Shake that glass: The history, myths and legends behind glassware

Do judge a cocktail by its container. We talk to the glassware gurus of Toronto about the history of our favourite tipple tumblers.

All the do's and don'ts of glassware

James Bond wouldn’t be 007 without a cocktail in hand. Dreamily iconic duo, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon are never without a manhattan in Some Like it Hot. Even the cosmopolitan – a lethal combination of vodka, Cointreau and cranberry that could remove tooth enamel – is still popular (albeit, with the “basic bitch” status) more than twenty years after Sex and the City first hit our screens.

Some of the world’s best cocktails were made famous on the big screen and often, our favourite tipples have unbelievable origin stories. But before we’ve even taken our first sip, our glassware has already begun communicating the secret language of cocktails with us. From stemware to tumblers and delicate crystal to ceramic mugs, there are umpteen vessels for a bartender to serve your drink in – and don’t think for a second that it’s an afterthought.

“The glass is just as important as the liquid it contains,” writes Salvatore Calabrese, one of the world’s leading bartenders, in his bartender bible Classic Cocktails. “As well as looking good, the shape, style, material, weight and balance of a glass can affect the way we perceive a drink and the way its flavours travel on our palates.”

Rus Yessenov, director of mixology at the Fairmont Royal York, and a man whose encyclopedic knowledge of cocktail culture makes Ernest Hemingway’s enthusiasm for booze seem half-hearted, certainly agrees. Brought on in 2019 to help with the iconic hotel’s transformation and 90th birthday, Yessenov was tasked with crafting a brand new cocktail menu for their signature lounge Clockwork and restaurant Reign. It was here that his passion for all the extra features, like glassware, suddenly came into focus.

“I think as you discover recipes, whether it’s your own or classic cocktails, you start paying more and more attention to some of the details,” Yessenov explains to me over a cocktail. “You discover that the types of glassware go back through history and have such an interesting story. Some of that is related to trends, technology or availability, and just drinking habits in general.”

Nick and Nora

Habits like day drinking during Prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s had a marked effect on vintage glassware. These dainty vessels, built to hold three or four ounces, made it seem more acceptable to have three or four drinks with lunch. Nick and Nora glasses, a close relative of the coupe, have seen a huge rise in popularity in recent years. Though the name of the glass was only coined in 2005, by Audrey Sanders, founder of New York City’s Pegu Club, its origins stretch back to the first half of last century. Nick and Nora Charles, a mystery-solving married couple from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man and its subsequent TV spinoffs, were known for knocking back cocktails at their fictional house parties in the 1930s.

“It basically replaces the martini glass for us,” says Yessenov, who uses the sleek stemware for drinks like the manhattan and other spirit-forward cocktails. “The role that the stem plays is that the liquid is not warmed by the heat from your hands.”


The martini glass – an almost-perfect triangle inverted on a stem, used to serve straight-up (i.e., shaken with ice, but served without it) cocktails – is another glass whose origin predates the invention of its eponymous cocktail. Though rumours suggest that the martini glass was invented during Prohibition to allow customers to dispose of their drinks during a speakeasy raid, its debut was actually at the 1925 Paris Exhibition, where the art deco twist on the champagne coupe was unveiled.

Though the V-shaped silhouette has an unmatched recognizability in the canon of cocktails, today it’s fallen out of fashion and favour with discerning bartenders. Aesthetics (and room to balance olives on a fancy cocktail stick) notwithstanding, it acquired a type of novelty status thanks to the monstrosities served in martini glasses during the 1980s and ’90s.

“Thankfully that’s over. It’s uncomfortable to hold and it spills,” says Yessenov, who doesn’t mince his words. “There’s nothing to concentrate the flavours, the stem is usually too long and it takes up too much space making it difficult to carry on trays.”


Nowadays, the coupe is often used in place of the martini glass. It’s a champagne glass with a folklore all of its own. Legend claims that the cocktail coupe was modelled on Marie Antoinette’s left breast. However, we know that the French monarch’s bosom could not have influenced the stemware, which was invented in England in 1663, more than a century before she was on the throne. Yet, when it comes to champagne myths, our cup runneth over. Helen of Troy and Madame de Pompadour have both been pegged as muses for the coupe, and more recently, supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss have lent their breasts as models for the glassware. But while the rumours pervade, society has largely moved on with other vessels to enjoy their fizz.


Flutes, a tall and slender stemmed glass created in the 1700s, have a smaller surface area for the exposed liquid than a coupe, so more carbonation stays put and bubbles continue rising to the top for longer. Though newer designs curved the lip of the glass inward, the general style remained popular throughout the 20th century. But if you’ve ordered champagne at a wine bar recently, you’ll know that the flute is becoming an anomaly.

“I don’t think in terms of really appreciating the nuances of a great champagne, that either a flute or coupe are particularly good glasses,” says Nathan Morell, sommelier and co-general manager at Queen West’s Bar Piquette. He prefers to serve sparkling wine out of a universal wine glass: “You can’t really swirl it in a flute to let the aromas come out.”

