Glasses don’t always cure myopia, sometimes they cause it

“What’s this?” said the burly biker sitting at the bar and pointing at the delicate rimmed cocktail glass.

“It’s the martini you ordered,” I said.

In hindsight, I should have known better. When somebody asks a question with an answer so obvious, that obvious answer, is usually not the correct one.

“What kind of glass is that?” he demanded.

It was our specialty glass, somewhere in shape between a champagne coupe and the conical classic martini glass that so many people are familiar with.

People often associate the conical “martini” glass with all cocktails. It is so ubiquitous that it is often used as the neon sign signifying that cocktails are served.

The only problem is that classic glass is not as classic as we would like to think it is. A cursory glance through any classic barware catalogue (Schiffer’s Book for Collectors, for instance) will show you the cocktail glasses that were concurrent with the eras of the drinks invented. For instance, the Manhattan was most probably invented in either the 1870s/1880s (depending upon whom you believe) and the martini came along slightly later (again depending upon whom, and what you believe constituted a martini). And those two classic cocktails are the ones that most people want served in the “classic” martini glass.

But, cocktail glasses from the 19th century don’t look anything like cocktail glasses from the early 20th century. They tend to look more like juice cups, low and non-stemmed. The old egg cup is a perfect example, it’s shaped like a chicken, and is small enough to hold half a soft boiled egg. Many believe this glass or “cock’tail”, is where the modern cocktail got its name. It also holds one ounce, meaning that a modern day martini would fill three of them.

Cocktail glasses from the Depression/Prohibition era are also different. Alcohol was illegal, so who needed specialty glasses for liquor? And could an item designed for something illegal be made or marketed? Most glasses of the era are of a tumbler style with no stems, but there are an awful lot of conical so-called “sherbet” glasses. Sherbet must have been wildly popular during Prohibition, either that, or there was a lot of wink/wink nudge/nudge going on. Sherbet, originally “sharbat” derives from the Arabic verb “shariba” or “to drink,” and was originally a fruit juice and sugar syrup concoction served with ice. Odd that cookbooks from the same era never list sherbets, but Prohibition era cocktail guides are numerous and extensive. Journalist Basil Woon’s When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba from 1928(smack dab in the middle of Prohibition 1919 – 1933) and his recipe for the Bacardi Cocktail: rum, lime juice, grenadine, and sugar sure sounds like a sherbet with rum doesn’t it? I wonder what glass it came in?

After Prohibition ended, cocktail glasses came roaring back, but the designs most often resembled a cone with a slightly rounded bottom. Concurrently the champagne coupe glass returned, rumored to be modeled on Marie Antoinette’s bosom. It is not, an Etruscan style dairy bowl in the Musée national de la céramique in Sèvres was, and that bowl is quite a bit bigger than the typical champagne coupe. If Marie Antoinette’s tomb effigy in St. Denis in Paris is any indication, the dairy bowl makes a lot more sense.

The two glasses became almost interchangeable (and sherbet glasses virtually disappeared) in the 1950’s. Leading us to James Bond in 1962’s Dr. No. In it, Bond gets two different vodka martinis, one made by the villain with lemon served in what looks like a port glass, and one made with lime served in a small tumbler by a butler. When Bond finally orders a martini himself (in 1964’s Goldfinger) it comes in a glass that looks like a gilded colored glass modern day champagne flute. In fact, I can find no instance of Connery’s or Moore’s Bonds ever drinking their martinis out of classic martini glasses. Later Bonds, starting with Dalton, don’t drink martinis out of anything else.

Ironically when I first started bartending in the late 1980’s another drink was all the rage. The cosmopolitan always came in a that so-called “classic” sharp pointed conical glass. And when martinis came back into vogue during the next decade, it was in that glass they returned in; Dalton, Brosnan and Craig made sure of that.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-I never argue with bikers.

-To Go cocktails taste great, but boy do I miss fancy glassware.

-“‘Classic,’ a book people praise, but don’t read,” once wrote Mark Twain.

-Hindsight is not always 20/20, sometimes it is quite myopic.