Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Size Matters

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

Earlier this week at The Spirit World, cocktail expert Robert Hess addressed the history of that most iconic barroom vessel, the Martini glass. You know the one I mean: its V-shape sleek and modern, easily rendered in neon and often seen in the company of an olive.

While the V-shaped glass is certainly the most prominent type of stemware found in the cocktail kingdom, this wasn't always the case: a tour of old cocktail manuals and bar catalogs reveals an array of glasses designed to deliver a short one, ranging from Marie-Antoinette coupes to tulip-shaped goblets.

But what really got my attention is the way sizes have shifted. Look for a cocktail glass in the housewares section of a department store and you'll find 9- to 12-ounce monstrosities more suitable for use as birdbaths than for serving a respectable drink. Here in Seattle, one of the most popular bars in town draws its name from the gargantuan size of its drinks, poured into glasses so obscenely large that a woozy patron could topple forward and drown in one. If Morgan Spurlock were to reprise Supersize Me in many American bars, his liver would give out halfway through the film.

Those coupes, goblets and vintage V-shaped glasses our ancestors hoisted were much more demure. Venture into an antique or thrift store and look at the stemware selection: those 3- to 5-ounce glasses aren't necessarily for cordials; that's how big the average cocktail was served (with ample room at the top to prevent spillage). Need proof? Take a look at the Gibson ordered by Cary Grant in North by Northwest, or at Nick & Nora's Martinis in The Thin Man: tidy, neat little glasses, capable of delivering enough libation to put some pep in your step, but not leave you mumbling incoherently on the floor (or worse yet, in your car).

Fortunately, many quality cocktail bars have figured out that smaller is better. At Vessel in Seattle, the bar recently shifted to using all vintage stemware; both because it's very attractive, but also because vintage glasses hold smaller, safer, more responsible portions (the bar's previous coupes were elegant, but larger, and patrons complained if the glass wasn't served full).

What's your take? Do you sometimes find the size of drinks you're served excessive, overwhelming and maybe even downright dangerous? Let's hear it.