Bar owners, take note: Glassware is not where you want to cut corners. With cocktail presentation ever more crucial to your bar’s success, thoughtfully curated, creative serving vessels are a worthwhile investment in the long run. In the Instagram age, drinks only perform better when they look as good as they taste.
But that doesn’t mean you need to break the bank to have a distinct point of view when it comes to your cocktail vessels. For most bars, it’s sufficient to start with the basic setup for classic cocktails—stemmed coupes, rocks glasses, Collins glasses for highballs. For hot drinks like Toddies and hot ciders, you’ll obviously want to keep some mugs handy. And if your bar utilizes a dishwasher, make sure all glassware is dishwasher-safe.
From there, the possibilities are endless. Consider having a few signature drinks that employ unique glassware. This will make them stand out and serve as a call to action for guests who see them at a nearby table. Vintage and thrift stores can be good places to discover unique styles of glasses that may fit your bar’s overall aesthetic. But keep your bar’s storage space in mind when bringing in different types of glasses.
Know Your Workspace
“A good strategy for me has always been keeping a solid selection of good, dependable glassware that matches through the set, then keeping a rotating selection of beautiful or strange things that I find from vintage stores or the internet,” says Michael Neff, the owner of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston. “It’s fun for people to have interesting glassware, but storing glasses of different sizes is always a challenge, so keeping a bunch of random glasses wastes precious space behind the bar.”
Beyond offering guests the highest-quality end product, glassware, like garnishes, gives bartenders more opportunities to have fun. Neff taps into his bar’s Texan influence with a cocktail served in a glass boot and a pickleback shot served in a hollowed-out pickle “copita.” At The Cottonmouth Club’s second-floor lounge, he even throws a bespoke cocktail experience where guests choose their own glassware in addition to flavors and ingredients for their custom drink.
“The first sip of a cocktail is with the eyes, so the entire aesthetic is very much affected by the type of glass presented,” says Neff. “This impacts sales. Novelty glassware is a big driver too.”
Find a Signature Vessel
Signature glassware items are especially prevalent at Tiki bars—think large-format scorpion punch bowls, ceramic totem-pole mugs and skull-shaped glasses—where they have always been part of the allure and mystique of traditional Tiki culture.
“We have several custom Tiki mugs plus a few limited-edition ones,” says Brian Miller, the beverage director at New York City Tiki bar The Polynesian. “We also have a penchant for using unusual serving vessels—something I learned from Thomas Waugh when I worked at ZZ’s Clam Bar [in NYC]. We got giant clam shells, fish bowls, treasure chests and beakers. We try to make every cocktail stand out as much as possible.”
Any bartender working with a distinct theme can get in on the glassware game. For example, the Japanese-inspired Bar Goto in NYC serves a cocktail in a wooden sake box, while at the tea-centric Blue Quarter in NYC, some drinks come naturally in a teapot with teacups.
Joseph Boroski, the veteran bartender and bar director at Prohibition-inspired 18th Room in New York City, says he has used everything from Indian curry bowls and flower pots to stone vessels and copper Martini glasses. “Basically anything that’s sanitary and holds liquid can be used,” he says. “Whatever you use, just make sure it aligns itself perfectly with your venue and will not clash with the expectations of your guests. Continuity is key in making your glassware selection work.”
Boroski adds that glassware should frame the cocktail in a way that enhances its appeal without stealing the show. “Always ensure your cocktail matches or exceeds the novelty or excitement of the vessel,” he says. “At the same time, don’t put your best beverage in a glass that’s too plain or boring. For your nicest cocktail, avoid beading around the lip of the glass, as glasses with thinner lips are usually more high-end and feel more delicate when sipping.”
And thinking outside the coupe doesn’t mean your creative serving vessel needs to cost you a fortune. At Washington, D.C.’s McClellan’s Retreat, barman Brian Nixon leans into the bar’s name—it’s named after a civil war general—with vintage-looking jars that would typically be used for pickled asparagus. In addition to offering a certain look, they’re a cost-effective option.
“They’re a full 16 ounces, which means I don’t have to refill as often,” says Nixon. “Secondly, even with their volume, they’re tall and narrow. No one would ever think it was a full pint. Finally, they’re five cents apiece, so if they break, which is rare, it’s not a big deal to my bottom line.”
Once you have your glassware, you’ll of course want to make sure you don’t have to buy it again. That may sound like common sense, but bar owners can anticipate and prevent breakage by thinking several steps ahead. Identify the areas in your bar where breakage can occur, such as dishwashers, high-traffic walkways and shelving, and ensure there are safeguards in place, either through increased training or with structural improvements.
“Always use the correct glasswasher trays for the type of glass being washed. One of the most common staff breakage mistakes is putting glassware in the wrong trays,” says Boroski. “Make sure the staff avoids handling glassware by placing fingers inside. This breaks twice as many glasses than grabbing away from the lip of glass.”
With proper execution and a bit of creativity, glassware can be a game changer for your cocktail program. And if the contents of the glassware are as exciting as the vessels they come in, you’ve got a hit.