Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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“This isn’t a place for need, it’s a place for want,” says Sandra, who’s working the register at the Upscale Resale Thrift Shop in Rockville, Maryland. She’s right. The strip mall store is full of cheerleading medals, a cane covered in fur, a clay jar that reads “Ashes of Old Lovers,” framed jigsaw puzzles, and other artifacts that could have come from Betty White’s basement. Think of them as White Elephant gifts for coworkers you love to loathe.

What Sandra doesn’t know is that we are here for a need, a very specific one—quirky or vintage glassware to take back to 2 Birds 1 Stone on the 14th Street NW strip. The cocktail bar is known for its barware, among other things. To keep the collection fresh, bar director Adam Bernbach, bar manager Lucy Dunning, and bartenders Alex Witt and Aleksandra Kilibarda occasionally pile into a van to go on a glass quest.

We come away from Upscale Resale with only a handful of beer koozies that read “VIP” and a single Collins glass with Grimace (of McDonald’s fame) painted on the side. The total bill is $7.35.

That’s nothing compared to the $240 the 2 Birds 1 Stone team spent at Wagging Tails Thrift & Gifts, also in Rockville. The sprawling, 12,000-square-foot store operates as a nonprofit with close to 100 percent of all goods sold going to the Montgomery County Humane Society, hence the name.

“The only rule is $5 or less, unless it’s undeniably cool,” Bernbach instructs his flock as they peruse shelves of barware organized by color, creating a rainbow effect. Only here, the rainbow itself is the treasure. More specifically, Bernbach is looking for highball glasses, double Old Fashioned glasses, Collins glasses, and stemware for wine.

Like a “guess my weight” carnival game, the group is able to eyeball how many ounces each glass can hold once they factor in what type of ice cubes they’ll use. After a half hour of shopping, they take the haul to the register, where employee Pam James asks who’s getting married.

Once the glasses are back at the bar, the effort spent hunting for novelties starts to pay off. For example, Dunning’s favorite find—an Old Fashioned glass brandished with the words “First Date,” is fun to plunk down in front of a couple working their way through get-to-know-you questions. “We’re only going to use it on Tuesdays—you know—Tinder Tuesdays,” she jokes.

“It’s really great when you can make a really corny joke without saying anything,” Witt adds. “You just put the glassware down. The cowboy Old Fashioned glass was great for that, and we had another one that said, ‘The Swinger.’”

Glassware is good for a laugh or a smile, but it’s also an integral part of the allure at 2 Birds 1 Stone and other bars such as Dram & Grain, Buffalo & Bergen, and Columbia Room. That’s why area bartenders go to great lengths to score cool things to clink.

“When you walk in the door, it’s like you’re a judge when you’re a guest at a bar,” Bernbach says. “It’s like a competition where everything adds up—creativity accounts for 2 percent of your score, and glassware is part of that.”

Dram & Grain bartender Andy Bixby agrees. “If we served every drink in a rocks glass, there wouldn’t be a wow factor,” he says. Because not every guest recognizes the ingredients listed in a cocktail, it’s often the name of the drink or the glassware it’s served in that determines an order.

Courtesy Dram & Grain

Some of Bixby’s favorite glasses at Dram & Grain include copper gnomes made by Absolut Elyx, a ceramic treasure chest that Bixby had custom made at London’s Bespoke Barware, and Capri Sun-impersonating pouches. He likes to break out the gnome to add value for certain customers. “If I have a pregnant woman come in, I make her a mocktail in the copper gnome,” he says. “If you’re not going to get booze, we want to give you a fun experience.”

Drink Company founder Derek Brown says he also tries to tap into customers’ emotions using glassware. Since Columbia Room’s reopening in Blagden Alley, some of his favorites include a Viking-inspired cocktail served in a cow’s horn, a drink that comes with a zen garden made of pink “sand,” and carved-out, weathered library books holding flasks containing a cocktail with a tincture flavored with old books.

