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Why the martini glass is a classic, despite its shape

Why the martini glass is a classic, despite its shape

The surprising endurance of a Jazz Age design

The surprising endurance of a Jazz Age design

Jason Palmer | October 10th 2018

If you were in a distant city and wanted to find a drink, what symbol would you look for? The answer, on a map or in bright neon, is a vertical line bisecting a horizontal one, with an inverted triangle on the top: the martini glass has become the world’s visual shorthand for cocktails.

The vessel traces its history to an only slightly different one, the cocktail glass. Until the late 19th century, cocktail recipe books called for tumbler-like “bar glasses” of various sorts – “large”, “medium”, “fancy” and so on – and, later, highball glasses. But as cocktails evolved, so too did glassware. Fruity and tooth-achingly sweet concoctions popular with the Victorians gave way to an ever-wider range of aromatic drinks made with bitters and aromatised wines. These more delicate creations needed to be kept from the warmth of the hand, which drove their more ephemeral flavours out of the drink. The cocktail glass – a straight-sided take on a wine glass – introduced a stem into the equation.

The martini glass was an elegant variation, with a pure V-shape, a longer stem and a wider bowl. It was first seen at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925 – the birthplace of Art Deco. At first it was used as just another vessel for champagne. But as Art Deco caught on, so did the Jazz Age predilection for cocktails, especially those made with gin, Prohibition’s principal illicit booze. This was good for the martini, a mix of gin and vermouth whose origins are as hazy as someone who has had four of them. By the mid-1930s, the glass was being packaged with the three-part cocktail shaker, also patented in 1925, as a “martini set”.

Hollywood promoted and popularised the trend: Paul Vanderkill, the New York millionaire in “Child of Manhattan” (1933, above), enjoyed a properly housed martini, as did Clark Gable’s charming newspaperman in “After Office Hours” (1935). So strong did these cultural associations become that the martini glass is now unique among barware in that it is never repurposed. You could conceivably put cola in a highball or juice in a tumbler. But barring a significant dirty-dishes emergency, it would feel ludicrous to put anything other than a cocktail in a martini glass.

Its popularity is surprising, given that physics is against it. Imagine holding a full wine glass or coupe. Shift yourself quickly and the drink goes up the side, with at least some coming back down and staying in the glass. The straight-sided martini glass? No chance. It’s fine if you’re seated at a table – or better yet, at a bar where there’s no jostling. But trying to manage a full one on the move or in a crowd is just asking for trouble.

Indeed, one origin myth for the glass holds that its spill-prone design was not a bug but a feature: Prohibition-era drinkers, the argument goes, would find it easier to ditch their drinks if the cops showed up. Besides the fact that my own experiments indicate that specific glassware has little bearing on the time required to spill a drink, you imagine that they would have been more inclined to pour a cocktail down than to pour it out.

In the 1980s the martini glass got bigger, along with the hairstyles and boxy suits, to accommodate a dizzying array of ‘tini drinks. That larger size demanded a mid-glass or around-the-rim grip, somewhat defeating the purpose of that elegant stem. Thankfully those trends have now reversed. The martini glass is shrinking, which makes it less unwieldy (and, cynics may note, permits a smaller serve). It remains a classic, despite the physics, and still what I want my martini in.