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As a cocktail slides across the bar to a waiting guest, it’s the glass, not the drink itself, that a customer first interacts with: how it looks, its weight, how it showcases what’s inside. Similar to the role of a garnish, glassware can act as an extension of the drink, complementing both the cocktail and the beverage program as a whole.
Sourcing vintage glassware is a great way to employ one-of-a-kind presentation, though buying vintage vessels can come with apprehensions. Unique pieces are pricey, the uncommonness of a glass makes replacing breakage difficult, and vintage pieces require far more TLC than your standard cocktail glass.
At the Kumiko in Chicago, creative director Julia Momose looks to glassware that complements the uniqueness of the omakase-style cocktail menu. “I look for something that cannot be purchased anywhere else—items that can handle use and love and won’t be too precious and yet demand a certain level of respect in use,” she says. “I like to hold the glass and see how it makes me feel. If I cannot envision it on the bar, it probably isn’t meant to be.”
During service, each glass is carefully selected to match both the cocktail and the customer who will be enjoying it. “Sometimes, the glass decides the drink, whether it’s the color or the shape or just the feel of it,” says Momose. “I like to choose an array so that each guest gets to see a different glass in front of them.”
With a made-to-order cocktail program, having a selection of unique glasses in-house allows the team at Biig in San Francisco to choose a glass based on conversations with the customer. As every drink is unique, the vessels should be just as creative. Biig’s lead bartender, Borden Ornelaz, says, “The visuals of a glass and garnish are the first part of a cocktail’s presentation, so it’s important that the bartender thinks about the visuals and how the aromatics are expressed in each cocktail.”
All of Biig’s staff takes part in hunting for vintage treasures. “I can’t give away our sources though,” says Ornelaz. “We’ve ended up with some wild ones, like a miniature bathtub, golden Solo cups, skulls and vintage fast-food glasses from the 1970s and ’80s.”
Know Where to Shop
So where do you find these precious gems? Most bartenders point to antique shops as the best place to look for vintage glassware. Etsy is another option, but Momose also recommends Replacements Ltd., an online retailer with a sprawling selection of both new and discontinued glasses. “This is a great source to learn about vintage crystal brands and patterns, as well as a place to purchase certain pieces.”
Maximilian Riedel, the president of the historic Riedel crystal house, spends a fair portion of his time hunting the world for pieces for “Glass Cabinet—Retrospective and Think Tank,” the permanent exhibition in the Riedel glass factory in Kufstein, Austria, or to inspire new collections. He always recommends looking for proof of authenticity. “The market is flooded with made-to-look vintage pieces, so knowing the origin of vintage glassware is important. The trademark is a stamp of quality, usually etched on the bottom of the piece.” Stamps will allude to the origin and date range of production of each piece.
“One of our more memorable finds was at the home of a session musician for Disney who hosted thousands of cocktail parties over the course of his life,” says The NoMad Los Angeles’ general manager, Ramzi Budayr. “We must have purchased half of his inventory.”
For Momose, her favorite pieces were found wandering through the streets of Japan. “Most of the pieces we have are not being made any longer and represent a time that is long past,” she says.
Though antique shops will unveil treasures, not all glasses you find may be fit for a bar setting. Price is a huge factor. “Since we know they might not be around very long, we try to avoid paying more than, say, $10 a glass,” says Kyle Law, a bartender at the Alley Cat Lounge in Savannah, Ga. Durability must also be taken into account, as many antique glasses weren’t created with the high volume of a bar in mind. “We look for thickness, as well; thin glasses don’t last long at the volume we do.”
Another option is to save the special glassware for particular menu items. “We buy all our double Old Fashioned, Collins and wine glasses bulk, like most bars.” says Law. “For coupes, Martini, Flip and other stemware, we look to unique vintage. It’s for both feasibility and uniformity reasoning.”
The NoMad L.A. reserves a selection of vintage glasses reserved for the higher-ticket items, such as drinks on the Reserve cocktail list or for pricier liquor pours.
Breakage is inevitable, but with rarer glasses, a break comes at a higher cost. To keep breakage to a minimum, Riedel recommends hand-washing each piece with gentle soap, using a soft cloth over a sponge. “Never fully submerge the glass in water, and keep the water to room temperature or slightly warmer,” he says. Air-dry, and lightly polish as needed, holding the glass from the bottom to avoid breakage. And note finish details like gold leaf and hand-drawn painting, as each of these requires a special cleaning treatment.
Taking this much care midservice is not always realistic, so The NoMad L.A. separates the more fragile glassware on a separate rack, to later be hand-washed by the bar team when service slows.
In higher-volume bars, even hand-washing may not be feasible on a busy night. “We have a four-tier electric glass polisher that reduces stress and impact on the glasses, which I cannot recommend strongly enough,” says Law. Riedel vouches for a top-line dishwasher like Miele that’s gentle enough to handle even paper-thin stemware.
At the end of the day, there’s a preciousness that comes with vintage glassware. “Glasses break, it’s unavoidable,” says Law. “We are 100 percent OK with that. You have to accept that you might only use a glass once before it’s broken or stolen.”
Though vintage glassware can be precious and requires extra love and affection, integrating pieces can underline the creativity of the bar program. “Antique glasses add charm and sense of uniqueness,” says Law. “As bartenders, what do we do? Our job is to give people booze, smile and make them feel at home. With these etched coupes and historic Martini glasses, we are serving guests of our bar some of the same glasses we have served loved ones in our home. That’s special, right?”