At Mina’s Fish House, the James Beard Award–winning restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort on Oahu, chef Michael Mina adheres to a “line-to-table” philosophy, serving yellowfin tuna and Hawaiian butterfish plucked straight from the nearby Pacific. The cocktail menu, however, takes a more playful tack. The menu of tiki-style drinks is served in a variety of mugs and offbeat vessels including, in the case of the Mai Tai riff known as If Can, Can—a Spam can.
“They’ve become an integral piece of the bar program,” says general manager Thomas Kuiper. If Can, Can—a local pidgin saying meaning “if I can get to it, I will”—has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in December 2017. It’s proved so popular that the cocktail is now offered at other Mina restaurants throughout the country, even in places where Spam isn’t a local obsession. (To my concerns of the possibility of a lingering processed meat aftertaste, Kuiper explains the cans are actually Spam piggy banks, with the tops removed).
If diners now roundly agree that traditional plates are still superior to gimmicky serving vessels (as evidenced by the popular subreddit “We Want Plates,” which routinely makes fun of the practice), the beverage world isn’t necessarily there yet. In part, this owes to the ability of the flavor of food to more easily be conveyed through an image, negating the need to dress it up with fanciful flatware. The flavors of drinks? They don’t translate nearly as well. Ostentatious drinkware has become a central part of many bar programs for this very reason. While they may not assist potential customers in defining the taste of the drink, they can at least make guests want to try it—and Instagram it—based on visuals alone.
Still, a faction of the drinking public is not on board with this trend and has been documenting such displeasure since October 2016 on a subreddit titled “We Want Cups” where the number of subscribers currently sits around 42,000. In many cases, the serving vessels posted to the group are every bit as absurd as the We Want Plates entries with pizza on a tire or bacon on a clothesline. There are cucumber cocktails in Chinese takeout boxes, floral drinks in glass bongs and fruity beverages in actual lightbulbs.
The past summer was dominated by drinks served in a variety of bags. There was punch in a generic plastic bag (fittingly called “Punchin’ Bag”), a cocktail in a Ziploc, something in a leather pouch. At their best—like at Shady Grove in Pittsburgh—these resemble adult versions of Capri Sun. At their worst, they veer toward blood transfusion territory.
It’s not just the cocktail world that’s been plagued by outlandish serving ware, either. Beer has recently fallen victim to the usage of unwieldy bowls. In late 2018, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, owner of New York’s Evil Twin Brewing, caused a bit of a stir when he posted an image of a beer he was drinking while guest-brewing at Sweden’s Omnipollo. The hazy orange New England–style IPA was in an almost-perfectly spherical fishbowl, filled to the absolute brim of its tiny straw-width opening.
“Impossible to drink from without a straw,” wrote one Instagram commenter, noting the obvious impracticality of the pour.
At Minnesota’s Back Channel Brewing, meanwhile, their freshest IPAs are served out of what look like dog water bowls. They claim it pays tribute to Minnesota’s Viking heritage—the Scandinavian “skål,” which means “cheers,” literally translates to “bowl”—but beer writer Justin Kennedy believes these and other IPA bowls’ only purpose is “Insta-trolling,” that is, a surefire way to get a rise out of social media followers.
“I promise you that that the bowl is not just for Instagram,” counters Josh Leddy, one of Back Channel’s owners, when pressed. He claims the brewery discovered the utility of beer bowls during a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, when their group ran out of clean glassware and had no other serving options. “There was something magical about it, specifically with IPAs. The aromatics were off the charts, and the deliberate attention that was needed to take a sip was something special as well.”
The latest trend in the unconventional glassware movement seems to be miniature bathtubs. They first started appearing on menus a year or two ago, typically employed for gin cocktails (“bathtub gin,” get it?). The trend has since taken root across the globe, from Chicago music lounge Bassment to molecular mixology den Bar Orchard Ginza in Tokyo. Last winter, Seattle’s Canon released Bubbles ‘n Baths, a gin, chartreuse and falernum number served straight from a miniature white tub.
Canon is no stranger to outré glassware, often leaning on pun-worthy vessels dotted throughout their menu. Their Hart to Hart cocktail comes in a heart-shaped glass pendant; Studio 54 is served in a disco ball; Missing Link in an old-school Nintendo cartridge; Warhol arrives in a pop arty Campbell’s soup can. They’ve even served a drink called Canon’s Cannon, which, yes, comes in a miniature pewter cannon, smoke wafting from the barrel. “We scout the interwebs for things that inspire us,” said owner Jamie Boudreau on Instagram, by way of explanation.
It’s not always pure whimsy, however, that inspires the use of untraditional glassware. Some non-cups actually serve a purpose beyond pleasing (or displeasing) the eye. At The Cabinet in Manhattan’s East Village, the Caminante cocktail arrives in a jícara, a dried gourd half traditionally used as a mezcal-drinking vessel in Oaxaca. These custom-made jícaras are hand-carved, then dyed with The Cabinet’s branding and used to serve the jalapeño-infused tequila, orgeat, lemon juice and crème de menthe cocktail.
“A specific drinking vessel can make a cocktail taste even better by evoking feelings of the drink’s origin story,” says owner Greg Boehm. “You get a sense of the rustic nature of mezcal … and it doesn’t hurt the hand-carved designs are beautiful.”
And maybe some people at We Want Cups are starting to come around. Recently a user posted an image of Captain Morgan rum served inside a shot glass fashioned out of Spam. Though the original poster and most others agreed the combination was revolting, a fellow commenter remarked: “I don’t know man, could be tasty.”