Eamonn Fetherston, brother of head Columbia Room bartender J.P. Fetherston, made the book cutouts. “They took maybe 30 hours,” Brown says. “I hope people know that when they’re complaining about $14 cocktails.”

Brown came up with the zen garden drink to ward off something he hates—bar art. “It’s when people rip up a coaster for you to pick up later, or a napkin, or a straw,” he says. “Sometimes people are in nervous situations talking about something emotional and they need something to do, so I created something.”

Scott Suchman

While Columbia Room is clearly innovating, Brown says it’s not doing anything new in a historic sense. “Going back to early human experiences with mixed drinks, people always ritualized glassware,” he says. “We drink first with our eyes. It’s critical to create a scenario where a person is delighted from the moment they see a cocktail.”

History is exactly what inspired Gina Chersevani when she was getting Buffalo & Bergen off the ground. The soda-shop-style cocktail bar in Union Market serving bagels, egg creams, and more feels like a plant from an earlier era. The glassware had to match, so Chersevani combed antique stores in Maryland and Delaware. “They had all those pharmacies that had soda fountains,” she says. “As they closed, the glasses got dumped into Salvation Army stores.” That’s where she found her Libbey glasses.

Chersevani, who has long collected vintage glassware like Boopie glasses and punch sets, explains that two manufacturers—Libbey, founded in Massachusetts in 1818, and Anchor Hocking, founded in Ohio in 1905—produce most glasses. Knowing this makes it possible to hop on eBay to search for replacements should anything break.

She further explains that glassware then, and now, is made with intention. “Having a drink in proper glassware makes it even more special because these glasses were made for specific reasons,” she says. The Old Fashioned glass, for example, has a big mouth to account for an imbiber’s whole nose and mouth, creating an olfactory experience. “There’s a whole science to it, and it’s quite amazing,” Chersevani says.

More than science, having drink-appropriate glassware or glassware that stands out is good for business because it can lead to the most effective form of peer-to-peer advertising—both while guests are still in the bar and, later, online.

Bixby describes a table of three people who were working their way through a five-cocktail tasting menu—no small feat—yet they had to order one more after seeing the gnome land on other tables. “They actually said, ‘I’m having gnome envy,’” Bixby says, adding that tiki bars should be credited with first creating glass jealousy among a room full of guests with showpieces like flaming scorpion bowls.

Then there’s Instagram. “Having cool glassware will definitely create a social media buzz push, a revenue push,” Bixby says. Bernbach and Chersevani agree. “We get people all the time that take pictures for Instagram with tags like #drinkart and #drinktalent,” Chersevani says. “They’re into the colors, composition, and garnish. They basically grade you.”

Farrah Skeiky

That said, the contents of the glass have to sing too. Chances are if a bar invests in its glassware, it also pays close attention to other details such as service and recipes. “If you put that much care into the vessel, everything in the drink will probably be amazing too,” Chersevani says.

Unfortunately, glassware can also threaten a restaurant’s bottom line because things break and glasses have a bad habit of going home with guests. Bixby says Dram & Grain started with close to 60 punch glasses sourced from antique stores, and now they’re down to 25.

But what’s a bar to do? Some accept it as the cost of doing business, often writing stolen glasses off as advertising. Others, like Dacha Beer Garden and Midlands Beer Garden, are taking steps to safeguard their wares.

Tired of losing its boots of beer, Dacha collects customer IDs, returning them only when the boots are returned. Midlands takes a different approach that isn’t being received well by all customers, including one who slammed the bar on Yelp, causing a stir on reddit.

When customers enter Midlands, a doorman informs them that their bags will be subject to search when they leave. “We’re not the TSA,” Midlands owner Peyton Sherwood says. “We’re just doing a quick peek into bags.”

Reacting to a Y&H blog post about glass theft, Sixth Engine’s employee Donato Alvarez says the key to this approach is to avoid singling anyone out. If an employee confronts a guest and they’re wrong, it’s much worse than a simple glimpse inside a bag. “People will feel targeted unless everyone is equally scrutinized,” he says. “A bag check seems like a minor inconvenience to help your local bar stay open.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com