Copa Out

As a teenager in Amsterdam you might imagine that I had many an informative and eye opening experience. My brother from another mother, a few years my senior, had already started forming considered opinions on the new trendy bars and restaurants opening in the city. One night he came home and told me about a cool casual restaurant/bar with a Mediterranean vibe that was so laid back it was serving all its wines in cheap little tumblers. This clearly wasn’t the most exciting thing I’d heard about in the ‘Dam that week, but somehow it stuck.

Fast forward a decade and a bit and I’m part of the opening team for the regrettably gone-up-in-smoke mythical East Rooms member’s club in East London: still quite possibly one of the finest establishments I have had the pleasure to work in. As well as a spirit list so large and varied we had to hide bottles in random cupboards and partitions, the emphasis was very much on the democratisation of wine: a couple of walls of Enomatics; a ‘battleship’ grid wine menu of grape/price avoiding any mention of vintages, producers or such snobbery; a considered and generous appreciation of New World wines; and, yes, a stemmed wine glass ban.

Of course, not everybody ordering a bottle of Penfolds Grange Bin 95 wanted to drink their money juice out of a Duralex, so eventually we caved and got a clutch of stems for the fancy-pants fusspots. Not that I cared much either way to be completely honest. I was too busy working my way through magnums of birth-year armagnacs, adjusting my tie whilst refusing to wear an apron, and slipping out vintage classics like nobody forgot.

Despite the many that have tried, I still harbour a deeper love for the distilled grape and grain than that which has escaped the clutches of the copper water thief. So it is somewhat understandable that the influence in glassware our Mediterranean friends have had on the spirit world’s wild card – the gin and tonic – has affected me with a more pronounced disdain. Particularly as the result has, somewhat ironically, been against the democratisation of the liquid within, and the glass itself would have been intended originally for wine.

If you have strolled into any bar that embraces juniper over the past five years, you will no doubt have seen gin and tonic menus that don’t just pride themselves on the quality of their distillate, tonic, ice and garnish, but more often than not insist that one drinks the quintessential libation from a bulbous stemmed ‘copa’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the ‘Spanish-style G&T’ per se; like with anything it can be done well, and anything that promotes sweet sweet juniper juice and a damn fine spirit/mixer isn’t all bad by me. However the issue often seems to be lack of consideration in the execution. It has, in my opinion, become somewhat of a bandwagon; an easy-to-pin-on badge to differentiate a bar’s gin and tonic offering and supposedly profess a fervent adoration of the drink, not to mention a, more often than not, considerable mark-up in price.

I am happy to conjecture the possible and humble origins. One of the world’s largest gin markets was perhaps unprepared for a sharp rise in spirit and mixer’s popularity. Since they were already serving their wine in little tumblers, maybe they reached for their dusty unused wine glasses when the first throng of well-travelled imbibers invaded their cantina demanding ‘gin tônica’?

I completely understand some savvy marketing execs eyeing up the serve thirstily, looking to make their brand call the biggest and pimpin’est, the definitive serve. How do you elevate a humble but noble drink? Put it on a long stem. How do you sell more? Put it in a bigger glass.

I’m not saying it didn’t work. I struggle to think of a large gin brand that didn’t at some point flirt with this idea, although results were often less a flirtation and more a marriage, with branded copas popping up every time the sun shed a beam on your local beer garden or somebody ordered almonds instead of peanuts.

The problem is proportion and balance. A true G&T connoisseur will spit out exact preferred ratios of gin to tonic as quickly as preferred brand. Often they will request the tonic on the side, unable to trust those shifty shaky-handed bottle jockeys to mix to their accurate perfection. In the rustic cantinas of Spain the gin is likely to be measured out in fists rather than fingers, often resulting in thrice the amount of spirit one might find in more regulated watering holes.

Happy days perhaps, but less happy when our glass tiptoes into the cabinets of the aforementioned regulated watering holes, where accuracy and cost are watched with eagle eyes. The very brands touting their copas will have their hands tied by the governing fun police and gently reminded that their signature serve should perhaps contain a fraction of the amount of spirit they’d have liked.

The ratios gone, the drink already tasting more tonic and giny than gin and tonicy, but the room for error doesn’t stop there.

The straight-sided walls of the highball are lacking, the accurately built blocks of ice become a stab in the ice well. The foundation of the ice cubes crumble, slip and swill around a copa in carefree abandon: less a stiff British upper lip, more a drunken lad stumbling around Majorca. The structure gone, the roof collapses: the daintily and carefully chosen arrangement of the botanical roof garden has fallen into the sea. This garnish is no longer an aromatic crown; it is my kitchen sink after a dinner party.

I’ll not even go into technicalities of lost effervescence nor examples I’ve experienced of cruelly tulipped wine glasses masquerading as copas and hindering the flow of my sips, or how stupid a wine glass looks with a straw in it (yes, people still do request straws). Whether the original attempts to elevate this serve were to capture the breathless growth of gin’s premium market or just to do something a bit different, the bad examples have outweighed the good. The copa is common, the copa can cop off: bring me my highballs.

By Julian de Féral

Cover image credit: Drinkstuff.com

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