Basement Bar Design #4(c): Buying Glassware

Basement Bar Design #4(c): Buying Glassware

In 4(a) and 4(b), I discussed the kinds of glasses you will want to have for your Basement Bar. This last part will concentrate on actually buying glassware for your Basement Bar, but these guidelines will generally work for any glassware purchase for the home.

I’ll start with some general rules about glassware that apply to all types. Keep these in mind when buying, and you can’t go wrong.

  • All glassware should feel heavy in your hand. Simple mass is an excellent indicator of glass quality. Heavy glass will be much less likely to break if you knock it over or against other hard objects. You will also find that it’s stability will make heavy glass much less likely to spill in the first place.
  • The glass, particularly the part that houses the drink, should be clear. Colored glasses often look beautiful empty, but look kinda yucky when full. An etched design or splash of color can work and look cool, so long as you still have a largely unobstructed view of the liquid inside. Whether wine or cocktail, visual beauty is an important part of appreciating a drink. Make sure you and your guests can see what you are serving up.
  • Look at and feel the lip. It should be thin. A lot of otherwise gorgeous art glass will fail this test. A crisp, thin edge will feel much better against your lips when drinking. Thin rims are also another good indicator of quality in commercial glassware.
  • Flick the glass with your fingernail. It doesn’t need to ring like the Bells of St. Mary’s, but it shouldn’t thud either. This is another indicator of quality, but it also just improves the drinking experience.
  • If one or two gets broken, it can’t be a tragedy. Either buy glassware that you won’t miss, can replace, or are unique to themselves. You may miss a unique glass if it is broken, but the other glasses on your shelves won’t constantly remind you that one is missing.

Much more below the fold:
Let’s start with a rather special kind of glassware with which you might want to populate your Basement Bar’s shelves: Fine Leaded Crystal. Seriously. Yes, some of the pieces may seem a bit fragile, especially the wine glasses, but don’t be fooled. Good crystal is pretty tough stuff. If you do break a piece, you can usually replace it, even decades later, with identical new stuff from the manufacturer, or from heirloom dealers or even eBay. It looks great, and comes in essentially infinite styles that can be found to work with your decorating choices. More importantly, most styles are universal enough to work with any decorating choice. By its very nature, leaded crystal is heavy in your hand, and the strength of the glass allows the manufacturers to put a lovely, crisp edge on the lip. Oh, and it does sound like the Bells of St. Mary’s when you make a toast.

Ahem. That’s all well and good, but it’s a bit pricey, n’est pas?

Well, yes it is. That’s why I started with crystal, and called it a special option. But there is a something you can do to get lots of crystal for free. You may already have done it.
Just get married, and people will give you lots of it!

Married? You want to throw in a WEDDING as part of building a Basement Bar?

No of course not, except to say that if you are going to be tying the knot sometime in the future, the future bartender in the couple may want to actually pay attention to the crystal section of the wedding registry when it’s being filled out. Also, if you have already had a big wedding, chances are your wedding crystal is sitting in a cabinet right now, just gathering dust. If you use it for your bar, you will save money on new glassware. Invite over a few folks who were at your wedding and bask in the shocked expressions when they see you actually using the expensive baubles they gave to you at said wedding! I am not sure who this will endear you to more, Mother-In-Law, or Father-In-Law….
I’ll add one last source of Fine Crystal you should consider, either to fill out your collection when you set up your bar (did you forget to put Cocktail Glasses on your registry?), or if you just have to have the crystal but not the wife. Go to an outlet mall with a Lenox or other manufacturer’s outlet. Most of the glass there is seconds, so be sure to pick each piece out carefully. Most crystal seconds I’ve looked over and/or purchased are indistinguishable from top quality on casual inspection. The stem may be slightly out of round, or there may be a tiny bubble in the glass somewhere. Just make sure the rim is uniformly thin, and the glass is perfectly stable on a flat surface, and you’ll catch the only non-obvious flaws that matter. And save a ton if you are buying new crystal for your bar.

Hey Norm and Lisa are getting married next month! We could head over to New Towne….

Don’t be such a cheap bastard! We are not buying seconds for a wedding present! See the kind of ideas you put in his head?

I apologize. As she says, do not visit the outlet mall to shop for wedding presents!

This wine glass from Target looks
very cool. But it fails our glassware
checklist by being opaque. It also fails at
being a wine glass, as it has no stem!

At the other end of the spectrum are glasses from places like Cost Plus, IKEA, Target, or any of the host of home decor outlet-type stores that populate the nation’s older shopping centers, filling the space left by defunct supermarkets. For the men reading this, there are probably three near you that you’ve never noticed. The glasses available in these stores will be cheap and attractive. But more than half will fail one or more of our basic tests, so choose carefully. Many will fail the glass quality tests; clunking to the touch, being too light to hold comfortably, or especially having big, rounded rims. Many have very distinctive designs that may look cool, but will be discontinued about five minutes before you get them home and break the first one. And on a related note, be aware that when you break a glass that comes in a set of four, you will be left with a number that is too few (three) or possibly too many, and probably awkward (seven), assuming there is another set of four to buy when you go back.
All that said, stores like these are great places to buy glassware. They are the cheapest place to go, bar none. At $8.99 for two glasses, like the cocktail glasses from IKEA, pictured to the left, you can afford to throw away a lot of orphans when you break a sibling or two. Heartless, I know. Many glasses to be found here are of surprisingly good quality if you look carefully. My best advice at these stores is try to find what you want among the glasses they sell individually. You can then get the number you need and have room for, rather than what they want to sell you. More importantly, these models that are sold individually are more likely to be still available for sale a year or more from now, probably on the exact same shelf in the exact same store.

