A cocktail glass primer: What you need to make great drinks



Do cocktailers need a bunch of fancy glasses to practice their art? I’m of two minds. Part of me recoils at the notion, because cocktails are already a little exclusive — they require disposable income to make. So suggesting you have to have a credenza full of crystal rubs me wrong, on behalf of readers like younger me, who didn’t have any money to buy good booze or decent glasses. Or have spare space to keep them. Or know what a credenza was.

But I do love the aesthetics of cocktails, and glassware is a big part of that — the gnome-like squatness of an Old-Fashioned glass, the pearly green of a Last Word in a frost-hazed coupe. A French 75 slurped from a plastic red party cup just isn’t the same as a French 75 sipped from the willowy glass it comes in at Arnaud’s French 75 bar in New Orleans.

Using drink-appropriate glassware mines a rich vein of cocktail tradition. It also reminds the cocktailer that this genre of beverage is different: Unlike wine, beer or White Claw, the cocktail is a creation — not just opened and poured, not just cracked and chugged, but composed, right there on the spot.

Its very nature requires intentionality, and that’s a good thing: Mindless drinking, like mindless snacking, can be a slippery slope. I don’t mix a drink unless I’m going to make it thoughtfully, in an appropriate glass, with a complementary garnish. The time and effort it takes, makes me treat the process with respect, as its own little special occasion.

After years of sourcing, I’ve built up a good collection of glassware via thrifting and birthday presents, as well as late-night internet browsing when glasses shaped like birds (you can put mint sprig garnishes in their little bird butts, where the mint pops out like frilly green tails!) seemed like something I needed.

But if you’re just getting started, necessity is the mother of acquisition. Get the glasses that reflect the drinks you actually make and the number of guests you’re likely to host. As much as those bird glasses amuse me, I could easily lose them, along with much of my glassware, because I do most of my tippling using just two types of glasses: rocks and coupes/martini glasses. The next most used are the highballs, for drinks such as G&Ts, Tom Collinses and Pimm’s Cups — as well as for serving water. Multi-purposing is key to keeping your glassware manageable.

Those are, arguably, the only glasses you’ll truly need for cocktailing. If you add just one more — a good champagne flute or smaller, tulip-shaped wine glass for French 75s and such — you’re golden.

Before I move on to other glassware, let me delve a bit into these. First, as a rule, glasses without stems are used for drinks that contain ice, broadly the case for the rocks (duh) and highball glasses. Stemmed glasses have a stem for a reason: to keep your sweaty little hand away from the bowl of the glass, where it could heat up your drink. There are exceptions — the Sazerac, for example, comes in a rocks glass but is traditionally pre-chilled, then served without ice; Aperol spritzes come in a big stemmed glass with ice — but generally, the stem is a reliable guidepost about what drinks go into what vessel.

You’ll note I said coupes/martini glasses — they are two different beasts. So what’s the better option for drinks served up stirred or shaken with ice, then strained? The classic martini glass, with its sharp V-shape, or the coupe, with its more rounded bowl?

Ask five bartenders and see how many answers you get. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. For a long time, the martini glass was the king of the cocktail universe, but over the past few decades, coupes have gained ground. It’s mostly practical: The rim of a coupe tends to be more effective at containing a drink, making the liquid less likely to spill over the sides. Yet many people maintain a stubborn affection for the martini glass. There’s something clean and crisp about its angular shape that captures visually the incisive boldness of a martini. I almost feel like I’m at a cocktail party when I’m holding one, even if I’m slopping around in jeans.

When you contemplate whether to go for the classic martini glass or the coupe, consider this scenario: You’re going to an evening party. Are you going to wear A) designer stilettos that look fantastic, even if it means you have blisters at the end of the evening? Or would you prefer B) shoes that are slightly less elegant but you can walk in without falling over?

If you answered B, you’re probably a coupe person. If you answered A, you may want to consider the martini glass, which remains an almost universal sign of cocktail chic. It’s not a coupe that shows up when you search your phone’s emoji list for “cocktail.” Then again, you’re not drinking out of an emoji.

Another thing to be mindful of when selecting glasses is volume. Once or twice, I’ve bought a gorgeous coupe online only to have it arrive big enough to bathe a weasel. Whether you pick martini glasses or coupes, you’ll want a glass that holds around 6 ounces — much more, and you’ll either be overserving folks, or handing out drinks that look half-full. And beware the narrowness of some rocks glasses, which can refuse to admit one of those big, clear ice cubes that disappear seamlessly into your Negroni.

Those four glasses — rocks, coupes/martinis, highballs and champagne flutes — will cover you for almost any cocktail a guest might ask for, and if you go beyond them, your next acquisitions are likely to be even more determined by your particular taste in drinks.

Do you and your friends want to learn to savor and sip spirits neat, assessing the qualities of whiskies or rums? You may want to add Glencairn or other small spirits-tasting glasses, which are shaped to elevate aromas to your sniffer as you sip.

Do you want to explore the complex rum drinks and the nostalgic, sometimes problematic kitsch of tiki? You can find basic tiki mugs pretty easily; collecting the more elaborate, unusual mugs can be a pricey hobby.

Does your cocktail feel particularly cute today? The petite Nick & Nora glass is great for aperitivo drinks and serves well as an alternative coupe — I especially like it for booze-forward cocktails such as the martini and the Manhattan, where keeping the serving size modest is often a boon for guests.

Do you like to make hot cocktails during the winter months? A heatproof punch cup can serve cold or hot punches.

Speaking of necessities, I get more use out of my punch bowl than any glassware beyond those top three. Punch is inherently social and my go-to if I’m hosting a group of people. The only reason that a punch cup isn’t higher on my glassware list is because a rocks glass or coupe is a perfectly good way to serve most punch; you only need a special punch vessel if it’s going to do double-duty for hot drinks. And in at least three states, I’ve carried my fancy punch bowl to parties, loaded it with premium booze, fresh juice and beautiful garnishings, and ladled it into red plastic party cups. No one complained. As always, what you drink and what you drink it from is never more important than who drinks it with you.