Welcome to Imbibe Magazine's between-issues look at liquid culture with drink recipes, news and more. From coffee to cocktails, Imbibe celebrates your world in a glass.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Shop Talk: Buying vintage barware

“Oooh, pretty!” my friend gushed when seeing the cover of our new holiday issue. “Where’d that glass come from?” It’s a question that comes up regularly: Where do we find the glassware that we feature in the magazine? But the joke among Imbibe’s staff is, “Where don’t we find it?” The glasses (and mugs, shakers, teacups, etc.) you see in our pages come from any number of sources. We scour catalogs and websites for items that pique our interest—for those, you can find the source listed in the photo credit. But we also cruise boutiques and vintage shops, and we’ve even been known to borrow glassware from our staff’s personal collections.

As for the glass holding the cocktail featured on the Nov/Dec cover, that was one that I found during my own perusal in a vintage shop in Portland. In fact, several of the glasses in this holiday issue came from the same shopping spree. I like to boast that I don't actually have a single new glass in my barware collection, and I've shopped at thrift stores since I was kid. I like things that have a sense of history. When you put a classic cocktail in a 1940s glass, it really is like taking a little trip back in time. With that in mind, I thought I'd offers a few tips for scoring your own tiny time machines:

No need to match. You’re unlikely to find a full set of glasses at a thrift shop, anyway, and an eclectic collection of individual vintage pieces creates its own fun look. Stick to a particular color palette if you want—I've picked up a lot of aqua-blue over the years, inspired by the tile in my first house’s kitchen. Or, mix colors and shapes with abandon. That way, when all you have is individual pieces, you never have to worry about mistaking your drink for someone else’s.

Look twice before you buy. Hold each glass to the light and check for chips, stains, cracks and major scratches. Bring a clean handkerchief with you to rub at spots to check if they’re stains or just dirt (don't worry, it's not rude). This trick also works for testing for cloudiness, which sometimes affects glass that’s been through the dishwasher too often. If a glass is stained, cloudy, chipped or cracked, put it back, no matter how much you love the look—it can’t be fixed. Neither can discoloration, which happens when glass—especially older glass—is exposed to harsh sunlight or, again, the dishwasher. Discolored glass can be harder to spot, since it’s often only noticeable when held next to fresh, clean glass—it will look slightly yellow, brown or purplish-gray.

Remember what’s going in the glass. Colored glass is funky and fun, but not always a good choice for barware. You want glass that is clear and not too strongly patterned to show off the color and look of your drinks. Think about the kinds of drinks you like to make: If you’re a fan of classic cocktails, most of the new triangular martini glasses on the shelves today will be too big. You’re better off buying vintage cocktail glasses, champagne coupes or small wine glasses. Pick each glass up to feel its heft and to check for top-heaviness.

Be practical. Before you buy any piece, ask yourself some basic questions: What will I use this for? Will it fit on my shelves? Is it the right size for the kinds of drinks I like to make? Do I already have too many glasses of this general size or shape? It’s easy to get carried away by the thrill of the hunt while thrift-shopping, but don’t buy things you’ll regret. I’ve found some gorgeous crystal in thrift shops over the years, but I never buy it because I know how much I hate hand-washing stuff and there’s no point to buying things I’ll never use. I just tell myself I’m leaving it there for someone who will appreciate it more than I can.

Sometimes, you have to break the rules. One of my favorite thrift-store finds was, objectively, a horrible purchase. It broke almost all my rules for glassware: It was modern and kind of cheap-looking, like some sort of gift-with-purchase. It had gold-colored decals all over the outside, which I hate because they always wear off in the dishwasher. It was too big for a three-ounce cocktail. But it had these goofy martini glasses and pieces of cake printed all over it, along with the letter K repeated over and over. I bought it for my friend Kate as a present. She loves it. We call it her Special K glass, and people always comment on it when she pulls it out. It’s a classic case where having a dozen of those things would probably look tacky, but having one in a mix makes it fun.

—Hannah Feldman