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Mason jars as barware: enough is enough?

The Angry Elk cocktail at the Family Dog (Becky Stein)

The Angry Elk cocktail at the Family Dog (Becky Stein)

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

41 comments Add your comment

JSam

January 22nd, 2013
8:15 am

Decatur, Decatur, Decatur. We get it. Did you know that I remodeled my kitchen in Decatur, near the school my kids attend in Decatur, and its sure as hell the only place I will go on my own time to eat or drink other than buford highway where I have to stop now because my evil corporate bosses moved my office to Dunwoody!

We look forward to more of your Decatur-centric adventures soon.

nsk

January 22nd, 2013
8:20 am

Maybe bartenders wanting to strike the right note of laid-back cool should consider another ironic vessel: the red Solo cup.

Fixed that for you.

FM Fats

January 22nd, 2013
8:41 am

First place I ever had a drink in a Mason jar was a Seattle restaurant called The Breadline in 1976. The place featured a Depression Era theme and all the food was served in bowls. When it opened, the waitstaff consisted of senior citizens, but that didn’t last very long. It was the kind of joint people went to once.

Steve

January 22nd, 2013
9:22 am

so… Kessler doesn’t like drinking from mason jars because they are too big for his tiny hands. Acheson is right – who cares what the vessel is as long as the drink is good. You’re right in that certain drinks are meant to be consumed from specific glassware and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to see red wine, scotch, an old fashioned, or a martini served in a mason jar. But if you want to serve me water, tea, or a boozy lemonade in one, I just don’t see what the big deal is. If it’s too big for your hands, get a straw… or do you have a thing against straws too?

Old Cotter

January 22nd, 2013
9:29 am

As someone born and bred in the South, I have placed my lips to the threaded brim of a Mason jar a time or two. However, the Mason jar is not the glassware of choice for Southerners, be it a Cosmopolitan (heaven forbid) or cold sweet tea. We all know that. To insist on serving all beverages in Mason jars because it promotes a kitschy-cool Southern vibe in your neo-Southern restaurant serves only to promote a non-existent Southern stereotype. I like, however, Hess’s suggestion that Mason jars could be used to make a statement for the occasional (appropriate) cocktail.
And Hugh is calling someone else grumpy? Hmm.

Negative Nellie

January 22nd, 2013
9:52 am

I agree. Please stop serving drinks in mason jars to show how “country” you are. Please.
And Steve, no straws unless it’s a to-go cup.

Sarah

January 22nd, 2013
11:16 am

I had a similar thought while dining at the Pinewood — the giant mason jar water jug looked to me like a casual vase begging for flowers. I only realized halfway through the meal that we were meant to replenish our water with it.

I agree that a boozy lemonade can easily settle into a mason jar, but other drinks really benefit from specific glassware. More than anything, I think mason jars are just ubiquitous — overdone, and over.

Kar

January 22nd, 2013
11:32 am

No, I get your point John. The hype and novelty has worn off and it’s less retro and more gimmick for a lot of situations.

Plus, as your friend pointed out, there are different drinking glasses for real functional reasons.

1164mgc

January 22nd, 2013
11:33 am

I’ve never liked drinking from a mason jar, even if it was iced tea. Like you say, the lip is too big, although I’ve never had a problem picking it up as I have fairly long hands. And I disagree with Hugh Acheson (in this and many many other things) – the vessel IS important. If I knew a cocktail was to be served in a mason jar, I’d order something else. I also don’t like those fruity hawaiian drinks unless they’re in some kind of tiki mug/cup with a little umbrella!

annie

January 22nd, 2013
11:57 am

i agree. condiments in jars — fine. i don’t want my water, wine, or dessert served in any kind of jar when i’m eating in a restaurant. seriously what next? mis-matched silverware? chef pan from stove to table? can shaped soup? or have we done those already?

Ganners

January 22nd, 2013
12:09 pm

I hate drinking out of a Mason jar. I won’t do it. I hate super heavy chunky beer mugs as well. If I am paying $12 for a handmade cocktail I expect to be served in something that makes the sipping experience a nice one. If a glass has such a wide and thick rim you are bound to end up with an avalanche of ice on your face when tipping the glass for the last few sips.

