"Where did you buy your glassware?"
It's a simple question, but one that confounds the bartender.
"I'm ... not sure. They're just the ones the GM bought when we opened. They're OK. They do the job."
Allow me to disagree. These lowball glasses (aka "old-fashioned" or "rocks" glasses) do half the job: They hold the liquor and the ice. What they do not do is transport me, give me tactile joy, or even support an interesting narrative. The glass is of average height, weight, and cylindrical width for such a tumbler. Unlike the perfect whiskey drink it holds, it is boring to the extreme.
Let's not name the bartender — despite my hatred of his hardware, he's a top-notch 'tender. His cocktails are refined, imaginative, and strong; his place of employ well-known for its adventurous cocktail menu. Besides, he's not alone. Too many good cocktail bars in town have fairly pedestrian glassware.
To many, this is no problem. What goes in the container is more important than the glass itself. But I'm one of those people who pour a bottled beer into a pint glass because a good, cold, thick pint glass is just about the best damn thing to hold in your hands, any day, any time. What my hand holds onto, the feel of the rim against my lips, the weight of the glass, how cool it looks — these are vital elements to my drinking experience.
"A drink is an experience," says Paul Calvert, CL's 2011 Bartender of the Year. "You drink first with your eyes, so the drink should look appealing and the glass it's served in can contribute to that appeal. [And] the most important consideration for me is the size of the glass. The drink should not be pouring over the rim of the glass. I want to be able to easily lift the glass and drink from it without spilling. Likewise, there shouldn't be enough space in the glass to fit five more drinks. That just looks cheap."
Most bartenders agree. "The importance of appropriate glassware can't be overstated," says the Spence mixologist Meghan Wagner. But although no high-end cocktail bar wants to look cheap, cost plays a significant role in limiting the glassware choices. First, you need to buy a number of different styles for different drinks: pints or mugs for beer; lowball for rocks drinks; highball or "Collins" glasses (taller tumblers; the Collins is narrower) for mixed drinks; sherry glasses, wine glasses for red, white, and champagne; etc. And glasses at bars tend to get broken. Often. By guests and staff. Calvert notes that cost reality, not to mention the labor involved with scouting out a bunch of kick-ass glasses you can easily replace, makes him favor more standard glassware at work. Although the way he rolls at home — lots of yard-sale finds — means his margarita glasses will have a cactus for a stem.
My passion (obsession?) for glassware doesn't end with beer and cocktails. A great wine needs a glass that complements it, too. "Stemware is extremely important to the guest's experience," says Justin Amick, advanced sommelier and general manager at the Spence, adding that glass style is more about being consistent with the vibe and atmosphere of the restaurant. "I prefer lighter and thinner wine glasses because they seem to complement the delicate nature of the juice. I also just don't like big, thick, clunky glasses. [And] oversized wine glasses to me are just obnoxious."
Amick will break convention (say, serve a sparkling wine in a Sauvignon Blanc glass instead of a champagne flute), as will Wagner, who uses stemless wine glasses for fizz cocktails and breaks out the fatter highball glasses instead of a Collins for tonic drinks because she serves strong drinks, thus needing the ounce-space for more liquor. Which is just solid decision-making, as I see it.
I'm not a fan of Collins glasses in general, as I find them too narrow for my fat mouth. And unlike some of the bartenders I talked to, I don't like thin rims with my whiskey drinks. I like a glass with some weight, one that feels like it could hurt someone if I had to throw it at him, that wouldn't look out of place in Bogart's meaty paws.
But even if it's not the perfect glass in my eyes, I just want to see that the bar is thinking about glassware as much as I do. Jason Kosmas, co-author of Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined, talks in-depth about the "tactile experience" of drinking. He talks lovingly of his search for bulky, short-stemmed glasses for his second restaurant, New York City's Macao Trading Co.: "[They] were selected to be awkward, to transport people to an entirely bizarre experience," he says. "We tried to unearth glassware that one would find in a 1970s wood-paneled ethnic wedding/rec hall."
Again, not my first choice, but I can get behind a choice that tells just such a story, or reveals something about the people behind the bar. According to Wagner, most of Atlanta can, too.
"In years past when choosing glassware for cocktails, I'd let guest perception influence my choices," she says. "Nowadays our Atlanta diners are so savvy, I go with the glassware I'm in love with and get no complaints."