Vintage finds for the cocktail hour

Editorial Staff Books

In her manners manual Etiquette (1955), Emily Post suggests throwing a cocktail party in an effort to maximize socialization using minimal space. She advises that serving cocktails at home—unlike throwing a dinner party—frees one up for time better spent mingling with guests. Still today, with space at a premium, this gesture remains a popular  alternative that undoubtedly can be done with panache.

Although popularly associated with the 1950s and 1960s, the cocktail proper—the formal mixed drink invented in America—actually dates back to the seventeenth century.  The first publication to formerly organize cocktail recipes, Bar-tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas appeared in 1862 and is considered by collectors as the “Holy Grail” of cocktail literature. Not surprisingly, the decades following its initial publication led to the proliferation of accoutrements  such as cocktail shakers, jiggers, strainers, glassware, and stirrers available in a variety of styles.

Today, the market for vintage barware has exploded, alluding to the widespread appreciation for an authentic drink. Fortunately, the 19th-century source has recently been re-printed and repackaged as “Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide,” just one of many indications referencing today’s popular cocktail revival. (For more reproduction recipe books, click here)

Regardless of your budget, rest assured there is an endless assortment of barware accessories found at places like New York City’s Hadley Antiques or Mood Indigo, flea markets and garage sales, and websites such as 1stdibs, Etsy, and of course, eBay. Whether you prefer the style of the roaring twenties, the glamorous thirties, the kitschy fifties, or retro modern sixties, cocktail culture will undoubtedly always be in vogue.

To begin building your own vintage bar, consider collecting the following basic essentials:

Clockwise from left: Chrome and bakelite cocktail cups by Revere Copper & Brass, 1938 (Mood Indigo); Set of three shakers (Adesso); Martini set (three of six shown), “Hunt” pattern, Austrian/German, 1920s (Elise Abrams Antiques); Cocktail set by Erik Magnussen for Gorham, 1929 (Lauren Stanley Silver); Martini mixer by Porter Blanchard, 1950 (Lauren Stanley Silver); Amethyst cut crystal shaker (Pullman Gallery); Bar tool set by Glo-Hill (Mood Indigo); “Manhattan” cups by Norman Bel Geddes for Revere (Mood Indigo); Chrome shaker (JuJuToo); Shaker and tray by Anton Michelsen for Kay Fisker (DouglasRosin); Aluminum cocktail set by Russel Wright (Wright20).


This is one of the most important tools to have and is available in a variety of forms and sizes. Primarily consisting of a tumbler (the body of the shaker that holds the liquid), a tight-fitting lid, and a cap. The classic two-part metal shaker—often referred to as the Boston Shaker—is recommended as the metal helps chill the liquid faster and doubles as a container in which to stir. Popular metal shakers were manufactured by Manning Bowman, Napier, Farber Brothers, Revere, and Wallace Brothers to name just a few. Alternatively, glass shakers were also produced by Cambridge, Heisey, Hazel Atlas, Duncan Miller, and Imperial Glass, among many others.

Used as a measuring tool for liquor before pouring into a cocktail shaker, its name is derived from the 1.5 ounce unit of measure, the jigger or shot. Traditionally, jiggers are fashioned from stainless steel in either a cup or hourglass shape.

If using a Boston Shaker, you will need a strainer to separate the ice and non-liquid ingredients from the alcohol when pouring it into the glass. Typically, there are two forms of strainers: the Hawthorn Strainer (with a coil) and the Julep Strainer (flat and spoon-like).

Vintage glassware comes in a wide range of forms, but the basic three include: the cocktail glass, the highball glass, and the lowball glass. Among the companies that manufactured this type of barware were Cambridge Glass, Fenton, Heisey, Hazel Atlas, Duncan and Miller, Imperial Glass, Libbey, and Federal Glass.

Cocktail or martini glass
The cocktail (or martini) glass is traditionally triangular in shape with a stem. The glass holds roughly 6-8 ounces of a drink served “straight” (unmixed and without ice) such as a Manhattan, Martini or Gimlet. The stem of the glass is not just for decoration but serves to position the hand so as not to interfere with the temperature of the liquid in the glass.

Highball glass
These glasses are tall and straight and typically hold roughly 8-12 ounces of drinks served “on the rocks” (with ice), such as a Bloody Mary.

Lowball glass
This is a shorter form of the highball that typically holds 6-8 ounces and is used to serve whiskey-based cocktails either “neat” (unmixed and at room temperature) or “on the rocks” including the Old-fashioned and Whiskey Sour.

Both utilitarian and decorative, among barware accessories these sticks exist in the largest array of design and color combinations. Collectors especially seek out sticks and stirrers from popular historical bars and restaurants in Hollywood or New York City and even those manufactured for defunct airlines.

NOTE: A good source for identifying and evaluating collectors’ pieces is Stephen Visakay’s Vintage Bar Ware: Identification and Value Guide (2000).

One of the oldest and most popular cocktails is the Manhattan, which, according to Jerry Thomas in 1862, should be mixed as follows:

Take 2 dashes of Curacoa or Maraschino.
1 pony of rye whiskey.
1 wine-glass of vermouth.
3 dashes of Boker’s bitters.
2 small lumps of ice.

Shake up well, and strain into a small bar glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If a sweeter drink is preferred, add two dashes of gum syrup.