Article By: Abigail Ingalls
In today's cocktail culture, glassware can make or break a drinking/dining experience.
Glasses have personalities - chic, sexy and elegant - and they are nearly as important as their contents. While a glass's shape can influence the actual taste of a drink, its style can psychologically enhance the experience, thus making form and function work in tandem. With the proliferation of high-end beer, wine and spirits, there is a glass out there for every cocktail imaginable in every style and price range. The challenge is to find stylish glassware that is the most compatible with your budget and beverage menu.
STRAIGHT UP How glassware has changed. Ten years ago the average martini glass was a nondescript, no-frills glass that held maybe 4 or 5-ounces and was used in pubs and steak houses alike. The up-drink craze has changed all that. Today, the martini glass is the sexiest, and most over-sized, of all glassware, and sports perhaps the most arbitrary and impractical of shapes. Lately, though, it has been a very modified vessel. Some martini glasses are being designed to curve in a little at the top to prevent the frequent spillage that occurs with the traditional shape. Although this design sacrifices a certain amount of style in favor of practicality, it is probably still more discreet than the old trick of resting a sip straw on the top of the glass, affecting the surface tension in a way that prevents sloshing. Another consideration of the over-sized martini glass is this: because its contents are never served on ice, keeping the drink cool for a period of time is important. But necessity is the mother of invention and so was born the stemless martini setup in which a glass cone sits in a little bowl of ice, keeping the drink cold without diluting it. Although conceived in practicality, it is very trendy and has now become a hallmark of specialty cocktail bars. Another popular approach is to serve half the drink in a traditional stemmed glass and the other half in a mini carafe or shaker resting in a bowl of ice on the side. That way a customer can replenish his or her drink with the fresh, cold martini as needed. Nor is it just the martini glass that gets all the glory. The ever-popular Margarita has a whole host of glassware devoted to it ranging from thin-stemmed delicate tulips to chunky, vibrantly colored bowl-styled glasses. Eclectic and funky seem to be the current style for margarita glasses these days. Even tequilas now have their own special glasses for sipping out of. For bars that feature many high-end tequilas on the menu, it's worth looking in to.
SIZE MATTERS, OR DOES IT? As big as cocktails and their accompanying glasses are (literally and figuratively), wine is still bigger. Fittingly, so are wine glasses. When was the last time you saw a 4-ounce glass of wine poured anywhere? Although aesthetics are a large factor in today's design, one of the primary considerations of wine glassware is aroma. The palate is nothing without the nose, and so glassware seeks to best capture wine's bouquet. Proper blind tastings have proven time and time again that a full-bodied Bordeaux or California Cabernet tastes best in a tall, chimney style glass whereas a subtle Pinot Noir should be served in a more globular style glass. And although over-sized wine glasses are all the rage right now, they should still never be filled to more than half their volume to ensure for sufficient swirling, aeration and heightening all the flavors.
Glassware intended for fine liquors operates on a number of different conditions. With Scotch, Cognac or brandy, the considerations are similar to those of wine glasses, i.e. the nose. Snifters are sometimes very exaggerated in size so as to capture and accentuate the aroma of the spirit, while the stem is short so that the liquor can easily be hand-warmed. Although serving a purpose, big snifters also have a cachet to them, just like the over-sized martini and wine glass. It makes people feel good to have these stylish glasses in their hands. In this way, glassware actually becomes in itself a point of service. Someone who doesn't usually order a cocktail might do so if the bar or restaurant uses special, funky glassware. In this case, the shape of the glass is not meant to influence the flavor as much as the experience of the drink.
However, not everyone agrees with the American way of doing things. David Campbell, who owns Ceres Street Wine Merchants in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was traveling in Portugal and he spoke to one of the makers of Fonseca Port, who lamented the small pony glasses we use in the States to serve port and dessert wine. He contended that his wines should be swirled and let to breath in the same way one would a tight French red. Conversely, David traveled in France and drank Cognac with a friend there who chastised the American "bigger is better" sensibility with regard to already huge, pungent liqueurs. He chose to drink Cognac and brandy from a small, open glass and couldn't understand why one would choose to magnify the potency of a perfect drink by putting it in a giant fishbowl of a snifter.
BEYOND THE PINT GLASS Although generally regarded as the most casual of libations, many beers nowadays require their own intricate glass pairings. As high-end craft beers continue to steadily gain in popularity, there is an increasing demand for glassware that will enhance the flavor as well as the presentation. In terms of variety, there is as much range for beer glasses as there is for wine with the main considerations being carbonation, foam and yeast. While most domestic producers of glassware offer a standard pint or tapered pilsner, many of the more obscure shaped glasses need to be imported.
