One early evening, as my wife and I were settling into a cocktail at the Pinewood Tippling Room in Decatur, I realized a darling of the new Southern dining aesthetic, the Mason jar, was in the process of jumping the shark.
A waitress had her long fingers clenched around a tall Mason jar filled with ice water and was in the process of pouring it into shorter Mason jars to use as glasses. I could see an intent look on her face that said, “Lord, please don’t let me drop this.”
My own fingers are sort of stubby, so whenever I wanted water I had to raise the glass to my lips with two hands, like a sippy cup.
The Mason jar was patented in 1858 by John Landis Mason, a Philadelphia tinsmith who also invented the screw-top salt shaker. It consists of a jar with glass screw threads around the top lip, a metal band that fits on the thread, a stamped metal lid and a rubber gasket that fits between the lid and the jar, creating a hermetic seal. It simplified both industrial and home canning, making it possible for anyone who could boil water to be able to put up shelf-stable vegetables, sauces and preserves for the winter.
Folks discovered there were plenty of other uses for Mason jars, too, whether for storing loose change or creating a habitat for caterpillars and crickets, provided you poked a few holes in the lid.
Every once in a while they showed up in Southern meat-and-three cafes and barbecue joints, filled with iced tea.
Then, a few years ago, the Mason jar started seeming not just country but country cool. Southern farm-to-table restaurants, which had all begun to put up their own house pickles and preserves, began serving both food and drink in Mason jars.
Soon there were Mason jar cocktail shakers and Mason jar mugs with thick glass handles showing up to the party. The Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points began keeping dozens of different glasses behind the bar for all the specialty beers — as well as Mason jars for their house cocktails.
It took me a couple of years, but I started getting peevish about jars I couldn’t pick up easily with one hand, or drinks served without a straw. Raising the side of a Mason jar to your lips is just fine if you’re passing around moonshine, but that thick, rounded edge really doesn’t do much for well-crafted cocktails.
So with the new year, I took to the expected social media outlets with this message:
“If I never get a drink served in a mason jar in 2013, it will be a good year.”
Quite a few people agreed with me, including one chef who privately said that as soon as he saw the tweet, he knew it was time to clear the Mason jars out of his bar.
Some also disagreed. Hugh Acheson of Empire State South in Midtown — a restaurant that loves its Mason jars — got into a bit of a Twitter smackdown with me. Acheson wrote that I sounded “grumpy” and that the container doesn’t matter as much as what’s in it.
I thought about that and realized I couldn’t disagree more. I often enjoy drinks that are served up in curvaceous stemware shaped like Champagne coupes, such as those used at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur. I really hate big, angular, tippy martini glasses.
I love ordering Sazeracs more for their presentation — a bare inch of cold, ruddy liquid in a rocks glass — than their distinctive anise flavor. You only need to take one sip of Chimay Belgian ale from the proper goblet to know glassware matters.
I began to wonder if this Mason jar thing was just happening in Atlanta and other Southern cities, or was it a nationwide trend. So I contacted Seattle-based cocktail expert Robert Hess, who runs the Chanticleer Society for cocktail studies and stars in web-based cocktail videos on the Small Screen Network.
I told Hess over the phone about the preponderance of Mason jars in Atlanta bars, and that a local chef had taken me to task.
Hess thought for a second about the whole thing and finally asked, “Is he also serving his food in hubcaps?”
Hess has not yet seen anyone serve drinks from Mason jars in Seattle, but, he says, “They’ve been popping up in various locations. A couple of bars in San Francisco are doing it.”
Hess could see a Mason jar working if “you’re trying to make a statement with it. If you had a drink made out of Mountain Dew and vodka with a splash of cranberry in it, you might laugh the first time you saw it and think it’s cool.”
But he would never serve a more carefully crafted cocktail in one. “The right shape of a wine glass brings out the flavors and makes the wine drink better, and the same is true for cocktails. You don’t want a thick rolled edge touching your lips. You want a cut edge.
So if I’m right and the Mason jar has lost its charm as a drinking vessel, what could replace it?
Elizabeth Moore, an Atlanta-based restaurant publicist and branding consultant, has one idea. Maybe bartenders wanting to strike the right note of laid-back cool should consider another iconic vessel: the red Solo cup.
I’d drink to that.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog