Drinking Horn Care
What calls to mind a bygone era, like the ceremonial drinking Horn? Although, used throughout antiquity by many cultures including the ancient Greeks, Babylonians, and Europeans, the drinking Horn has become the iconic symbol of the Viking culture. Even today it is still regularly used by Asatru, Germans, Austrians, and Georgians. Popular cult shows such as, “Game of Thrones” and “Vikings,” have brought the drinking Horn back from dusty autonomy and the occasional Renaissance faire to a glowingly popular item.
But even with it’s rise in popularity, a corresponding rise in the knowledge of the care and use has yet to happen. Scouring the internet you can find only a few pages based on drinking horn care. I feel as a horn vendor, I would be remiss in my duty if I did not provide my customers, readers and fans with basic care instructions.
Keratin, the substance that horn is made out of, has some remarkable properties. Found throughout most of the animal kingdom, keratin is a main component in scales, feathers, quills, horns, hooves, and nails. The unique properties of keratin actually make it apt for a drinking vessel. Keratin is not water soluble and is in fact, very water resistant. It has anti-microbial properties and is remarkably strong. A drinking horn will not leak without a crack, and with its high tensile strength, cracks are difficult to form. Horn is composed of alpha keratin which comes in long chains. In horn, these chains bind together into sheets. These sheets or layers, are stacked together to make the substance we know as horn. The bonds within the individual sheets are extremely strong. The bonds between the layers are not as strong. When submerged for hours, water can get in between the layers weakening the structures. Horn is five times stronger when water is not trapped between the layers.
So, with the further knowledge of how keratin works, let us get down to how to best care for it.
Every drinking horn you buy off of me has been thoroughly sterilized. I can’t know the conditions of the animals life, it’s death, or the storage conditions of the horns before they come to me for certain. So I ensure that the horns have been sanitized and sterilized. If you didn’t get your horn from me, this is an important step. Keratin, has naturally antibacterial properties, so once any residual junk from the animals life or the slaughter house floor is removed, it isn’t the optimal growth medium for new bacteria. I use a commercial sterilization medium, however, a less than 1 to 10 ratio of bleach water will not damage a horn.
Commercial drinking horns come in two varieties: lined and unlined. I offer both. Although, the difference is self-evident, with unlined horns having nothing between the horn and the beverage, there are many type of linings used. Some linings include beeswax, resin, or commercial sealants. I use a commercial food-safe resin. Beeswax would be more historically accurate, however, beeswax has obvious downfalls. The primary downfall is that beeswax has a low melting temperature. As I travel about the Midwest doing shows in the hot sun, packing and unpacking boxes of horns into a hot car and I also ship horns across the country in the summer, I have learned beeswax to be less desirable in those climate conditions. As much as I have interest in historical accuracy, I also have a requirement for practicality. Therefore, I opt out of lining with beeswax, except for special orders.
Why do some horns have a lining and others don’t? Well that is up to personal preference. Most of my personal horns are unlined. There are certain benefits to either option. Linings protect the horn from the acids of the beverage. So if you plan to drink plenty of red wine or citrus beverages out of your horn, I recommend going with a lined horn. Some don’t like the idea of their drink coming into contact with part of a once living creature that lived on a farm. As the kid who was regularly covered in mud, I don’t identify or really understand this train of thought, but everyone in entitled to their own feeling on the matter. Linings can help prevent the horn from becoming waterlogged and therefore prevent the bonds from becoming weaker. Regularly, the interior of a horn is fairly hydrophobic and watertight. However, some horns have small cracks in the interior letting water get in between the layers of keratin. I try to inspect all of my horns interiors and not allow any horn I suspect of these cracks to be sold unlined. As for the benefits of unlined, it is 100% natural and more historically accurate. Although, the lining I use is derived of natural materials, it does contain synthetics. I personally like the attachment and the spirit of the animal the horn came form. I like the idea of drinking straight from the horn. Horn is also naturally anti-bacterial. The main downside is that an unlined horn needs to be seasoned to get rid of that wet dog smell. However, seasoning is a simple process.
To season an Unlined drinking horn:
- Find a way to prop up your new drinking horn so that it can hold the most liquid possible without spilling.
- Fill your drinking horn to the brim with what you plan to season it with. I personally, use the dregs of my home-brewed mead, but any alcohol will work. I recommend a good stout or a strong mead. However, any alcoholic beverage of your choice will work. If you do not wish to use alcohol, you can boil some apple juice, let it cool, and use that or two denture cleaning tablets will work. The denture tablets do leave a bit more of a minty taste than i like.
- Leave your horn filled overnight. The liquid will soak up the wet dog, musty smell and taste.
- Dump out the horn, either down the drain or as an offering.
- Rinse out your horn.
Here are some other tips to take care of your horn. Horns cannot withstand very high heat. They can melt, and trust me, they smell like burning hair when they do. Do not put your horn in the dishwasher. As an awkward and narrowly shaped item, it is easy for it to slip between the grate and end up melted on the heating unit. All horns really need is a quick rinse with a little bit of soap. If you are the kind of person to fill up the sink and leave dishes to soak, it is best recommended to leave your horn out of the sink. Prolonged soaking can weaken the bonds between the keratin layers. Horn is very difficult to break, trust me, I have beaten the tar out of a few and have not broken a single one. However, if something happens to your horn there is a glue designed particularly for keratin. In fact there are tons. Nails are made of keratin, and any half-way decent salon store will have dozens to choose from. Please, opt for a food-safe and toxin free variety. With proper care, your drinking horn can last a lifetime.