Ten years ago, the craft cocktail revolution was finding its feet and a wave of speakeasies and the farm-fresh cocktail bars were opening across the globe. In that same year, a little shop called The Hour started in a small town in Virginia.
Opened by Victoria Vergason, the store was named after a book written by Bernard DeVoto that appeared in 1948. It declared America as the true birthplace of the cocktail. And the store, with its large range of mainly American-made vintage glassware and cocktail tools, was doing it’s bit to reinforce that point.
Located just outside Washington DC and down the street from where George Washington established his Mt. Vernon distillery, The Hours was set to start a revolution of its own, albeit a somewhat vintage one.
With over 10,000 vintage cocktail-related items in stock, The Hour has gained a reputation over the last decade for having one of the most extensive, curated collections of vintage barware and cocktail glassware available in today’s market. It was the first cocktail store of its kind to believe in the importance of cocktail presentation; to believe that the glass and the bar tools matter as much as the drink itself.
As Vergason said, “the tools and glasses actually make the event, just as much as what you’re actually drinking.”
How did it start?
Vergason has a true love a vintage glass. Before she started the store, and while she was still working in finance, seeking out vintage glassware was always on her radar.
“I just kind of started collecting glassware and along the way noticed that there were interesting pieces of barware along with it. Wherever I was traveling, I would always happen upon markets and I was always attracted to the glassware.“
So once Vergason had moved back to the DC area to raise her family, it didn’t take long for her to start thinking about setting up the store.
“As soon as the kids went to Kindergarten, I was like, “You know what, I’m in this cool little old town. They’ve got a great commercial corridor and wonderful old 18th, 19th century buildings. I’m going to buy one and start a cocktail store.”.
Shortly after she started the store, the GFC hit. But Vergason was soon to discover that even a Global Financial Crisis can’t keep a good cocktail (or cocktail glass) down. “Everyone was drinking, because it was such a lousy time, and the business really took off.”
A lot of what helped the business was Vergason’s knowledge and her ability to source the high quality, mint (or near-mint) condition pieces for which she has become known. Simultaneously, the craft movement had gained enough steam that other areas, such as glass and barware, started to be explored.
“Pretty much everything in the market had that one-note look. People are going back and seeing old movies and old advertising print ads, to see what these original cocktail glasses were. In those days they had things like delicate three ounce stemware. They weren’t these massive, big things that were created in the 70’s. “
How difficult is it to find vintage?
Vergason explains the popularity of vintage has really come down not just to the aesthetics but also the theatre that vintage glasses and barware provide.
“I think that there’s an interest in having the glass be part of the experience of having a cocktail,” said Vergason. “And the same with making the cocktail, whether it’s in a vintage cocktail pitcher, which I guess everybody calls them mixing glass now. There’s a style to it, and there’s an experience that comes with it.
“I think it really relates to the fact that there’s growing, and I think it’s not going anywhere. I mean, there’s so many craft spirits now that are being created. And craft bitters and syrups and tonics and you name it, it’s all there. And I think the glassware and the barware are following that path.”
Although the interest is there among consumers, find good vintage pieces is not as easy as it once was. Vergason comments that time, breakages, damage from dishwashers, as well as an increased interest in vintage has meant that pieces are harder to come by.
“Finding large sets is difficult. I’m still capable of finding 3’s and 4’s, and sometimes putting sets together, she said. “I just travel everywhere. I’m always looking. Just constantly looking. I’m looking anywhere I can. I go to markets, estate sales, auction houses.
“Because I’ve been doing this for so long, a lot of the estate people know me across the country, and they’ll say, “I’ve got an estate coming, here’s a list of some things,” and then I kind of get heads up on a lot of items.”
Vergason points out that during the 20th century, US alone had hundreds of glass companies and metal manufacturers. By the 70’s, that number had been greatly diminished, as production started going offshore, particularly to Asia, to be mass-produced.
“There’s really only three American glass manufacturers left,” she said. “Glassware, and to a lesser extent barware, was handmade until well after WW11. After that, things started being machine made and that’s when all the standard glass shapes were developed. There were rocks glasses, highball and the Collins; all the barware that we have and all the glassware that we know today.”
So what will happen?
In his book, The Hour, DeVoto writes of that magic moment of 6pm, to which the title alludes. “This is the violet hour,” he writes, “the hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see the unicorn.”
And that perhaps is the best way to describe the search for vintage glass and barware. If you’re very, very quiet and always keep an eye out, there is the chance to infact find those perfect vintage ‘unicorn’ pieces but Vergason points out, they are getting rarer and rarer.
This has started Vergason on a journey to try and recreate some of the older styles herself.
“So I’ve now created a new business called The Modern Home Bar, and I’m now designing my own product that is all vintage-inspired, because there’s such a demand for it.”
The journey to developing her glassware has led Vergason to seek out old glass molds, and although she has searched and searched, she said that most simple “just do not exist anymore”.
None the less, Vergason is trying to re-create and kind of re-invigorate the vintage glass and tools market. She wants to bring something fresh and new to the cocktail scene that is no longer commonly seen, unless you’re lucky enough to have some of these vintage pieces.
“I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from these vintage patterns, and tweaking the designs and kind of have created my own new line,” she said.
“I’m really trying to keep to the tradition that was part of the cocktail lore here in America, and having these products made as close to home as possible and really trying to resist going to Asia.”
At present, the designs are fairly standard shapes but Vergason hopes that as the technology evolves she will be able to incorporate designs with much more of a curve.
The problem though, she points out is that the manufacturing skill juts isn’t there anymore. “Some of the pieces that I have in my collection, nobody knows how to make anymore”.
With a number of vintage-style glasses on the site already, Vergason is getting ready to launch her first shaker, which she is hoping will be launch in the next week or so. “It will be a conical shaker, with a built in strainer, similar to those made by a company called Napier back in the late 20’s, early 30’s.”
Vergason believes there is something iconically classic about the conical shaker. “The whole thing looks like it’s one sleek, straight line. And it fits anybody’s hand, because whether you’re a woman with a smaller hand or a man with a larger hand, somewhere along the line of the cone it’s going to fit.
“So for me, part of the cocktail experience, whether you’re drinking out of a glass or you’re shaking with a shaker or you’re pouring out of a pitcher is, it should feel good. It should feel good in your hand, it should feel good on your lip.
“It should look good. It’s like a whole sensual experience. It’s not just what the cocktail tastes like. It’s all of it. It’s the art of it. It’s the whole presentation,” she said.
What’s the best period for vintage glass and barware?
While Vergason admits to a weakness for pieces made preWW11, she strongly believes that if you are lucky enough to find unusual pieces, from whatever era, then they are the right glasses for you.
“I tell anyone is if it’s not a standard glass that you would see today, and it’s beautiful to you, and in great shape, then you should probably buy it.
“The whole point of having a cocktail glass is to enjoy it and appreciate it. There are a lot of pieces that were hand-made and simply can’t be replicated today but as long as you take care of them, these pieces were created and designed to be used.”
For Vergason, vintage glassware and barware is something that should be revelled in both aesthetically and functionally. “Cocktails really are an affordable luxury that anyone can enjoy”.