Closely related to the above stores, are the restaurant supply stores. If you don’t know where one is near you, you should find one early in your Basement Bar design process. Even if you don’t buy your glassware there, they are fascinating places to browse, and often have other good, utilitarian products you will need. The glasses you will find for ready sale here will be inexpensive, sturdy, heavy, elegant but not fancy designs that have likely been on sale for years, and will still be on sale for years more. The only test they are likely to fail, if any, is the beaded lip test—a nod to the harsh realities of commercial dishwashers. There is not likely to be a lot of selection however, compared to the other options in your area. If you can find glassware you like at a place like this, I advise you buy it here. But don’t get overly committed to the idea that you will find what you want.

The last option is to go the eclectic, or collector’s, route. This applies especially to Cocktail Glasses, but can work with some other glass types as well. I have two shelves full of Cocktail Glasses, no more than two of which are alike, and few even have a twin. You can find cool glasses in ones and twos everywhere. Many glass artists make them these days. Even if you don’t use crystal otherwise, you can buy a lovely single cocktail glass here or there when passing through Macy’s to pick up some underwear. A really great way to augment your collection is to stock up on liquor at holiday times. If you notice, those gift boxes of booze with one or two glasses included almost never cost more than the bottle itself normally does, and many of the glasses you get are of quite decent quality. Finally, with Father’s Day just passed, it is instructive to note that a cool glass for your collection beats the snot out of a tie, and nice casual shirt, or Big Mouth Billy Bass.
There are a host of advantages to the collecting route. If your glasses all look different, you don’t have trouble figuring out whose glass is whose. If a glass breaks, who cares? Unless it was a hundred dollar piece of art glass that reminds you of that trip to Milan. But if it was so damn important to you, why’d you serve that drunken reprobate, Pete, his third Martini in it? There is virtually unlimited style to be found in glassware, and in your price range. For every three-figure piece of Italian art glass, there is a set of two Pottery Towne cheapos that look cool for twelve bucks. And what is neat, cheap and expensive will look just fine on the shelf together! And you get a hobby thrown in, at no additional charge. You can spend hours poking around galleries and arts festivals, looking for a new vessel for Pegus. If your spouse already loves doing this, you have found a valuable sanity maintenance regime.
The downsides of this method are also varied, so it’s not for everyone. Quality is going to be variable, and cost is almost no indicator when it comes to one-offs. If you get into it, it can get expensive. The eclectic look doesn’t work with all glass types. If you try it with beer vessels, you will look like you just took out that old box you packed away after graduation. Unless your Basement Bar is in a fraternity house, this probably won’t be the look you want. The final drawback to this method is that you get a hobby thrown in, leaving you consuming hours poking around art galleries and festivals….

Which method is right for you is a matter for you to decide. Figure it out based on your budget and your intended look for your Basement Bar. Chances are, you will go with a blend of these options, especially if you are not starting from scratch. In the event you are starting from the ground up, here’s my advice: Go to Kohl’s, Target, or other shabby chic department store chain, and buy your four basic glasses, preferably all in the same style from the same manufacturer. Remember the rules of glassware from the start of this article. With these, you can start drinking, and not be embarrassed to serve any class of guest. For most folks, this is as far as you’ll need to go. Just replace and/or augment as needed. If you have the cash or opportunity, and your design choices go along, consider crystal. And if you are a serious mixologist, I’m guessing that you’ll have or start a collection of, at least, cocktail glasses, either from impulse purchases or gifts from friends.

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Here’s a list of the other articles in this series that have been posted so far:
[catlist id=47 orderby=title order=ASC numberposts=-1]


  1. Gabriel

    2 July

    Great pieces, Doug!

    WHile I have a basement it’s unfit to ask people to see, much less enter. I’ve had to convert my dining room off the kitchen into a bar and I will say, despite my best planning, storage is the biggest issue. I don’t think needing room to grow and store glassware, barware, and bottles can be understated.

    I’m looking to redesign and rebuild and would be interested in your building plans and design of your basement bar in terms of materials, dimensions, etc. Contact me off-line if you’re willing and able to share or not planning on doing a post on the actual construction. Thanks, mate. Good stuff!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Doug

    2 July

    Construction and design are big posts in the hopper, and I’ll be getting them up soon, now that I am back!
    When we finished our basement, we ended up with almost 750 square feet additional space—obviously more than a simple bar. That said, I have already exceeded the amount of space I had originally thought for the bar, in only five years.
    I’ll need to reiterate again and again, maybe even repeating myself over and over, that you can’t have enough space to store stuff!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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