Mason jars are not unique or cute. They are a utility jar used for canning and storing.

I like the spreads and munchies served in them at places like Muss & Turner’s. It whispers the reminder that they do put up their own cured and pickled items.

Ganners

January 22nd, 2013
12:11 pm

And those stupid plastic tops to snap on a mason jar so you can take your beloved jar on the go…..kill me now.

Edward

January 22nd, 2013
12:32 pm

A standard, well-made glass would suffice for me, or crystal if I was in a more refined dining establishment. Mason jars are for storage.

Lorenzo

January 22nd, 2013
12:45 pm

Thank you, John.

By the way, PBR tastes best in a red Solo cup.

Old Cotter

January 22nd, 2013
2:32 pm

Apparently, I can’t rest easy with my own snark. I like Hugh Acheson and I like what he puts on the table. His restaurants are not going for kitschy-cool (neo-Southern – yes, kitsch – no), but I can’t speak for all the others who embrace the Mason jar as a clever idea.
No one has mentioned that drinking from a Mason jar means that the threads occasionally prevent your lips from pressing sufficiently against the lip of the glass causing one’s beverage to dribble down one’s chin. If it washes the BBQ sauce off your chin, the jar is probably being used in the right restaurant.
Here’s hoping not to be blackballed from the Five & Ten. Love ya, Hugh!

jmineo

January 22nd, 2013
2:52 pm

I can tell you one thing, if I ordered a dram of a really good single malt and it arrived in a mason jar, I’d send it back and tell them to take it off the bill. The only time I drank anything from a mason jar was at a college bar back in the early 80s and we drank 50 cent beers from it. I’d like to think I’ve progressed beyond college bar drinking.

Jim_MAY

January 22nd, 2013
3:18 pm

That Angry Elk cocktail is looking pretty good right now it could be in Styrofoam cup for I’ll care. Empire South uses baby mason jars for their incrediable pork rillette, pimento cheese & some deserts.

John, you forgot...

January 22nd, 2013
3:22 pm

…that the other “real” reason for drinkin’ from a mason jar was originally that it was great for drinkin’ “likker”, or ‘white lightnin,’ for you non-southerners…

Thrash

January 22nd, 2013
3:37 pm

I can’t see a cocktail in a Mason jar but damn, nothing is better to put some iced tea into.

Boners BBQ

January 22nd, 2013
3:52 pm

Serving food in hub caps, now that’s cool!

Kat

January 22nd, 2013
3:59 pm

I remember “Po Folks” restaurants and thought it was funny that they used Mason jars back then. Guess what, Acheson? It’s no longer the 1980s, and we’ve matured – just not to the age when a Depression-era glass seems like a good idea.

A face full of a beverage that I paid good money for? No thank you!

Good Food Eater

January 22nd, 2013
6:06 pm

It annoys the hell out of me to be served a drink out of a jar in a restaurant. It is not cute. I was recently served a drink in a jar at a Virginia Highland seafood restaurant and I wondered if I was alone in my disappointment. Mason jars are unattractive and very uncomfortable to hold and drink out of. Please stop it.

Another type of jar?

January 23rd, 2013
12:03 am

Weck Jars acceptable?

C

January 23rd, 2013
6:33 am

Maybe you should quit whining because you have tiny, stubby hands……

DJ

January 23rd, 2013
11:47 am

I agree! Let’s get rid of chopsticks while we’re at it. Them things are too dang hard to eat my sushi with. And why have forks and spoons when sporks work just as well. Two for one I say. I want one utensil for my soup and well done steak. And pass the catsup.

Mark

January 23rd, 2013
11:49 am

OK, so someone needs to defend Mason jars. Look, they’re not Riedel crystal. And there are not the right choice for all beverages at all time. But you can’t deny that they carry a certain emotional baggage which, in the right context, can be fun, and relaxing. Not all cocktail consumption requires stemware and a pinky finger delicately elevated in the air. Sometimes, it’s OK to just take a slug and enjoy it. And all of you are unable to drink out of a Mason jar without slobbering? Really? It’s not that difficult.