Bukowski Tavern on Dalton Street in Boston offers well over a hundred different brews with a wide array of glassware to match. For their more distinctive imported beers, specialty glassware is both a necessity and an expectation of savvy customers. Amber Kersting, an employee at the bar, says that for their unique imports, such as Weizens or Scotch Ales, appropriate glassware makes a huge difference. A Belgian beer such as Helles must be served in a tall, narrow, spine-like mug because it is excessively carbonated. If it were to be poured into any other type of glass, the result would be five inches of foam that would take hours to disappear. In most cases, however, the shape of a beer glass is meant to maximize head, which, in turn, maximizes flavor. A Weizen beer tastes noticeably inferior if served in a glass that doesn't allow for the proper amount of foam and an even distribution of yeast throughout the beer. This is why traditional Weizen glasses are tall and tapered, rounding at the top. Amber also makes the point that though special glassware is important when serving high-end brew, most people wouldn't be particularly impressed by a Rolling Rock in, say, a chalice. You have to know when to leave well enough alone. And it's not just specialty bars and casual beer houses that feature a range of beer glasses. Keeping up with the popularity of pairing beers with food, more and more high-end restaurants are also adding craft brews to their menu and featuring appropriate glasses to match.
ELITE vs. ECONOMICAL The style of glassware selected by a restaurant reveals a great deal about its personality. A funky bistro restaurant might choose to serve their wine in jelly jars to promote an approachable, casual attitude while a four-star, white tablecloth restaurant would pride itself on several shapes and sizes of stemware to support a more sophisticated wine and spirits list. Clio, one of Boston's most elite venues for food and drink, uses exclusively Riedel stemware to compliment their vast selection of wines, and they offer different shaped glasses for all the major grape varietals. Restaurant manager Andrew Holden maintains that the highest quality wine list deserves the best glassware money can buy. Because the choice of glassware relates directly to the best performance possible of the wine, Clio is even looking into offering some of the German Eisch glasses, which are now said by some to be the finest (see sidebar).
But fine crystal doesn't come cheap, and a foot-long stem doesn't react well to a dishwasher, not to mention how much space it takes up, so settling on a design and brand of glassware is all about priorities and compromise. Sure, Riedel makes a fine wine glass, but so does Libbey, and their elegant twelve-ounce red wine goblet wholesales for around five dollars. Available space is another important factor. At the renowned Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA, practicality is at a premium due to the small size of the space. Manager Sarah Livesey explains that with limited storage space, their glassware selection must remain pretty honed down. For wine, Blue Ginger uses crystal Schott Zwiesel glasses distributed by United East. Tables are set with a standard, medium sized glass that suffices for both red and white. For higher end wines, Blue Ginger offers a longer-stemmed, larger-bowled glass, also from Schott Zwiesel, but it is still the same glass for red and white wine. Blue Ginger also has a sensibly outfitted full-bar with the traditional glassware. They use a 1O-ounce cocktail glass for martinis and specialty drinks. When asked her own opinion on glassware, Sarah admitted that a good wine would taste fine even out of a plastic cup but that it deserves fine glassware to really show itself off. And although Clio has invested in Riedel for its wines, they too are utilitarian when it comes to cocktail glass selection, using traditional styles from Libbey and Bormioli. Andrew chooses to stay away from trends that might prove to be only a passing fancy.
At a bar such as Boston's Bukowski's, keeping a full inventory of glasses to go with the proper beers can get very expensive quickly. This is where promotional glassware can come in quite handy. Beer bars can rely, at least in part, on glasses given away from the brewer as they often are the ones who manufacture the specific glass their beer is meant to go in. Restaurants focusing more on wine and spirits, however, can't really rely on give-aways to stock their shelves. While beer logos on glasses are accepted as somewhat fun and kitschy, few people would like to see MONDAVI or BERINGER in big letters across their wine glass.
STOCKING THE HOME BAR Of course, it's not just in bars and restaurants that glassware has become so popular. Consumer interest in spirits is at an all time high and everyone wants to have the perfectly stocked bar with fashionable, sexy glassware to match. There isn't a glassware enthusiast in the country that hasn't perused aisles of Crate and Barrel or Pottery Barn. Crate and Barrel caters to both restaurants and consumers and sells its own brand of glassware. The store appeals to the demands of practicality and style by offering a lot of attractive glassware that can multitask. John Wright, a manager in the Back Bay Crate and Barrel location says that their most popular seller is the all-purpose goblet that can readily accommodate water, wine or even juice at an upscale brunch. He has found that space and budget are always major priorities, and whether in a home or a restaurant, people often want their glasses to work double duty. Even the fancier profiles, such as their stemless martini glass can be used not only for cocktails but also for sorbet or shrimp cocktail. Nowadays, even stores such as Target carry economically priced, stylish glassware. Glasses also make a great last minute gift and many liquor stores now carry a variety of styles for impulse purchases. At Vinnin Liquors in Swampscott the store has an entire section devoted to glasses with everything from traditional to eclectic pieces. The majority of the stock is very inexpensive as the store will often buy close outs or overstocks.
As a side note There is a tremendous range in the wholesale price of glasses and the internet can be a very effective way to find low cost or overstock items.
If one thing is certain - trendy, fun and upscale glassware is here to stay. The bottom line has to be this: Glassware must be congruent with atmosphere and drink offerings. At a casual restaurant, could your clients enjoy a margarita in a beer mug? Probably. Would they be impressed by the same presentation at a traditional French restaurant? Probably not. Although glassware should make a statement, experimentation has to fall within the boundaries of culinary style and ambiance. With all the variety available, restaurants and retailers must make compromises, considering the ratio of importance between style and practicality, quality and cost. Now raise your glass. Cheers.