By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names, an ancient Chinese proverb says. So let us begin: A martini is served in what is correctly called a cocktail glass. A cocktail glass traditionally holds about three to five ounces of liquid. Nearly every martini recipe in nearly every cocktail guide ever published calls for about three ounces of spirits, diluted by a bit of stirring over ice and served freezing cold with a garnish.
Wisdom therefore dictates that no martini needs to be poured into a glass larger than five ounces.
Of course, that is not what the wise people at Crate and Barrel say. I found myself there over the holidays, wandering the "drinkware" section, looking at rows of what they call "martini" glasses: the 9-ounce Roz, the 10-ounce Temptation, the 12-ounce Inga, even a 13-ounce stemless model. The smallest I could find was a seven-ouncer.
I stared at all those lovely glasses and imagined how long it would take the average person to drink 12 ounces of gin and vermouth. That caused me to wince, and it led to two conclusions. First, wisdom does not begin in the drinkware section of Crate and Barrel. Second, the only reason to use a 12-ounce glass for a martini would be to accommodate one very, very large olive.
We are facing an epidemic of cocktails served in inappropriately large glasses. Anyone who's recently spent time at the local bar knows that cocktails are growing, often simply to justify a double-digit price tag.
"It's the mentality that bigger is better," says Charlotte Voisey, who visits bars all over the country promoting Hendrick's Gin. "But three sips in, the drink gets too warm."
Bette Kahn, spokeswoman for Crate and Barrel, tells me that "martini" glasses in the 11- to-13-ounce range are the store's bestsellers. When I ask why cocktail glasses have gotten so big, she retorts, "You know how they've supersized the McDonald's hamburger?"
When I suggest that the traditional way to drink a martini is in a glass of 4.5 ounces or smaller, Kahn asks, "Why would anyone drink a 4.5-ounce martini?" Crate and Barrel considers seven ounces to be the "standard size."
Voisey blames the large-cocktail trend on ignorance and a false sense of value. "A small martini is a better value because you get to enjoy all of it before it gets warm," she says. "Two normal-size martinis would even be better than one big one."
Even contemporary guidebooks such as A.J. Rathbun's comprehensive "Good Spirits," published a few months ago, acknowledge that traditional cocktails were served in glasses as small as three ounces. "A drink this size, it was thought, stayed chilled through its consumption," Rathbun writes. He even invokes the great Jazz Age bartender Harry Craddock's adage that a cocktail should be consumed quickly, "while it's still laughing at you."
Yet in the same chapter, Rathbun writes that "there is nothing inherently wrong" with a huge 12-ounce cocktail glass, "as long as the cocktails aren't losing their chill before the last drop." But wouldn't that require gulping them rather than sipping, or drinking them while standing in a walk-in freezer? It should be noted that "Good Spirits" was one of only two cocktail guides on sale at my Crate and Barrel during this past holiday season.
Beyond creating an overpriced, warm drink, the large-glass phenomenon is not healthy. If you don't take the time to measure -- which few people do -- it's nearly impossible to correctly gauge how much liquor you're pouring. People end up boozing much more than they realize.
Consider a recent Duke University Medical Center study in which college students were asked to estimate and pour standard measurements of different spirits into glasses of several sizes. The students, on average, overpoured shots by 26 percent, mixed drinks by 80 percent and beer by 25 percent, the study showed. The larger the glass, the more they overpoured.
Yes, I realize that for many college students, drink potency outweighs craftsmanship. But the best cocktails are carefully balanced, and the effect of an oversize glass on that balance has been worrying observers for decades.
"A too-large glass gives the drink more time to lose its chill and initial zest, and a half-filled glass looks unexciting, so an average-size cocktail glass of 4 1/2 ounces is the most satisfactory," wrote Collette Richardson in the 1973 edition of "House & Garden's Drink Guide."
Thirty-five years later, just try finding a 4.5-ounce cocktail glass. In fact, most glassware called for in cocktail books has become exceedingly difficult to find. Retailers also are stocked with ridiculously huge double old-fashioned glasses, clocking in at 10 to 15 ounces. Finding the normal six- to eight-ounce old-fashioned glass that most drink recipes call for is difficult but not impossible. I ended up buying a heavy-bottomed six-ounce "juice" glass at Crate and Barrel that works fine.
Those two glasses, plus a tall, slender 10-ounce highball glass and a two-ounce cordial/shot glass, are the essentials for a home bar. Your best bet to find them is at a bar- and restaurant-supply store (such as Best Kitchen Supply, 413 Morse St. NE, 202-544-2525) or a yard sale. The search will be worth it.
"Cocktail geeks have always known that small martini glasses are better," Voisey says. Then she catches herself: "Of course, I'm incorrect talking about 'martini' glasses when I should be talking about 'cocktail' glasses."
Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.