Vessels Matter

Picking the right glass for optimal impact

From old Southern etiquette books to contemporary bar manuals, drinks pros recognize that the right glass for the job is about more than appearance. Glassware determines the volume of the beverage served, and how long and well it stays chilled. The ratio of rim to bowl influences how aromas are concentrated or dissipated, an integral part of the spirits experience.

One of my favorite vintage bar guides, Charles H. Baker’s 1939 The Gentleman’s Companion, Volume II: The Exotic Drinking Book, includes a delightful rant on why all drinks should be served in stemmed glasses (except for Old Fashioneds). Not only do stems prevent clammy handshakes but they keep drinks colder longer.

“Many people hold that all cocktails can be served in the usual 2-ounce Manhattan type glass,” Baker writes, “and just as rightly we contend than anyone can wear a crimson bow tie with tails.” The horror. For those curious about resurrecting Baker’s extensive service pantry, he recommended nine varieties of glassware—not including several additional types of wine glasses!—as a minimum for a proper cocktail glass wardrobe. Talk about an investment in storage space.

The best glassware collections, in my opinion, are a reflection of the host’s unique entertaining personality. Interesting glassware says as much about a host as their (hopefully overflowing) bookshelf, music selection or taste in art. True story: most of my glass hoarding collection was inherited from generous relatives, comes from restaurant supply warehouses or was scooped up from yard sales. I’ve found some real treasures at second-hand stores, like adorable Nick & Nora coupes I found for 68 cents each at a Deseret Industries store. With apologies to Baker, glassware doesn’t need to be prolific to do the trick: With just five general categories, most beverage serving scenarios can be satisfied, including wine.

Coupe Glass

I’ve come to love the short-bowled wide-rimmed coupe glass as the elegant multi-purpose “straight up” cocktail standard of my glass collection. Any drink calling for a martini glass works equally well in a coupe, and the angle of the coupe rim makes for easy garnish balancing. Like traditional wine glasses, coupes are intended to be held by the stem so that the drinker’s body heat doesn’t warm up a chilled cocktail. As for using coupes as a Gatsby-esque vessel for serving champagne, the shape does allow for a “fuller” wine aroma through greater surface area being exposed and direct proximity to the drinker’s schnoz versus a narrow flute. However, coupes also dissipate bubbles, bouquet and temperature quickly making for potentially flat, warm champagne if not consumed quickly (this is generally not a problem at my parties). Oh, and that legend that its saucer shape is modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breast? Unlikely. Benedictine monks discovered the champagne method in the 17th century, and English glassblowers were creating the distinctively shaped coupe vessels for drinking bubbly by the 1660s, long before the bratty French queen was born in 1755.

Rocks Glass

Also called an Old Fashioned glass, this sturdy tumbler is the workhorse of neat whiskey drinkers and highball mixers alike. Although most are straight-sided, there are interesting variations with slightly belled shapes, or tilting/rocking bases (which always make me nervous). For flexibility, look for “double” glasses that are roughly as wide as they are tall, with a capacity between 8 and 10 ounces. This means that spirits served neat or with a big ice sphere have plenty of room to breathe and open up after serving, or there’s plenty of room to fill with ice for standards like gin and tonics, whiskey sours and highballs. Don’t overlook an interesting rocks glass as an all-purpose tumbler for serving festively dipped rimmed drinks like margaritas and bloody marys.

Pint Glass

Let’s talk beer. Until glass could be cheaply made during the Industrial Revolution, most beer and cider drinkers consumed their spirits from pewter or ceramic tankards, often designed with a flip-top lid to keep out flies and other floaties. Also, as electricity illuminated formerly dark and dingy pubs and industrial filtration methods made for clearer product, pub owners and beer manufacturers switched to clear glasses to show off the quality of their beverages. Handled, dimpled or multi-sided glass variations went in and out of fashion. The iconic ‘Nonic’ glass (think of the bulging-shouldered Guinness pint) was developed after WWII to prevent fragile rims from shattering, to improve grip on the glass, and make for easy glass stacking without sticking. In the UK and Ireland, measurement standardization requires beer to be served in an Imperial (20 fluid ounces) measurement or half-pint (10 ounce); selling beer in unmeasured, non-calibrated glasses is illegal. Outside the UK, standard beer servings range from the U.S. pint (16 ounces), Flemish pintje (about 250 ml), German pintchen (one-third litre), Australian pint (about 570 ml), French pinte du roi (varied by region, but usually 48 French cubic inches), and the list goes on. German and Belgian regional traditions encouraged serving beer in proper glass shapes from goblet to narrow pilsner to enhance the characteristics of each style; a beer nerd rabbit hole that’s a pleasure to spiral down into given the shelf space and budget.

Wine Glasses

Traditionally, the wine glass wardrobe included three basic varieties: red, white and bubbly. Arguably, bubbles could be served in a coupe glass (see caveats, above) or a white wine glass, which many connoisseurs of champagne prefer as a happy bubbly medium between traditional coupe and flute. Some sommeliers argue that a well-designed medium-size “universal” wine glass—you’ll recognize them by the more shallow and very angular base of the bowl—can stand in for all three shapes. As they’re generally more expensive ($60-$90 each) and very fragile, you’d hope so. As for stemless glasses, keep in mind that the purpose of a stem is to prevent body heat from transferring from hands to the wine; not a problem for reds, but many people find the shape antithetical for enjoying whites and bubbles.

Red wine glass

Aroma is a key part of the wine experience, and aerating wine—that swirl that looks cool but also serves the purpose of exposing more surface area of the wine to oxygen—is made easier with a large bowled glass. That’s why most red wine glasses have a relatively large capacity but are only meant to be filled with a few ounces of wine at a time. A larger bowl with more height (typical of a Cabernet Sauvignon glass) is great for wines with a lot of tannin. Basically, giving some space between the wine and the drinker’s nose to dissipate ethanol and tannins a bit before the wine hits the palate. A tapered, narrower rim with a large bowl (as for a syrah/shiraz glass) helps retain and concentrate jammy or fruity notes in the glass, adding to the drinker’s aroma experience.

White wine glass

Full disclosure: I used to collect and covet very delicate glassware for wine glasses, especially whites. There’s just something about holding that fragile stem and sipping a crisp, zippy Albariño that makes my day. Over years of entertaining, however, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of slightly more hefty glassware because A. I’m not devastated (and neither is my guest) if it breaks, and B. they usually fit in the dishwasher. An all-purpose white wine glass to start with is a mid-range Chardonnay style glass, meant for young, fresh wines. Due to smaller surface area, the narrow bowl and rim keeps white wine colder longer. This is also a good default glass for fortified or sweet dessert wines.

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