Morell suspects that often, it’s a case of tradition suiting the moment, rather than a thoughtful rationale for using certain glasses. While Bar Piquette – named after a French wine term for a beverage made from grape pomace (grape skins, seeds, pulp and stems) – takes their collection seriously, they’re not about to reinvent the wheel with stemware.

“For wines, we keep it simple,” says Morrell. “We use three different glasses.”

That includes an all-purpose glass, that’s “not too big, not too small” for pouring their by-the-glass selection, as well as sherry and vermouth. They also use a burgundy-style glass, with a large bowl, for red wines like pinot noir and nebbiolo, or oaked white wines, where you want a lot of surface area and room to capture the aromas.

“I think, historically, the idea was that white wines were less complex so they didn’t require the larger bowls,” says Morrell, who eschews the notion. “In actual fact, a lot of white wines need a bit more aeration.”

While science may have us questioning preconceived glassware, Morrell can’t argue that there’s something festive about using a certain glass to channel that “old-school, 1920s flapper vibe” when raising a glass of bubbly. But that’s where he draws the line when it comes to stocking his cabinet.

“Certain companies have a specific glass for every kind of wine you could think of, which I think is kind of dumb,” says Morrell. “Yes, you might notice subtle differences, but the main thing is that you feel better drinking out of certain glasses, a lot of it is just personal preference.”

Rocks Glass

Ice cubes might be the last thing we remember as hosts, but ask the frostiest bartender what kind they use and watch them thaw. If you’re like me, you’ll rinse the tray to remove the frozen peas and freezer debris if you’re feeling fancy. But considering that the blocks of water will eventually become a part of your cocktail, it makes sense to think of them as an ingredient.

A rocks glass, which might hold anything from an old fashioned to a negroni, is a short vessel that’s designed so that you can build the cocktail in the glass. Two-inch square, clear ice cubes are the preferred size for such drinks at the Royal York.

“Those cocktails should be slightly under diluted,” says Yessenov, who admits to using seven different kinds of ice for the hotel’s drink program. “Actually, the first sip you take might be a little more harsh than the last sip, because you have to accommodate the ice but you don’t want it to be too watery.”

The limited room needed for mix in these cocktails, plus the wide brim and thick base mean the contents warm gradually, so this tumbler is perfect for sophisticated sippers.

Highball or collins

But if you need a little tonic or juice to loosen up those stiff drinks, a taller highball or collins glass is what you can expect to receive. Drinks like a rum and Coke or a scotch and soda, with a base spirit and a non-alcoholic mixer, stay carbonated and cool for longer.

Like so much cocktail mythology, its exact origins are cloudy, but most agree that the glass and cocktails were closely linked to the railroads. In the 19th century, before walkie-talkies, railway engineers would raise a large red ball (the “high ball”) on a pole to give the signal that the route was clear.

“If you go to Japan, they’re very passionate about the whiskey highball,” says Yessenov of the seemingly simple whiskey and soda cocktail. “There’s a whole methodology to how many times you stir the soda, the level of carbonation, the texture of the bubbles, which has slowly but surely seeped into American bar culture.”

“When we opened, it felt like cocktail culture in Toronto was just on the verge of exploding”

Though it’s hard to remember a time when bitters, jiggers and muddlers weren’t in our vocabulary, the cocktail landscape was pretty bleak before Cocktail Emporium arrived in 2011. “When we opened, it felt like cocktail culture in Toronto was just on the verge of exploding,” explains Kristen Voisey, who opened the first store on Queen West after falling in love with Bar Keeper in L.A. “It’s been really fun to watch the cocktail scene in Toronto adapt and mature, seeing bars start paying attention to quality ingredients, unique glassware, inventive garnishes and general presentation.”

With Toronto enamoured with all things boozy, Voisey set about designing her own line of glassware last year.

“While I love the Nick and Nora, it was getting a little boring when every bar we went to used this same glass,” says Voisey. “So I made two alternatives: the Potion House Classic Coupe and the Dream Deco Coupe, both inspired by cocktail glasses of the past.”

With tiny apartments and a lack of storage to consider, where should the average home bartender start their glass collection?

“I feel like a real martini tastes better in a traditional, V-shaped cocktail glass for instance but I wouldn’t use it for much else,” admits Voisey, who sells over 100 types of specialized glassware at her Queen West and Kensington Market locations.

“We have simple rules and guidelines that we tell people based on our own personal preferences, but the right glass really does make a difference in the taste,” says Voisey.

For those who don’t need a Moscow mule mug or a tiki-style shark to hold their cocktails, Yessenov suggests starting with a few staple pieces: a rocks glass, a collins glass and a stemmed glass.

Morell suggests universal wine glasses from the Lehmann Excellence series, or for those with more money than sense, a Zalto, which goes for $80 per stem. “Really though, anything with a thin rim and a tapered shape should do the job.”

Whether you find a bargain or splurge on your stemware, one thing is for certain – red Solo cups are not going to cut it at your next dinner party, no matter how casual.