The Art of the Cocktail Glass

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Gone are the days where bars and restaurants had only a few glasses to serve beverages in. With the rise of hand-crafted cocktail, there are more glass wares available than ever.

The cocktail glass is a central component to the visual aesthetic of the beverage and this is almost (or some may argue that it is) equally as important as the actual taste of beverage.

It’s true when they say diners eat and drink with their eyes first. When a diner sees a unique looking cocktail, it’s almost impossible for them to resist the urge to order their own and to post a photo of the cocktail on Instagram. The glass of the cocktail plays into that. It only heightens the presentation.

With that in mind, we decided to sit down with two renowned mixologists to get an idea of the difference craft cocktail glasses make. See what Joaquín Simó, bartender and partner of NYC’s Pouring Ribbons, who was named the American Bartender of the year in 2012 at the Tales of Cocktail and Sam Treadway, bar manager and co-owner of Backbar, who was named Boston’s best bartender by Boston Magazine in 2013, had to say below. 

A photo posted by Sam Treadway (@treadwas) on

How does a cocktail glass make a difference?

Treadway: I think it is important to read your guest and determine what kind of glass will enhance their experience. For example, are they going to get excited about drinking a Moscow Mule out of a copper mug because it's authentic and interesting and tells a story. Or are they going to be more comfortable with a simple solid rocks glass because it's less showy. People taste with their eyes first, so the vessel that the drink is in effects that. Some people will appreciate classic antiques, others love showy presentations with tiki mugs or odd scorpion bowls. While, others insist on drinking from the quintessential martini glass. 

  Joaquín Simó  | Danny Miller Primus

Joaquín Simó | Danny Miller Primus

Simó: It makes a significant difference actually. First of all, the glass is typically dictated by the specific serve that you want to do. Consider a classic Sazerac, that’s generally served in a rocks glass that has been chilled, rinsed with absinthe and then they put a relatively small amount of liquid, the average rocks glass is 10-11 ounces and then their really only putting 2.5 ounces into that, maybe three. So you have a huge collar between the liquid and the lip of the glass, so the wash line is very low, but the reason it works is the absinthe rinse. You have all of this surface area being covered by this aromatic component, if you were to put that in a 4 ounce glass, which would make a lot more sense given the smaller quantity of liquid you would have in there, you wouldn’t have that strong aromatic quality. So literally the exact same drink in two different sized glasses will taste radically different, simply because the aromatics of the glass can change it so enormously.

Also, I think variety is very important. I don’t want to have seven drinks on my menu that look like Manhattans. So, your ability to mix up the glass ware you are using, the color of the drinks you are serving, the garnish– I think that will make more of a variety of how different a tray of say a four or a six top is going to look.

What about presentation in general? Do consumers drink beverages with their eyes first?

A photo posted by Backbar (@backbarunion) on

Treadway: Yes, exactly as stated above. People take note of the glass, the garnish, the theatrics, even simply the care and technique of how the bartender made their drink. A person that orders a vodka soda is more interested in the speed of the presentation. While a guest saying "surprise me" might be hoping to witness fire or smoke!

Simó: That’s totally true. You have those drinks, like the Queen’s Park Swizzle that if this cocktail goes across the floor, you know as a service bartender you will only be making Queen’s Park Swizzle for the subsequent 20-25 minutes. That drink, which is basically a mojito with benefits served over crushed ice with a lot of mint at the bottom, rum in the middle and then Angostura bitters served just over the top, so it looks just like a big boozy push pop, goes across the floor and people don't even really care what’s really in it, they just want it now. They could swear that they hate rum, but they want that drink.

  Heart of Darkness at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

Heart of Darkness at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

A photo posted by Backbar (@backbarunion) on

Appearance is huge. For example, we had a guest who came in and tried to order our Heart of Darkness, which is our bestselling drink on the menu now. One of our bartenders, Courtney Colarik, it’s her invention and it’s served in a relatively small mixer over crushed ice and the really striking thing visually is that it’s jet black because we have added a tiny amount of activated charcoal to quite a bit of raspberry reserves and have blended that together with tequila and Mezcal citrus. So you have this drink that is really strikingly black in this beautiful frosted snifter and the garnish is supposed to be an edible orchid, which is dotted with a paint we made out of activated charcoal and rich simple syrup, so it has this really beautiful look to it with the contrast of colors and shapes and everything is stunning. This young lady walked in and we hadn’t received our produce order so we didn’t have any of the orchids, and she changed her order and left after that. If it didn’t have the garnish she heard about and it didn’t look like the thing she saw on Instagram, she didn’t want it.

