1,500 cocktail shakers (and counting), ranging in condition, age, and look.
Years in the making
An 1880s silver-plated shaker set from Tiffany’s.
A golf bag–shaped shaker previously owned by Al Smith, the governor of New York who ran for president against Herbert Hoover on an anti-Prohibition platform.
A Prohibition-era cocktail shaker disguised as a polo trophy. “So if your preacher came over and saw it, he would just think you are a great polo player.”
“I’ve wondered if Betty Ford Clinic has a wing for people like me,” says Walter Erwin. It’s true that the 76-year-old likes to party. There’s plenty of evidence to support that fact, from the decades that he owned 32 party supply stores throughout the state to the six years it took him to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. “They tell me I had a good time,” he says now.
But perhaps the greatest testament to his appreciation of a good time are the 1,500 cocktail shakers that live in a custom add-on to his home in Ennis.
It started, as all immense cocktail shaker collections do, with the martini. Erwin would often have a couple as part of a supper club he kept up in the Dallas area. For his fiftieth birthday, the group gifted him The Martini by Barnaby Conrad, an image-rich book of Hollywood stills and photos of martini ephemera, including a “centerfold” of vintage cocktails shakers he still remembers reverently. Erwin and his wife already frequented antiques stores and shows, and he started to keep his eyes peeled for interesting shakers.
The collection started to boom. When Erwin traveled to visit his own stores, he’d stop at antiques malls in small Texas towns to peruse the selections and pick up whatever shakers he could. On travels abroad, he’d see what he could find, addicted to the high of acquiring the next one and the one after that. The real turn toward excess occurred in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when Erwin bought a lot of sixty shakers off a guy parting with his entire collection. The acquisition nearly tripled Erwin’s stash.
“From then on, it’s just gone crazy,” he says. “I need to go away for the cure.”
Suddenly, Erwin was adding an additional room to his home to store all of his treasures—then he was making it bigger, rearranging shelves to make more space for more and more pieces. (His wife, meanwhile, has no reason to enter the storage room. She prefers wine.)
Twenty-six years in, Erwin’s collection contains shakers made of sterling silver, aluminum, glass, and chrome. He has penguin-shaped shakers, lighthouse-shaped shakers, a shaker shaped like a woman’s leg, a Tiffany’s shaker from the 1880s, a shaker from the infamous Harry’s Bar in Paris, and a shaker once owned by Lana Turner. He suspects one shaker that’s been sealed shut may contain ashes. Some pieces are still in commission, serving martinis to Erwin and his guests, while others have oxidized shut or are too delicate for use. His favorite shaker, he says, changes every time he walks into the room.
In 2016, his shakers took a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail” exhibit. Museum staffers learned about Erwin’s collection through his friend and colleague Stephen Visakay, a collector and dealer who wrote the book on bar cart collectibles. Imagine their surprise when they learned that one of the world’s most dedicated cocktail shaker collectors was just down the road in little ol’ Ennis, population 20,000. Erwin was tickled to have his pieces included, to see them carefully itemized and packaged and carried off to the big city. But he especially enjoyed the exhibition opening.
“The line to get a drink wrapped around the building,” he recalls. “I think every bartender and rummy like me came to the area for that opening.”
As another die-hard collector once said, you “gotta catch ’em all.” Erwin is quickly approaching that achievement. With his 1,500 pieces lined up and sorted in his makeshift exhibition room, he’s collected every cocktail shaker he’s ever coveted; he says his next acquisition will be of a shaker he hasn’t yet heard of. But don’t fret for the captivated collector—the thrill of the hunt still compels him to seek out ephemera. In recent years, he’s started collecting stoneware whiskey jugs.