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Six tips for buying cool vintage barware & glassware at thrift stores

If you’re a cocktail lover or a born hostess, it’s important to have your home bar dialed. In my book Booze for Babes I tell you exactly what you need to create a functional setup for making or serving any drink and that also doubles as décor. One of the tips I give is finding bar tools and glassware at thrift stores, because you can find quality pieces in great, unique styles and quality  (and you won’t be terrified of breaking that family heirloom or wedding present because, hey, it only cost you $1).

This week, I got the bug to shop and restock, so I’d thought I’d give you a peek at what I found searching for one day at three local stores, plus some tips for how to walk away with some real steals:

1. Look for a thin lip on the glass and delicate stem. This means the rim on which you drink out of the glass is delicate, rather than a bulky round. This indicates it is high quality and probably not mass produced. I found these coupe glasses below, which are traditionally used for champagne but are popular cocktail glasses, and also picked up five Spiegelau wine glasses, which are found in many fine dining restaurants and made from a single piece of glass, for $5 each instead of their usual $10 to $25 each. They still had the stickers on them! I’ve even picked up brand new Riedel tulip glasses for $2 at the thrift. If you see lines anywhere in the glass, indicating that two pieces of glass have been pieced together, then it was made from a mold. Those are a dime a dozen, and aren’t so elegant. You can find plenty of cheap glasses without this obvious visual flaw, so pass them over.

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2. Don’t be afraid of quirky or unique shapes – there’s a place for them! These colorful cordial glasses are perfect for small “taster” cocktails and for digestives, which are after-dinner spirits served neat. With their long, delicate stems, they are hand blown and also make for an interesting conversational piece and display on your bar when not in use. The rooster cordial glasses below add personality to an otherwise classic collection. And once I saw the pewter drinking cups, I had to have them because they were so different. I can’t wait to serve a well-iced Moscow Mule in them and be asked the question, “where did you get these?”.

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3. Buy in pairs, and buy things you’d love to drink out of all the time. After breaking three of four amazing sommelier wine glasses I’d purchased on an earlier thrifting trip, I was in need of some new everyday wine glasses and found two sets plus a couple of etched tulip flutes, shown below. They’re elegant and cute, which matches my current collection, but they’re also durable and and inexpensive enough for everyday use. I had come across a great snifter made by Tiffany & Co., but while I absolutely embrace an eclectic collection, I think having one of a kind in glassware looks kind of funny unless they are obviously meant to look different on a table (like different colors of the same style glass, or different patterns or etches on the same style of glass). I like having at least two of the same, and then if you want, you can mix up three different pairs together on a table.

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4. Nix anything made in China, Taiwan, or Korea, and pay attention to things made in France, Germany, Italy, Austria or the USA. This is a good general rule of thumb because, as I mentioned, two of the world’s greatest glassware companies, Spiegelau and Riedel, hail from Germany and Austria respectively. And the mouth blown glass tradition is still practiced in France and Italy, and sometimes, the USA. Glassware made in the East is likely to be a dime a dozen and not worth your dime at all. Usually the place of origin is etched on the bottom of the glass.

5. Listen for a clink. Lead crystal, which is heavy weighted and high quality, makes a chiming sound when clinked together. It also has a prism effect if you look at in the light. Bought new, lead crystal is pricey (upwards of $50 a glass) and is usually reserved for special occasions, but I once found a set of six lead crystal glasses at the thrift – stickers on – for two bucks each. Lead crystal made in Europe is the most sought after by collectors, though there is some controversy over the higher percentage of lead in it, which can be harmful.

6. Look for practical ways to spice up the decor on your table or bar. I found these etched glass votive holders for less than a dollar, and they complement the etched glass coupes and wine glasses I already own. The latched jars are perfect for holding spices or herbs you use for infusing spirits such as juniper berries, and I hold on to them when I want to gift a friend a kit for making their own spiced rum, for example. I also came away with a small, travel-sized cocktail shaker (always good to have extras) for $2.99.

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