While preparing for a Zoom job interview at a now-defunct, posh lifestyle magazine some years back, I dressed carefully — layering my brown wool smock over a clean white button-down shirt — and chose a Ball Mason jar as my drinking accessory. To me, these choices seemed to collectively say, “See? I’m just what you’re looking for: minimalist, pastoral chic.” A few minutes into the interview, I reached for a sip of water, and the editor chuckled.
“You’re the third person I’ve interviewed today who drank out of a mason jar,” she said.
Like wearing normcore or carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, the glassware we choose can communicate something about who we are or want to be. In this case, it was the aspirational self I only had 30 minutes and a screen’s confines to convey: the sort with an excess of pickling jars because she’s always making preserves (untrue), whose reclaimed wood table betrays the water stains and dried-up candle wax dribbles of a thousand impromptu dinner parties (half true). Never mind that the jar — or, more realistically, my wanting qualifications — didn’t get me the job; my glassware choice aimed to send a message, however unoriginal.
Form Vs. Function in Our Very Visual Era
“We live in this very visual time — between social media and magazines, online publications, pop culture, etc. — where we are barraged with the message that every aesthetic decision you make is a reflection of your identity or character,” says drinks writer and James Beard Award-winning author Emma Janzen. “I think for privileged folks with the means to make decisions driven by form instead of function (or form and function), that paradigm totally extends to glassware.”
Sometimes we want to amplify a message to our little corners of the real and virtual worlds, like I’m vintage and cool or I’m modern and minimalist. Glassware can impart status: Serving cocktails in whisper-thin, etched Kimura glasses that cost $20 apiece says I’m rich and elegant (and not clumsy); drinking out of a 20-cent quart deli container betrays my membership in the kitchen back-of-house club — immortalized on the wildly popular FX show “The Bear.”
Like using restaurant industry-sanctioned knives and cookware, glassware can also convey bartending chops — as in, I’m enough in the know to serve you a gin Martini in a Nick & Nora glass instead of the so-outdated, V-shaped glass, Janzen says. “Not just that I want to look chic and cool while drinking it, but that I might also know that the vessel is a more functional choice for the drink because it’s going to keep it colder for longer and it’s easier to handle, and it’s the more contemporary choice.”
She’s speaking of perhaps the most famous glass to come out of the craft cocktail renaissance — the delicate, long-stemmed, and narrow-mouthed antithesis to the garish, conical Martini glass that dominated the 1980s bar scene. Legendary bartender Dale DeGroff plumbed the archives of Manhattan glass and silver manufacturer Minners Designs to replicate the “Little Martini” glasses Nick and Nora Charles sipped from in the beloved “Thin Man” film series in the 1930s. There’s something about that elegant little glass that conveys sophistication — as if wordlessly nudging you to sip slowly and savor the carefully calibrated tipple therein.
Indeed, much of the messaging power of glassware has to do with its size, says Greg Boehm, the New York-based owner of upmarket barware company Cocktail Kingdom and cocktail bars including The Cabinet and Mace.
“Small glasses like the Nick & Nora can give the message of a high-quality, sophisticated experience — unless you get down to a shot glass, and then it goes the other way,” Boehm says. “Both offer messaging on what you’re supposed to do next.”
Serious bar industry pros like Boehm won’t even entertain form without function, meaning he’s politely gobsmacked at my performative choice to drink from a mason jar, with its clunky threaded lip prone to leakage.
“It’s interesting to think where form is more important than function, where you’re choosing something that doesn’t make sense to the environment it’s in,” he says. “On social media you see a lot of people not thinking about the ceremony of receiving a drink, just the image.”
Ceremony and intention are why he most often looks to the past for inspiration — more specifically, his library of roughly 3,800 antique cocktail books. “[Glassware from the 1800s] was much more specific — a mix of functionality, being purposeful, and also the design,” he says.
The Glassware Makes the Host
Janzen agrees that having the right glass for the right beverage and moment is as much the mark of a good host as a good bartender, because it “assures the guest they’re in capable hands for the experience.” It also clues them into the vibe of the place or event. For instance, when I watch home entertaining goddess Ina Garten throw together a casual lunch of deconstructed lobster salad at her airy Hamptons home (“How easy was that?”), pouring white Burgundy into French country-style goblets, I imagine I can channel the same breezy elegance if I can just get my hands on those glasses. (And perhaps a mansion and best friends who own a flower shop and wine shop, respectively.)
The model host is a compulsion that runs generations deep — to the mid-last century when well-heeled housewives started throwing elaborate dinners to flex their worldliness. They cooked fussy French dishes peddled by Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and James Beard on then-new cooking shows and in home-entertaining rags like Gourmet and the now-defunct Cuisinart companion magazine The Pleasures of Cooking. In one of Cooking’s first issues, in 1971, Beard counted among the first influencers to give Americans permission to rebel a little by artfully mismatching plates and glassware.
“The very idea that a plate or a glass should be a garnish was really an atypical idea at the time,” Carl Jerome, Beard’s assistant in the 1970s, told me in a 2021 interview. “Jim Beard had the idea [to do tablescapes mixing different-patterned plates] because he personally wasn’t into matching plates.”
To this day, media maintains considerable power over how we project our aspirational selves; tailored ads on our Instagram feeds join the already crowded visual landscape of print and digital magazines, cooking shows, home decor catalogs, and cocktail books. Covid lockdown only supercharged the movement toward creating lush living spaces, complete with home bars stocked as if by professionals.
“Pre-Covid, you’d care because you’d entertain and have people over and want them to be like, ‘Oh, this person’s so stylish or design-forward or has a good eye,’” says longtime food, drink, and travel photographer Sandy Noto. “During lockdown, people wanted to curate their lifestyles and make their homes super comfortable. I got a lot more questions about the things I owned and used more than ever before.”
Eventually, We’ll All Own the Same Glassware
Beverage photographers have a fair amount of free rein when it comes to glassware choices on photo shoots; they often bring pieces from their own collections. For Noto, that means clean and modern shapes for direct-to-consumer drink brands, and a nice range of always-photogenic, vintage colored glassware for lifestyle brands. She deploys simple, mass-market lowball glasses for liquor companies, whose main goal is to not visually detract from their bottles.
“It’s weird how all my photographer friends have the same glassware,” she laughs. “We all gravitate toward the same thing.”
As we speak, I’m scrolling through Noto’s “libations and cocktail photography” Pinterest board, idly wondering how many of those pieces will eventually end up on my shelf because they’ll have appeared in an ad or influencer post that appeals to my aspirational self, who these days tends toward midcentury chic with a touch of whimsy. As if she read my mind, Noto shares a rather meta anecdote involving the Ripple Long Drink Glass, a skinny, rippled, geometric highball glass from Ferm Living that, for a time, was her go-to vessel. It looks just like what self-actualized me might own; plus, I’d boast to Boehm, it’s actually functional.
“I used that glass in probably four different ads — including a ton for [upmarket, Chicago-based convenience chain] Foxtrot,” Noto says. “Recently, I saw an ad featuring it, and I thought, ‘God, I’m so sick of this glassware.’ I’m definitely part of the problem.”