New generation of mixologists fueling renewed interest in cool barware

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When it comes to technology, nothing beats the present. Yesterday’s gadget is rarely as good as the cutting-edge model. Not so with many of the finer things, including barware.

Back in the day — think of the era between “The Thin Man” and “Mad Men” — the cocktail was undisputed king of the lounge. No one talked craft beers or wine described by vintage and varietal. A drink was a Manhattan, a sidecar, a Tom Collins or a gin rickey.

And every decent host or hostess had a cabinet equipped not only with the basics — vodka, whiskey, bourbon and rum — but a collection of glasses and accessories to accommodate the drink. Presentation was important.

Just as no one now would dare serve a pinot noir or cabernet in a juice glass, the drinking culture of the mid 20th century demanded the right glass.

Your tall, chimney-shaped glasses for gin and tonics, vodka and club sodas, and whiskey and ginger, round-bottomed glasses for drinks on the rocks, long-stemmed coupes, footed cordials, spiffy shot glasses, tall straight-sided collins’ glasses and wide-mouthed martini glasses.

The enduring popularity of mixed drinks, amped by a new generation of mixologists creating craft cocktails in trendy bars and at home parties, is fueling renewed interest in cool barware.

“There is definitely more of a resurgence of more stylized entertaining,” said Emily Bruhn of Summer Cottage Antiques in Petaluma, which regularly stocks retro cool barware. “A lot of signature cocktails are just becoming part of people’s special events. People are enjoying craft alcohol more.”

The trouble is, few glass companies are making them, at least not like the good old days. So people are trolling antique and collectibles stores, flea markets and thrift shops, in search of the right accessories to gin up their entertaining.

“There is definitely a whole cocktail movement that is not going away anytime soon,” said Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour, a shop in Alexandria, Virgina, just outside of Washington, D.C., that boasts the largest retail collection of vintage barware in the world. Vergason, who was a longtime collector before opening the shop (online at a decade ago, says she has an inventory of more than 20,000 items, everything from decanters and cocktail shakers to glasses and tools.

“Just as we were seeing the rebirth of wine in the 1970s, we’re seeing the rebirth of barware, especially with all the craft spirits and bitters and organic regional products going into mixed drinks, the whole industry is exploding.”

People stocking their home bars however, are turning to the past if they want something attractive and unique in which to serve their libations.

Vergason said the glassware industry flourished in the mid-20th century, creating a real Golden Age of barware.

“What made mid-century glass so cool were the motifs. A lot of it is Asian and abstract in design. It had lots of gold and if not gold, silver, and if not silver, silver and gold. There was a really flamboyant, out-there use of the shiny metals fused onto the glass,” said Gregory Odle, whose shop, Retrospect, in Sebastopol, specializes in mid-century furnishings and collectibles.

Several factors conspired to turn consumers away from cool home barware. During World War II many of the big glass companies made ends meet by selling their steel molds for scrap metal, Vergason said.

“The shapes disappeared. It’s a quarter of a million dollars to make a new mold,” she explained. “That’s why vintage glass is so popular. It’s like it will never be made again and there’s only so much of it.”

Another factor that changed the quality of design in barware was the move to cheaper overseas manufacturing in the 1970s and a less discriminating way of mixing drinks, like free-pouring over measuring.

Libby, one of the few surviving U.S. glassware companies, did manage to save a few molds and has come out with some new retro-style designs, Vergason said.

The limited options for cool barware has made the old stuff popular at antique stores.

Aficionados will look for certain designers like Georges Briard, a Ukrainian immigrant who went to the Chicago Art Institute and whose work was sold at high-end retailers like Neiman-Marcus. Collectors also go for Dorothy Thorpe, best known for her glasses with a wide band of silver.

Most people however, dealers say, are not buying it to put in a cabinet.

“Barware is to use. If it breaks, you can usually find more,” Odle said.

Summer Cottage currently has a freestanding bar in a cabinet, a popular furniture item back in the 1930s. The Art Deco beauty opens up to a bedazzling array of crystal, including decanters, and a mirror. But such cabinets can be hard to find.

More people are opting for vintage bar carts, butler’s carts or tea carts they can turn into bar carts.

Michelle McCauley, the owner of Summer Cottage, said she has one herself, which she frequently uses as a drinks “station” during parties. They are handy because you can move them around and they’re small enough to fit even in a little apartment. Perfect for millennial entertaining.

“It’s nice to have a station people can just go up to,” McCauley said. “If I’m entertaining I don’t have to go around and keep saying, ‘Do you need this or that?’ They’re fancy and fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204.

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