There are some people who think the aesthetic of the drink is actually more important and admittedly that’s a small sample size, but that is certainly an extreme example of how in this age of visual and age of Instagram, for some people that’s the only thing that matters or is at least a huge component to enjoying a beverage. The presentation, the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of the serve is something that has never been as important as it is now, just because how easy it is to share these experiences.

What cocktails are the most popular at your bar? Any with unique presentation? 

Treadway: Thankfully our most popular cocktails are based around taste more than presentation. But of course there are eye catching techniques that will get ordered again and again. In particular, when we bring out a cedar board that we light on fire and turn a glass upside down over the scorch mark, immediately filling the glass with smoke, effectively "smoke rinsing" the glass, so when you pour in the drink smoke curls around the edges and it's both an impressive visual and aromatic presentation; for more than just the guest getting the drink too. Other tables intoxicated by the show and the smell, will want to order one for themselves. 

  Just Like Heaven at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

Just Like Heaven at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

Simó: Certainly the heart of darkness falls in that category, that is an incredibly popular one. I think that’s the bestselling on our current menu by a hundred drinks. Then I think in second place is the Just Like Heaven, which is a split base whiskey sour, scotch and Bourbon served in a highball glass and the garnish is a couple sprigs of thyme that have been clipped on with using those tiny little clothes pins, that are just so freaking adorable, and lightly scorched with blow torch to bring out some of that aromatic, not to turn it into a smoldering piled of trigs, but to just bring up some of those oils. So that one’s got a little bit of drama because anytime you bring out a blow torch, people look and are like “what is going on over there?” So, that’s another one that gets quite a bit of attention.

Another one is This Charming Man, which has a black ink component of a very different kind, we are using tradition absinthe glasses to serve and it’s a mezcal maguey variation with a very smokey rabar inflicted amaro as the chief modifier, the thing replacing Campari. With that the product is called Sfrumato, which is an old renaissance painting technique where there are no sharp delineations between things, everything was just shades of grey that kind of faded in or out of each other, it was really hard to tell where something began and something ended. So in order to recreate that, I annoy the hell out of my wife and neighbors every couple months and I take pretty much all of the spent lemon that we had just juiced before a Friday night and I will take them home with me and pop them in a 400 degree oven and pretty much turn them into carbon. This was a technique that I first saw Naomi Levy, who was at The Eastern Standard at the time do it and she turned that into powder and sprinkled it on top of an Egg White Sour. I, instead, added a rich simple syrup to it and turned it into a paste and we achieve Sfrumato by brush strokes over the part of the lip of the glass. So you taste from that side and you get a little bit of the Smokey, lemony charred taste that plays really nicely with the smoke and the citrus components going on in the cocktail.

I think those are drinks that inherently get a double take and that is partially why they do so well and obviously, they have to taste good because that’s how people have a second. But a lot of times people have a first because someone siting around them has something that is very eye-catching.

What trends in cocktail glasses are you seeing emerge?

Treadway: My favorite trend is using vessels that aren't actually a regular glass. Bowls, vases, candle holders, planters... all sorts are fun. And it's great searching for these odd potential presentations at antique shops etc.


A photo posted by Backbar (@backbarunion) on


Simó: Well with the rise of the Tiki culture, there’s been a lot of fun glass ware coming out. Not just the Tiki idle mugs, but a lot of more festive glass ware coming out. We are seeing a lot more companies cater to that, you now have the ability to get those custom glasses. I know Absolut Elyx kind of turned the cocktail world on its head when they had that golden pineapple and that just became the thing. Those things are beautiful and now you’re seeing them in golden and silver. I think glass ware like that is really fascinating. 

  This Charming Man at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

This Charming Man at Pouring Ribbons | Paul Wagtouicz

Again, you are seeing a lot more options with classic shapes being subtly tweaked and a lot more additions and things you can add to your glass. I am seeing a lot more options for engraving work and filigree work and all sorts of metallic bands either around the base or the lip. Smoked glass is another thing that kind of has this beautiful ombre-like effect and you are seeing some more of this. When we were opening up Death & Co ten years ago, you had your libbey 3773 coupe, which was your 5.5 oz four-course and if you were feeling flushed, you were spending a bunch of money on those beautiful Nick and Nora glasses that only Rona was making back then. And everything else you had was like a 12 oz V-shaped martini glass and it was just totally unsuitable for 5-6 oz and just looked like you were being stingy. As a result, what we have seen in the last even just three years, in terms of glass ware options has been nothing short of amazing.