a fine Scotch and perusing Byron’s best. Rather, the flask-giver recalls another impression, that of the “distinguished gentleman replete with a pipe and Hugh Hefner-style silk pajamas” (1). Yes. Because an elderly man in failing health who spends his days tucked away in a tacky mansion wearing pajamas, reliving his youth, and dating women who routinely flash strangers is the definitive embodiment of a distinguished gentleman. At this point, the flask-giver’s constitution becomes even more clear.
Aside from the serious collector, the market for flasks is dominated by gift shops catering to those in hasty need of impersonal trinkets to gift multiple people. Getting married? Christmas gift for your wily brother-in-law and your buddy who likes to get soused? Behold, the flask. Sterling silver, pewter, leather-wrapped, disguised as a cell phone. Adorned with skulls, jumping trout, golf clubs: the varieties are endless. There is a flask for every conceivable hobby, including Civil War re-enactors and poker enthusiasts. You can be sure that flask-givers are also the ones gifting NASCAR’s Official Intimidator Pocket Watch and, in more extreme cases, the “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Free” Beer Stein. Take note: flask-givers are serial purchasers at the Danbury Mint.
Generally, flasks are incongruously gifted in ignorance. The contemporary flask is simply a sleek stand-in for a bottle in a brown paper bag. However, this cultural narrative remains incomplete without the attached stigma. Flask-givers are not enabling flask-recipients to become gentlemen by providing the proper, essential accouterments. Instead, they are simply encouraging exuberant flask-recipients to cast aside their brown paper bags and replace them with small metal containers. Flask-recipients are not trading up. Secreting away alcohol is still suspect, no matter the container.
Like the Danbury Mint, Target understands the flask-giver. During the holiday season, a tidy row of flasks wrapped in polyester fabric printed with bold diagonal stripes and dotted with skulls sits on a Christmas end-cap in Target’s menswear section. A few steps away, there is the matching tie: a very collegiate look, laced with a hint of frat boy attitude. Target markets the flask as if it were meant for respectable young men who like a little fun now and then and a little nip here and there. They are for boys wearing sportcoats and chinos, boys who walk around with their hands shoved into their pockets, a backpack over their shoulder, and tousled hair. They have lopsided grins. In a few years, they will find themselves playing a friendly game of tug-of-war with a golden retriever in the J. Crew Catalog. Years after this, they will hole themselves up in a Los Angeles mansion, wear only pajamas, and surround themselves with a gaggle of blondes with a penchant for public indecency: the boy next door meets the girls next door.
The politics of gifting aside, flask-givers will ultimately purchase Target’s flask because they are insipid, frantic, and out of time. To further meet their needs and benefit from their despondency, Target has grouped the flasks on a large, square shelving unit stocked with other generic, dull, last minute, male-oriented gifts. There are automated nose hair clippers, golf club money clips, and cheap cufflinks which come pre-wrapped in holiday cheer for quick placement under the tree. This is the island of the reject gifts, the items ignored by those-who-do-not-gift-flasks on their way to purchase something more tasteful.
Target repeatedly enables flask-givers. On their website they sell walking canes with screw-off tops which open to reveal a hidden flask: a corked, plastic tube which runs the length of the cane. Presumably, so handicapped people, hobbling along, precariously leaning into their canes, can get drunk. The message here seems flawed: Buy this cane and experience true tipsy! After all, the cane is there to stabilize the user. However, even more helpful than a walking implement filled with hard liquor, is the copy on Target’s website, “This Item May be Eligible for Reimbursement from Your Health Plan or Taxes” (2). Our quintessential gentleman, Hugh Hefner, should take note.
So, attention, clueless grooms: please gift your unruly, immature groomsmen monogrammed flasks filled with their favorite spirit, because what is lacking at weddings are really humorous drunken speeches skewering the honored couple and idiots lumbering around the reception dancing to “YMCA” and rocking out to “Shook Me All Night Long.” Achtung brides: gifting your bridal party trendy ladies’ flasks wrapped in hot pink leather may not exactly be the most suitable trinket for a group of women who accompanied you out to your bachelorette party, inhaled Cosmos through plastic penis straws, and ordered yet another round of Blowjobs before they finished the evening in tears, drunkenly texting their exes. So, save your money, why opt for a flask when a paper bag will do?