Your Guide to Finding, Caring for, and Using Vintage Bar and Glassware
As bartenders and bar owners strive to set their establishments apart, one interesting trend has begun to emerge—and this time, it's not about what's inside the glass. From ornate embellished punch bowls to Mad Men-era cocktail glasses, vintage glassware is giving bartenders yet another way to make an experience memorable (or, as PUNCH puts it: specialty glassware is "the new garnish").
A coupe from the 1930s or an original Hawthorne strainer might be just what is needed to fully immerse a guest in your cocktail experience. To aid in that goal, we’ve created this guide to every aspect of the process of adding vintage bar or glassware to your cocktail program.
Julia Momose, head bartender at GreenRiver and Annex at GreenRiver in Chicago, uses vintage glasses for all of her up cocktails at Annex. “There’s something so exciting about sipping on a cocktail, even if it’s something simple and straightforward like a martini, that’s been beautifully served in a chilled, vintage, crystal glass,” she says. “Sometimes you can find these glasses that have the most delicate look to them, it’s almost like the liquid is being lifted up into the air.”
First, you’ll want to decide if you’re looking for sets of glasses, or hoping to create an eclectic set. If you want your glasses to match, expect to pay a premium.
Momose has several sets dedicated to specific cocktails on her menu. She’s in favor of collecting eclectically, but offers a caution. “While they may be very beautiful on their own or within sets, the glasses may not look so good when they're all on the back bar together." As you’re shopping, keep in mind the colors and aesthetics of the other glasses in your collection, as well as the decor of the bar.
You’ll also want to be aware of the size of glasses and volume of your cocktails. Most coupe glasses are 3 ounces, for example. Think about the cocktails your bar sells the most, and buy glasses specifically to fit those drinks.
Using vintage barware (along with a few high-quality modern tools) is very important to Julio Cabrera, managing partner and head bartender of Miami's Regent Cocktail Club. "When people go to the bars, they can have good cocktails, they can see you working with great techniques, but if you show something different, a different kind of shaker, or different kinds of spoons, or strainers, or julep strainers from 1800, they are really impressed. It's all about details,” he says. He stops just short of collecting vintage freezers.
Greg Boehm, owner of Cocktail Kingdom and a large collection of vintage barware, glassware, alcohol, and the largest library of vintage cocktail books in the world, uses his vintage barware sparingly. “Not everything old is good,” he says. “Antique strainers are fun to use, they tend to work well. Antique jiggers, as well as modern jiggers, actually, are often very inaccurate.”
Keep in mind that if you find a bitters bottle with a rotten cork, it can be replaced. “You may have to whittle it down a little,” says Boehm.
Where to find it
Finding high-quality antique bar and glassware isn’t just cocktail historian Renee Cebula’s passion, it’s also her business. She is the proprietor of Raising the Bar (which sells “vintage and badass barware” out of a vintage trailer in Spokane, Washington). Renee is often tasked with finding glass and barware for people in the industry.
Cebula calls it the Barware Trail, and it involves thrift and antique stores and auctions. These places, especially thrift stores, tend to have the best prices, but there is a trade off. “Be prepared to spend a lot of time,” she says. “It’s getting harder within the thrift and vintage world. Typically the glasses are still dirty. Stay focused: if they have a housewares department, go right there.” Cebula recommends checking each row methodically, especially if looking for a set. “If by chance there is a complete set of something, four, or six, or eight of something, that's kind of like the Holy Grail, that's getting more difficult to find. And oftentimes, people have broken one or more of a set and when it gets down to five or three, they're done with them. The siblings to that really cool coupe glass that you're looking at, they might be there and you just have to really hunt."
Boehm and Cabrera both recommend going to thrift and antique stores whenever traveling, especially if you happen to be in Europe.
If you’re short on time, you might want to go online like Luis Hernandez, beverage director for The Eddy in New York City. He started with Google searches to get an idea of what he was looking for. Those led to Pinterest and Etsy, but he did most of his purchasing on Ebay.
