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cowdery
03-03-2007, 00:28
Maybe someone will know if this is true or urban legend. It seems plausible.

Today, the most common size for distilled spirits bottles is 750 ml. This is also the size of the typical wine bottle.

Prior to the adoption of the metric system for alcoholic beverages in 1979, the most common size for spirits was the "Fifth," which is one-fifth of a gallon. I believe wine bottles, too, were that size then.

I always wondered why. It's such an odd size. It isn't even an even number of ounces (25.6).

The size for whiskey bottles, it seems clear, evolved from the much old size for wine bottles but again, why?

I read or heard recently that it goes back to Roman times and was standardized as the volume of wine one man would normally consume in the course of one meal.

barturtle
03-03-2007, 06:48
Did the "Fifth" exist before the switch over to metric? I find no references to it in the old adds in Cecils book. Nor is there a reference to it in my old copy of Grossman's Guide (a 1964 printing). Grossman even says that wine bottle sizes run from 23 to 26 ounces.

However a fifth of a gallon is 4/5 of a quart which is quite close to the metric 750 (757). 750 works out to 25.34oz even though the bottles from the switch over time say 750 is 25.4oz.

TNbourbon
03-03-2007, 07:04
Did the "Fifth" exist before the switch over to metric?..

Yes, it did -- I have bottles both which state '1/5-gallon' -- or, more frequently, simply 'one-fifth' -- or '4/5-quart'.
While I don't know the answer to Chuck's original question, I chuckle that the 'fifth' size has survived the cultural generations when so much else of cultural memory is lost. We have liquor-store customers not old enough to remember the 'one-fifth' size directly (in fact, some customers by now weren't born till after the change to metric) who routinesly ask for 'a fifth' of this or that.

barturtle
03-03-2007, 07:22
Okay. Question: what sizes did other whiskies ship over in after prohibition, surely domestic producers would attempt to spoof those sizes to achieve cost parity.

Anyone think to ask Brown-Forman what sizes Old Forrester was originally sold in? and when they added a 4/5quart or 750 size to the lineup?

cowdery
03-03-2007, 09:41
Timothy,

Yes, the fifth existed before the switch-over to metric. That is when it ceased to exist. Like Tim, I don't have to look it up. We were there.

The term "fifth" was never applied to wine bottles, but they were approximately that same size.

Pints and quarts were probably the most common sizes when whiskey was sold in returnable containers. I don't think the fifth became common until bottled whiskey became common at the very end of the 19th century. Somebody probably just felt there was room in the marketplace for an intermediate size between the pint and the quart. Maybe it's just coincidence that the standard wine bottle is almost that perfect intermediate size. A lot of stories grow out of the desire to explain a coincidence.

barturtle
03-03-2007, 10:12
My thoughts on the imported whiskey sizes and domestic attempts to spoof those sizes.

If imported spirits were coming into the states in fractions of liters after prohibition (1.0, .750, .500, etc) then someone in marketing must have wanted to have as may comparable sizes (or a salesman or whoever would have been in charge of such things at the time). Some smart person must have realized that given the average education of the time, 3/4 of a quart would just confuse too many customers, but they knew 4 quarts to the gallon and could understand 5 bottles to the gallon just as well.

The salesmen then got a size that matched up well to the bottle sizes coming in from overseas and the fractional numbering involved was less difficult for the consumer to understand.

Father&Son
03-03-2007, 10:23
Entirely plausible, Tim.

ratcheer
03-03-2007, 12:33
In my early college years (late 60's to early 70's), I even remember "tenth" bottles, 1/10 gallon or 12.8 oz.

So, prior to metric sizing, what I recall were half gallons, quarts, pints, half pints, fifths, and tenths. Maybe there was an occasional gallon, but I don't remember, for sure.

Tim

EphSooner
03-03-2007, 14:31
The Scotch Blog has recently taken on this topic, sort of. This post was in the context of wondering why the U.S. standardized bottles at 750 mL, vs. the 700 mL size that is apparently available elsewhere.

http://www.thescotchblog.com/2007/02/my_bottle_is_bi.html#more

From the link:

Prior to December 31, 1979, the standards bottle sizes were defined at:

1 gallon
1/2 gallon
1 quart
4/5 quart
1 pint
4/5 pint
1/2 pint
1/8 pint
1/10 pint
1/16 pint (brandy only)After January 1, 1980 the standards were changed to:

1.75 liters
1.00 liter
750 milliliters
500 milliliters (Authorized for bottling until June 30, 1989)
375 milliliters
200 milliliters
100 milliliters
50 millilitersIt doesn't really answer the original question, but it's an interesting blog entry nonetheless.

bluesbassdad
03-04-2007, 14:34
Back in the pre-metric days of my youth (1950's) there were corny jokes that related the fifth of whiskey to the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the early days of be-bop, Eddie Condon, a traditional jazzman, said, "They [the beboppers] flat their fifths. We drink ours." (The musical interval known as a "flat fifth" was a hallmark of the be-bop style.) Based on my limited knowledge of the evolution of jazz, I place that quote some time in the early-to-mid-1940's.

The interesting thing to me in all of this is that the fifth and quart were often available on the same shelf, side by side. Considering the small difference between the two measures, I've always wondered why the fifth, surely the more arbitrary of the two measures, ever came to be.

I've even wondered whether early attempts to make glass bottles with long necks ran into problems with increasing sizes approaching the capacity of the traditional quart jar.

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

bluesbassdad
03-04-2007, 14:37
Tim,

Where did the ass-pocket size fit in that line-up? Would that be a half-pint?

Yours truly,
Dave Morefield

ratcheer
03-04-2007, 14:52
I suppose so, Dave, but I knew people who always bought the tenths and carried them that way.

Tim

cowdery
03-04-2007, 22:10
The pint was also always in the flask shape, but a little big for most pockets, although a good fit in overalls.

Dave's right about quarts and fifths on the same shelf, although in later years the fifth came to be the dominant size for home use, while the quart became dominant in bars and restaurants. This carried over after metric came in, so that today you rarely will see the 1 L size at retail, but that's all you see on back bars.

Russellc
03-12-2007, 15:36
Timothy,

Yes, the fifth existed before the switch-over to metric. That is when it ceased to exist. Like Tim, I don't have to look it up. We were there.

The term "fifth" was never applied to wine bottles, but they were approximately that same size.

Pints and quarts were probably the most common sizes when whiskey was sold in returnable containers. I don't think the fifth became common until bottled whiskey became common at the very end of the 19th century. Somebody probably just felt there was room in the marketplace for an intermediate size between the pint and the quart. Maybe it's just coincidence that the standard wine bottle is almost that perfect intermediate size. A lot of stories grow out of the desire to explain a coincidence.
I am also one who was "there" during the fifth days, as I remember, many popular bottlings were available in a fifth, or a full quart....

russellc