Here’s the point and the proof. John Kessler himself undermines his own argument more than anyone else, when he writes “I really love drinking rustic wines from small, thick, faceted water glasses.” (from his Abattoir review). I HATE drinking wine from small, thick rimmed glasses. That is one place where thin walled stemware is clearly superior. But for John, the emotional associations of that glass trumps the negative effects that such a glass has on the actual consumption of the wine. So, John, if that’s OK for a French bistro to serve wine in a ridiculous glass, then lighten up on Acheson and Five and Ten. You really do sound crotchety.

Joshua

January 23rd, 2013
12:30 pm

Shocker: Mason jars are EVERYWHERE in Portland, Ore. Also, those speckled blue aluminium camping mugs.

Edward

January 23rd, 2013
1:24 pm

I wish you hadn’t mentioned the camping mugs, Joshua. Now every trendy Atlanta place will be using them. Concentrics will model an entire restaurant around them, no doubt. :-P

Richard Bagge

January 23rd, 2013
1:57 pm

Hugh, please make sure all your restaurants are well stocked with small Smuckers jam jars so that when Stubby-Hands-Kessler pays you a visit, he can be served a drink in something wee enough that he won’t dribble upon himself.

Bruce Miller

January 23rd, 2013
2:00 pm

A Mason jar is a jar not a glass. Using these in restaurants demonstrates cheapness and a lack of creativity and maturity in management. A sad cliche like this does not impress me.

patrice

January 23rd, 2013
2:44 pm

Don’t want ANYTHING served in a mason jar. SO OVER this trend. (actually was never under it.) If i see one more food blog demonstrating a mason jar dessert my canned pickles might explode.

DJPpdx

January 23rd, 2013
3:20 pm

No question mark necessary at the end of the headline. Enough already with the mason jars.

Jacki

January 23rd, 2013
8:08 pm

At a recent beer fest, they served beer in mason jars; we all looked like we were carrying urine specimines.

lorielle

January 23rd, 2013
8:16 pm

@ JSam: Well, Decatur IS pretty damn awesome. And it has some pretty great restaurants, too.

Rich Shewmaker

January 23rd, 2013
10:38 pm

I always make mint juleps for the Kentucky Derby. Since I do not have the silver julep cups that are de rigueur for the tony crowd, I make them in Mason jars. I also like to serve expensive wines in Mason or Ball jelly jars to twit the wine snobs who think that only delicate big bucks Reidel glassware will do. I choose these only for the contrast; otherwise I’m happy with whatever glassware is on sale at Target.

AC

January 23rd, 2013
11:29 pm

#firstworldproblems

LizR

January 24th, 2013
4:52 pm

@patrice – lol – I’ve also been over this fad for a while now. Dislike them for drinks and maybe even more for food. It is just too precious and way too overdone. I don’t think that they do anything one way or the other for the taste of the beverage, tho. I understand using certain glassware to enhance an overall experience, but I’m pretty sure the whole “the right glass makes the wine taste better” idea was debunked several years ago when Gourmet Magazine was doing some really good food journalism right before they went out of business. It seems to be one of those enduring food-related myths that just won’t go away.

Scott

January 25th, 2013
11:55 pm

The biggest problem with mason jars is that the rim is smaller than the body and the reduction in diameter is at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the glass, meaning that you have to turn your head upside down to finish your drink. The only glasses I can think of that have any sort of diameter reduction are brandy and tulip glasses, both of which use a very gradual reduction to avoid the catching issue.

The only drink that I can think of that would benefit from being served in a jar is the one designed for use with a straw: the cobbler. Given that cobblers are at least 70% ice but taste terrible when diluted by melt, the thick glass of a jar would be perfect provided said jar had been stored in the freezer prior to the cobbler being poured into it.

Patrick Schultz

January 26th, 2013
2:42 am

Everybody just shut up.

lorielle

January 26th, 2013
3:22 pm

Warwick

January 27th, 2013
9:21 pm

Who cares whether Mason jars are used in other cities? They are totally out of place in a civilized table. Perhaps they would be just right at the celebratory dinner after making someone squeal like a pig, however, it is time to grow up. If I go to a restaurant and drinks, whether water, iced tea, or a coktail are served in a Mason jar I would simply ask the waitstaff to re-serve it in a normal glass. If the restaurant does not have them, it is time for me to get up and go someplace else. It is not a good reflection on the degree of courtesy being offered to me, a paying customer.