There are Elvis Presley memorablia, there are Elvis mementos, there are Elvis dreck and Elvis schlock. And then there are the Elvis keepsake whiskey decanters, the latest and hottest products feeding Americans' apparently insatiable bottlemania.
A southern distillery has produced an 18-inch emboidment of old Jellyhips. The liquor-filled figure is a lifelike ceramic body mounted on a music-box base that plays "Love Me Tender." Elvis' head twists off for easy pouring of McCormick bourbon.
If Elvis doesn't suit your taste, try Ben Franklin or a Wild Turkey wild turkey: there is almost no end of choices among the specialty decanter bottles sold as a lucrative sideline by such liquor producers as Jim Beam, Ezra Brooks, Old Fitzgerald, Cyrus Noble, Lionstone and Ski Country.
A lot of big names have been poured into the bottle business since it began 25 years ago, but Elvis tops the all-time charts.
"Elvis? My God, people flocked in for them. Soon as they got popular, the price jumped up," said Harry Sterling of Eagle Wine and Liquors in Georgetown.
Who were the buyers? "Mostly women," he said with a grin."Some young ones, but a lot in their 50s or 60s. I've sold as high as eight at a time to one person."
That was at $69 a head when Elvis first came out in 1978, Sterling said. Since then prices have climbed to $200 and $300.
Making bottle collectors happy is Sterling's business and pleasure."I'm the biggest customer McCormick has: I got a couple of congressmen, one senator and a doctor in town who's my biggest customer, but I'm not naming names."
Many collectors request anonymity because the stakes are high in the bottle game. The most valuable decanter is Jim Beam's elegant 1964 rendering of the First National Bank of Chicago seal, which last sold for $3,200, according to Montague's Modern Bottle Identification and Price Guide.
Beam pioneered the liquor decanter industry with an executive series released for Christmas 1955. The orginal idea was simply to sell liquor in fancier bottles during holidays or other gift occasions. The concept spread -- and sold -- rapidly.
Estimates of how much McCormick paid the Presley estate for production rights range from $600,000 to 10 times that. It has paid off handsomely: after a trial release in West Virginia, the Elvis bottles have sold as fast as they can be made.
"Such mass hysteria over that bottle, everyone clamoring to get one," marveled Harry Tabb of Capitol City Liquors.
McCormick plans a series of three Full-figure Evlis commemoratives, according to Tabb. Elvis No. 1, issued late in 1978, went wild in the market. This summer's Elvis No. 2 is a nostalgic recreation of the star's 1950s image. Clad in charcoal slacks and pink plaid jacket, Presley strums a guitar in his famous pelvic posture.
No. 3 will at some future date commemorate the singer's last televised concert from Hawaii. He will be decked out in bright floral shirt and lei, in the most casual pose of the three. All the figurines bear a facsimile Presley autograph on the base. Between Nos. 1 and 2 a large white porcelain Elvis bust was issued. "The bust never created the hysteria Elvis No. 1 did, not by a long shot," Tabb said. "I think they should have painted it," said Jim Riley of Fairfax.
In short, the head has been somewhat of a bust: maybe it strikes his grieving fans as too much like a tombstone. Riley said he has sold far fewer busts than the approximately 6,000 Elvis No. 1 bottles shipped to his home mail-order business. All bottles are sent empty because federal law prohibits liquor being mailed; many collectors insist on filled, sealed decanters.
"Elvis aroused the curiosity of people, got them interested in collecting decanters," Riley said. "Since Elvis, there has been a tremendous increase in sales in general."
Riley and McCormick detonated the decanter explosion when it agreed to advance the unprecedented royalty fee to Presley's estate just to test the market.
The Big El bottle will go down like a smooth shot of Southern Comfort in sales history. "I was told the state of West Virginia sold more Elvis bottles than the whole country," Eagle's Sterling said. Manhattan Liquors Philip Shepsle tells of a young West Virginian who lost her cool over them.
"She's either running Elvis bottles across the line for profit or has a lot of Presley-loving friends and family," he said. "I don't know, maybe she's a member of an Elvis club. She's young enough, maybe 25, 26.
"She came in, saw Elvis and flipped. Got one for herself and one for her girlfriend, $80 each. Later, she told me a story: "I'm one of 10 children and Daddy said we can each have one." She took one box of six bottles that time, at $90 each.
Still later, "She came back, said, "You wont't believe it, but I broke one,' and got five more [at $95] and one bust [$53.98]."
The rising price is not caused by liquor dealers, Shepsle said. The Elvis bottle just keeps costing more to buy and sell: "It's not a matter of selling them, it's getting them."
A miniature musical version, a replica of the fifth decanter, of Elvis No. 1, came off the assembly line in June, at about $35.
"This one will do very well," Capitol City's Tabb predicted, although he says local sales will be somewhat inhibited in the District, Virginia and parts of Maryland.
State-run liquor stores in Virginia and Montgomery County are not allowed to sell miniatures of any kind. The District allows only miniatures containing non-alcoholic beverages. So Washington residents can soon pick up a little Elvis -- but he'll be filled with sweet grenadine, a mixer.
And just in time for Christmas, a gold-plated Elvis has gone on sale, with a base that tinkles "My Way." It's going for $250.
The golden Elvis is a remolding of the first bottle, whose original mold was broken to make it a limited edition.
Collectors will get their Elvis bottle in a blue-velvet-lined box, along with a serial number and a card that can be mailed in to have ownership recorded on microfilm.
A 12-inch topless Dallas Cowboy cheerleader bottle will come out soon, carrying no manufacturer's name on the bottom.
Salespeople doubt it will hit the display shelves, but it should have a bootleg value, if you will. (A fully costumed version, made by the same company, will sell for $29.95. Her topless counterpart could pull a heftier $150.)
A splendiferous Queen Nefertiti will join the King Tut decanter to cash in on the continuing Egyptian-artifacts craze. The 22-carat bust is described as even larger and fancier than the fast-selling Tutankhamen head. The Queen will sell for about $50 (fifth) and $200 (half-gallon.) The King was a little cheaper. f
Famous personages already on the market range from slinky Cleopatra to gunslinger Clint Eastwood.
You can also buy the bottled shape of just about everything from a blue goose to the Loyal Order of Moose: charioteers to dunebuggies, alligators to zebras, and famous madams to Chinese laundrymen.
An that's mainly only the full-bottle business. Miniatures are even more esoteric.
They include: The Loch Ness Monster (with beret). A set of hippies (6). The Pieta. Venus de Milo. Beethoven. Beetles (the non-singing kind). A light blub.
One of Washington's most fantastic decanterlands is Gusti's Restaurant, which has a wall-to-wall collection of miniatures.
From there, it's just one more step to joining the Catoctin Club, only organized bottle-collecting crowd in town. Meetings are held every other month. For details, call Jim Riley, 378-5959.