The cocktail glass: Why bother?
Clive Watson | Contributor
Why do we drink cocktails out of cocktail glasses? I agree that they look pretty; moreover, the triangle is one of my favorite shapes, something that the cocktail glass deploys to terrific effect.
But it's just not terribly stable. And especially when one gets to the second cocktail or to the point where conversation calls for particularly emphatic gesticulation, the imbiber (at least those of less than Olympically gymnastic hand-eye coordination) quickly finds him- or herself working hard to manage the preservation of delectable concoction within the cocktail glass's mercurial embrace.
At risk of sounding positively heretical, would not the ordinary wine glass do all of the requisite tasks better? Or, perhaps more radically, could we design some finer, more appropriate serving vessel?
A young mixologist.
First, a disclaimer: I must insist that I have never once, either by spoken word or by the brandishing of forged papers, represented myself as a cocktail guru. However, having been addressed as such, I have done my best to rise to the challenge. Please read at your own risk, and weigh my findings with your own well-honed senses of reason, as I have neither been graduated nor ordained by any accredited mixological institution (if such a thing even exists).
The question you've raised is a fascinating one, and despite first glances, a deep and complex matter, full of nuance and subtlety. Now, we all know it's the good of any cocktail glass to be filled with nuance and subtlety, but we usually look for these qualities only in its liquid contents, seldom taking stock of everything the glass itself brings to the table — not as container, but as objet d'art, talisman, and symbol.
Of course, we never talk about these things, because — well, because it's just a cocktail glass, right? And while we as a culture have a passionate (albeit somewhat closeted) relationship with our spirits, we also have a long history of downplaying, or downright ignoring, the layer upon layer of ritual and ceremony involved in their consumption: "What, that old thing? The inverted cone of shimmering translucence, brimming with rare, herbal distillates, decoctions of secret ingredients, and mind-altering substances? No, pay no attention to that. It's my golf story that's the thing!"
But you clearly aren't put off by any such lamentable baggage, and neither am I. So let's get on with it.
All aesthetics aside (as if we could set them down on the credenza), we should note a few practical advantages the glass offers. Sure, its shape may seem to taunt and confound, but in fact, it's doing its best to help. How, you may ask?
Well, for starters, there's the matter of temperature. You, or your kind bartender, have already gone to great pains to achieve the perfect balance of ingredients, and as it isn't your first go-round, you've probably been very specific about how those ingredients were mixed and, more importantly, how they were chilled. You may have requested it dry or wet, dirty or perfect, shaken or stirred (both have their merits), but if you're drinking it from of a cocktail glass, you've most definitely requested it up.
The serious frostiness of your potent potable is critical, and you don't want to go heating it up with your palms — which, to your delicate beverage are nothing more than a couple of mammalian heat-pads pulsing out a constant 98.6 degrees. (Conversely, this is exactly why you might want your brandy in a snifter, in which it's very likely to become the more redolent and aromatic for the added measure of human warmth).
However, since your proposed alternative is a wine glass, arguably the first vessel to employ the isolating magic of the stem, I have to assume that you are already aware of this concern.
Clive Watson | Contributor
Ironically, the main service the cocktail glass provides is the flip-side of your complaint: wielding it requires a certain amount of dexterity, which in turn requires a very specific remnant of sobriety — not all of it, to be sure, but some. We can therefore think of it as a sort of built-in user-protection mechanism.
Things consumed from cocktail glasses are notoriously strong, after all, and well they should be: we're swallowing fire here. In all such feats (knife-juggling, gator-wrestling, and tight-rope walking, to name just a few), the risk is one of the key reasons we find the act so enviable when done well.
Do I mean to tell you that after all of our growing up, sneering at adolescent antics until we've arrived at states of fossilized sensibility, that we're still impressed by thrown shapes and devil-may-care bravado? I'm afraid so.
Try as we might, it seems we are still no closer to escaping the allure of the truly cool. I mean the mythic kind of cool here, not the mass-produced variety available for the cost of a pair of Diesel jeans, or a subscription to paste magazine. And contrary to my tone, I do believe that's a good thing, a sign that our civilization isn't as far gone as you might otherwise think.
Admittedly, the cool we still chase, however unconsciously, is the safe kind that happens in parlor rooms and posh bars with understated lighting, surrounded by the reassuring trappings of civilization. But that doesn't mean there isn't still a bit of danger to things — and a great deal of that danger is social.
To be able to finish one's martini is one thing. To be able to finish it whilst wittily discussing the films of Wes Anderson, arguing the subversion of feminist narratives in the choreography of Lady Gaga, or simply listening to one's companions with honest human compassion, is quite another.
Also, at the risk of dredging up the dreadful details of logistics, you may at some point need to find the right train, drive yourself home or else be clear-headed enough not to. Your cocktail glass wants to make sure you arrive at all of these destinations with both style and grace.
When previous rounds have left me without the nimbleness to balance my hovering oasis deftly, I take the glass's subtle nudge. "Come down off the high-wire," it says. With pints, flutes and tumblers at our disposal, there's plenty of derring do to be done a bit nearer to the ground.
One more practical matter leaps to mind: the grasp of the cocktail glass is indeed mercurial, as you put it, and despite the challenge it poses, this too becomes an advantage. The wide mouth of the cocktail glass, like the business end of a blunderbuss or a trumpet, seems all too ready to release its precious contents in every which direction.
The same goes for vapors. As we've already noted, the liquid-stuff of Martinis, Manhattans, and Negronis is volatile, and can cause displeasure or pain if handled carelessly. Even ice-calmed cocktails will continue to release powerful fumes, and the open arms of your cocktail glass are designed to diffuse them just enough to let the drink's more subtle qualities emerge.
The reason we drink Bordeaux, for example, from tall, bell-shaped glasses which taper toward the top (other than elegant appearance) is that the shape focuses the flow of vapor. This is all quite helpful when your nose is eager to gambol across meadows of subtle aroma, and the alcohol (by volume) is unlikely to exceed 14 percent. Tasting from this type of glass is the equivalent of turning up the volume.
When approaching the classic 40 percent liquor proof, however, the same level of magnification is more than enough to scorch nasal passages. Imagine cranking up the volume on a 747.
Of course, I realize I've gone on and on about the practical, and only ended up smuggling in the aesthetic along the way. There's a good bit more to be said on that subject, though, so please let me know if I haven't scribbled you cross-eyed already. Also, your proposal of a new vessel is intriguing, and we should discuss it further. In the meantime, regardless of which vessel you choose, may all of your concoctions bedazzle and delight.
Yours in alchemy,
And how do you feel about the cocktail glass, gentle reader? Does it make you feel majestic, or anxious? Do you wear your Martinis up or down? (Surly and warlike readers are also welcomed to respond, but I find the gentle ones require more coaxing.)
Clive Watson stirs, shakes, strains, savors and waxes incoherent at triplesequitur.com.