Specialty Glassware As the New Garnish

Until recently, drinkware has been a largely predictable affair. But amidst the cocktail renaissance, bars are using drinking vessels—be it a vintage coupe, a light bulb or a bespoke tiki mug—to alter the drinker's expectations.

Over the last several decades of cocktail drinking, the glass your drink appeared in was largely a predictable a affair; a Martini came in a Martini glass, an Old-Fashioned came in an Old-Fashioned glass, and that was pretty much that.

But amidst the current cocktail renaissance—in which there is no aspect of a drink that cannot be refined or optimized—glassware has emerged as an intriguing secret weapon in the quest to create a certain aesthetic experience. Beyond acting as a simple vessel, the right glass can contribute both to the allure of a drink and the venue in which it is being served.

The pairing of certain cocktails with particular glasses historically arose from practical considerations: If a drink needs lots of ice, the glass will need to be large and tall; if it is served cold without ice, a stem will help to keep warm hands away from the cool liquid. Most importantly, no one wants to feel as though they’ve been given a glass that isn’t full. Drinks come in all volumes, from the long refresher to the concentrated spirit concoction, and the job of the glass is to create an ideal space for each of them.

Over the years, however, the pairing of glass and cocktail has hardened into a kind of orthodoxy. The conundrum facing the modern bar, says Adam Bernbach of Washington, D.C. bar 2 Birds 1 Stone, is one of expectation.

“If you decide to change the traditional glass for a classic cocktail, you are playing with the guests’ expectations,” he says. “Generally, if one orders a classic cocktail, they are ordering it based off of past experiences and they aren’t there to have their expectations played with.”

In other words, who wants a Martini in a rocks glass, or a Tom Collins served up in a coupe? Yet in an age in which every aspect of a cocktail can be subject to refinement—smaller batch spirits have replaced big brands, bitters and tonics are crafted in-house, ice is specially carved and even garnishes are locally sourced—there is ample room for invention when it comes to glassware.

In recent years the novelty vessel has expanded beyond the world of tiki; it’s now possible to find cocktails served in bowling pins, disco balls, light bulbs—even Rubik’s cubes.

Different bars have started bringing the glass to the fore in different ways. Some have moved away from glass altogether, preferring to express their creations through a variety of novelty ceramic vessels, while others are finding inspiration in the long-forgotten glassware of the past.

Novelty vessels, of course, have their roots in the great tiki bars of the 20th century, where coconuts and Easter Island heads came as standard. At the old Trader Vic’s, where one drink even arrived at the table in a sizzling ceramic skull, the vessels were as much a selling point as the drinks themselves. In some cases, a good drink was merely an added bonus.

But as Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove points out, the old tiki mugs did much more than just hold a cocktail. “A lot of authentic tiki drinks with good ingredients are often brown and muddy looking; the mug hides that well,” says Cate. But beyond that, the ceramic vessels, “enhanced the escapism and novelty of the experience.”

Cate has continued this tradition by using specially designed tiki mugs for his newer cocktail creations. But in recent years the novelty vessel has expanded beyond the world of tiki; it’s now possible to find cocktails served in bowling pins, disco balls, light bulbs—even Rubik’s cubes.

London’s Bespoke Barware, one of the major producers of new novelty vessels, began life as a manufacturer of tiki mugs, but quickly expanded beyond the tropics. After manufacturing a series of alpine ski-lodge themed vessels for the restaurant Bodo’s Schloss—including a ski boot and a cuckoo clock—they realized that the principles of tiki could be applied to virtually any setting. The company now sells specialty barware to everyone from the swanky Artesian at the Langham Hotel to the blingy restaurant/bar/nightclub No. 3 Cromwell.

The novelty vessel undoubtedly turns a drink into an experience, but it also runs the risk of drawing attention away from the drink itself—people will order a cocktail simply because it comes in a quirky vessel—which is why some bartenders have sought subtler ways to go off-piste, visually.

For Bernbach at 2 Birds 1 Stone, sourcing vintage glassware has become as essential as tracking down obscure spirits. The appeal of older glasses, he admits, is primarily aesthetic. The artefacts themselves are beautiful, and that beauty can be used to accentuate the qualities of the drink. It can transform a well-made classic cocktail—which, nowadays, is not all that difficult to find and thus, for some, increasingly forgettable on its own—into a singular experience.

At barmini, another D.C. bar, vintage glassware doesn’t merely enhance the drink, it becomes a part of its narrative. “Glasses,” says barmini’s “cocktail innovator” Juan Coronado, “are the vessels in which the bartender expresses their creation. The selection of the right glass is always part of the creative process.”

Coronado has gravitated toward vintage glasses as much for their historic value as their aesthetic qualities: He mentions a specific fondness for glasses that belonged to families for decades, and is happy to discuss the provenance of his various glasses with interested customers. In this sense, at barmini the glass can offer an intimate connection with both the drinks, and drinkers, of the past.

“The first reaction to a drink is always visual,” concludes Bernbach. Even before we have smelled or tasted it, we make a visual assessment of the drink placed before us. The vessel, be it an etched coupe from a distant era or a bowling ball with a straw, is becoming an evermore important tool with which to play with expectation, if only for one drink.