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Beyond the Cocktail Glass

Having dissected every element of a drink’s anatomy, from ice to dilution, bartenders are swapping glassware for an older tradition: ceramics.

At Katana Kitten in New York, a genever-and-umeshu Negroni comes in a Japanese-style yunomi with a barky, unglazed exterior, pleasing to the palm. At Travelle in Chicago, a mezcal-and-tequila drink is presented in an earthenware mug reminiscent of pre-Hispanic pottery techniques. And at Demi in Minneapolis, a root beer Daiquiri gets poured into a beehive-shaped teacup that concentrates aromatics to the nose.

Ceramics have always existed at the peripheries of American drinking culture—the tiki mug, the Tom and Jerry cup, coffee mugs concealing illegal hooch during Prohibition—but increasingly, they’ve begun to make their way onto the bar, a move that is, frankly, overdue. Modern bartenders have assessed every aspect of a spirit’s presentation and tinkered with each element of a cocktail’s anatomy, from ideal dilution to ice cube clarity. So it’s strange that the choice of glass as the core material of our drinking vessels has gone largely unexamined since the Industrial Revolution.

Prior to the 19th century, drinking glasses were exclusively hand-blown, and owning a set was the height of conspicuous consumption; most normal people drank out of mugs and bowls fashioned from clay, wood, pewter or other materials. By the 1820s, glass blowers used slip molds to shape vessels more quickly, and in the 1860s, automatic machines were making crystal-clear, uniform glass affordable for a growing middle class. Around the end of WWII, glass became the go-to vessel for alcoholic drinks in the United States and Europe. However, in recent years, bartenders have been taking cues from design-savvy restaurants that opt for custom ceramics from local potters. In part, it’s a reflection of a technocratic, alienated culture’s thirst for for artisan-made everything. But ceramics also offer practical advantages.

At Demi in Minneapolis, bar director Robb Jones admits that when he and his staff started presenting Painkillers out of the restaurant’s custom-made mugs, it was, indeed, for aesthetic reasons. However, he and his staff soon realized that compared to drinks in conventional glasses, the Painkillers served in clay delivered an extra jolt of refreshment. Glass is a notoriously terrible insulator and heats up quickly, which is why wineglasses have stems; high-density clay, on the other hand, keeps a cocktail chilled, even with two hot hands wrapped around it.

Sometimes the effect is more ethereal. At Kingfisher, a cocktail bar opening in Durham, North Carolina, next month, drinkware choices have become an active collaboration between the owners, ceramicist Michelle Vanderwalker and her husband, Kingfisher’s bartender, Sean Umstead. “If something’s fresh and super springy and bright green, we’re going to highlight it in a glass,” Vanderwalker says, “but drinks that have a heavier character or a little more depth, like something with apples or a creamy horchata base, might do better in ceramics.”

Vanderwalker works with a blend of mostly local North Carolina clays to make cups, bowls, plates and tiles for the bar, including tiki mugs decorated with local plants rather than Polynesian kitsch and squat “rocks glasses” adorned with patches of pleasantly tactile nubbly spikes.

Like many potters I’ve spoken to over the years, Vanderwalker struggles to articulate the empirical exactitude of how ceramics impact the taste and texture of a drink, but she’s convinced they do. “It’s not just about the taste, but also the feeling.” That includes the visual delight of a colorful mug in place of a transparent glass, the grainy roughness of uncoated clay and vitreous shimmer of a wood-ash glaze against your fingers, the way the drink tumbles over a hefty ceramic lip and into your mouth.

This is the trouble with talking about clay: Form, function and heritage are inextricably intertwined. And in many cultures with rich pottery traditions, functional ceramics have never gone out of use. Before cheap glass became widely available in Mexico, dried gourds and polished clay cups were the standard and carried the added bonus of softening and mellowing a mezcal’s heady fire. You can still drink from these squat copitas today, both at posh Oaxaca bars and out in the hills in mezcaleros’ homes. Georgian wine producers that practice the ancient tradition of amphora aging continue to rely on elements like iron and zinc found in natural clay to add an earthy reverb and twangy mineral edge to their wines. And for many connoisseurs of fine tea and baijiu, there’s no better vessel for sipping—and sniffing—than the small, bell-shaped porcelain cups made for hundreds of years in Chinese pottery villages like Jingdezhen.

While many Japanese bars have made the switch to mass-produced glass, there are plenty of holdouts that appreciate what beautiful clay drinkware can do for the flavors and aroma of sake. In the tiny Japanese onsen town of Yamanaka, at a slip of a sake bar called Engawa, Yusuke Shimoki has made an art of pairing a drink to its vessel. On one visit, I marveled as he harmonized Japanese maple with the salty, mineral spray of coastal sake; the absorbent wood acted as a microbarrel, smoothing the drink’s edges while maintaining its character. In other instances, thin porcelain drew silky qualities from a light, fruity sake, while a thick stoneware guinomi brought a sense of heft to a slow-sipping murky, unfiltered variety. Ask to taste the same sake in a range of receptacles, and Shimoki will happily oblige. The differences are subjective yet striking. The aroma of sake in a glass flute was rendered awkward and sharp; in a tall, narrow-mouthed clay cup, it turned gentle and bright.

It’s not like a World’s Best Dad mug will transform a watery Screwdriver into a cocktail for the ages. Spirits served neat display these nuances more clearly than mixed drinks. But in a culture that’s largely amnesic about the old arts of clay, a new vessel could provide an extra layer of insight—a tangible way to slow down and see the thing in front of us with, potentially, more clarity. “[It] could make people more attentive to the whole experience,” Vanderwalker suggests. “They might not even be aware of it.”

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Tagged: ceramics, glassware

Max Falkowitz writes about food, drinks and travel for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, TASTE and other publications. He's also the co-author of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.