When shopping online, on Etsy or a dedicated barware online store like The Hour, Cebula recommends reading store policies carefully. “The better ones will stand by their products and let you return if it isn't what you thought it would be,” she says.
One of the best things about buying vintage glass or barware, is that with the proper investment of time, you can find stunning pieces at low, low prices — some may even be as cheap as $1. Photo by Francis Son.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $1-$2 a glass on the lower end for a mismatched glass at a thrift store. If you’re looking for a pristine, matched set, you can spend hundreds of dollars easily, especially for a well-recognized artist or designer like Dorothy Thorpe (whose mid-century platinum banded glasses were featured on Mad Men).
Montrose was given a vintage glass budget and was able to stay well within it, shopping on Ebay, Etsy, and Amazon. Even with shipping, her rough average cost was $6 a glass. “It does take a little bit longer, but if you search, you can get it,” she says.
No matter your budget, everyone agrees that it’s important to clarify numbers and vision with management and owners before you start shopping. Some bartenders choose to build their own collection and use it at the bar, others are reimbursed and the bar owns the equipment.
For best results, wash glassware by hand, using warm water and a gentle dish soap, perhaps with a soft cloth. Sanitize and allow each glass to air dry for a few minutes before polishing.
Cabrera puts some of his stronger glasses in the dishwasher (he uses a lot of crystal), but was adamant that no vintage barware ever enter a commercial dishwasher. Cebula adds that nothing embellished should ever be put in the dishwasher.
Boehm cleans the inside of his antique shakers with lemon juice. His advice to would-be shaker collectors is to decide whether or not to polish (once you start, you have to continue, or the patina will be uneven). He prefers the unpolished look. Cabrera stresses that all barware should be completely dry at the end of every shift.
Hernandez encourages thorough staff training on all of the vintage pieces. “You might think that if you teach a bar back and your other bartenders, that's okay, but the dishwasher should know that if they see that cup, don't do it, just send it back to the bar.”
Cons to using vintage
As with the Moscow Mule mugs, some bartenders are finding that vintage glasses are walking out the door. Momose tells a story of a crystal wine glass that was saved only by the bartender, who confronted the guest who had it in her purse, on the way to the elevator. Other evenings haven’t been so lucky.
One way to combat this is to use your vintage glasses only at the bar, where they are always in sight. Or, you might follow the lead of the Moscow Mule and request a credit card or driver’s license as collateral. Cebula also recommends educating yourself about highly collectible pieces in your collection, so that you can avoid using them when you don’t have the time to keep an eye out.
Some vintage glasses are very fragile, and many of them can’t be replaced. “It's kind of like a really beautiful bottle of whiskey,” says Momose. “You want to enjoy it and use it and not just look at it, but when it's gone, it's gone. So we get the most out of it while we can.”
Storage can be tricky with vintage glassware, since sizes aren’t standard. Although you’ll want to chill some of your coupes, consider arranging your space so that you can display these special pieces, while keeping them safe and accessible.
Although Boehm has a collection of roughly 400 antique shakers, he doesn’t use many of them. “Be careful because large ice will often knock your favorite shaker out of round.” He recommends chipped or crushed ice, and a lot of common sense. If the shaker feels thin, shake with extreme care. Even if a shaker is solid, Cebula points out that many vintage shakers will leak (especially glass ones), and need to be dried completely and returned to room temperature between uses, making them impractical for bar use.
For many bartenders, the reward for seeking out vintage bar and glassware is in the response of their guests. “Many people reminisce about their grandparents when they see them and tell stories about how they inherited pieces of crystal glassware,” says Momose. “I think that's also what I really love about it too. It's not just the glass, it's a memory as well. Having that kind of interaction with guests, that's what I love about bartending so much. It's not always about the glass, it's not always about the cocktail, it's about the people. These are just another means to getting to know someone.”