Episode 119 - Mind Your Wash Line

What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome to episode 119 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

Thanks for joining me for this Bar Cart Foundations episode, where we zoom in on one particular aspect of cocktails and home bartending and examine it up-close so that you can be a better bartender.

The topic of this episode is the humble wash line. This is where the rubber of the drink meets the road of the glass. Or, more precisely, the line that indicates how much liquid is in your glass. For most of us, the wash line is a thing of secondary or tertiary concern, but for professional bartenders and mixologists, it’s an integral part of any well-constructed drink.

But wash lines are unexpectedly difficult to talk about. Is a wash line a real thing or an abstract concept? Does it exist in the glass, in the liquid, or in the mind of the beholder? And just what exactly can a wash line tell you about a cocktail or the person who made it?

All of that and more in this episode.

Featured Cocktail: The Last Word

This episode’s featured cocktail is The Last Word - a drink you may have heard mentioned on this show in the past because it is in fact my favorite drink.

To make The Last Word cocktail, you’ll need:

  • 1 oz Gin

  • 1 oz Green Chartreuse

  • 1 oz Maraschino Liqueur (I prefer Luxardo)

  • 1 oz Fresh lime juice

Combine all these ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake vigorously for about 15 seconds until the drink is well chilled and diluted, and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass.

A couple things to note here. One is that this is what we call a “perfect” cocktail - like the Negroni - where all ingredients are added in equal parts. These types of cocktails are really great for experimenting with different base spirits, so you’ll frequently see Last Word Variations with other clear spirits like Rum, tequila, or mezcal.

The other thing to keep in mind is that this hyper complex drink is not typically garnished. Sometimes you’ll see folks sink a maraschino cherry in the drink - probably because they’re primed by the Maraschino liqueur - but I prefer to keep my Last Word minimal and let the ingredients do the talking.

Warm Sazeracs: A Cautionary Tale

I want to begin this episode with a story - it happened just this past weekend when my wife and I were trying a new bar that recently opened here in DC. Because this is somewhat of a cautionary tale, I won’t name the bar, but the fact that it had just opened is pretty important to this story.

Sazerac with a low wash line

Sazerac with a low wash line

So we walk into this place, grab a seat at the bar, and we both decide that we’re in the mood for a Sazerac, which is one of the cocktails listed on their menu. After we order, I go into scope out mode. I’m looking at what kinds of bottles they have behind the bar, what local ingredients they’re featuring in their spirits program, and how the bartenders are moving around.

I noticed that our bartender goes to the other corner of the bar the make our cocktails, and I didn’t think much of it. Maybe that’s where the absinthe and the bitters were. Maybe that’s where the glassware was stored - I didn’t think much of it. 

A couple minutes later, our drinks arrive in big double rocks glasses (which are traditional for a Sazerac) without ice (which is also traditional for a Sazerac) and with a very low wash line. Obviously, that’s what happens when you take a 3-ish oz drink and put it in a big bucket glass without any ice. Low wash line - not inherently good or bad - but it is a data point.

Now these particular Sazeracs were the correct rosy color color thanks to the Peychaud’s bitters, and they did have lemon twist garnishes. But the twists were kinda short and ugly, and the bartender cut a slit down the middle of each twist and used that to perch them on the rim of the glass. So that’s kinda two strikes right there. Ugly garnish, low wash line...and then I took a sip.

Turns out, our Sazeracs were barely chilled, which means they weren’t stirred for long enough, and they also weren’t served in a chilled rocks glass. Which means they started warm and ended up almost room temperature.

Now, obviously, this a new bar. The team is still trying to master the menu and figure out their ideal work flow, but a bad Sazerac is a bad Sazerac. And as a customer, when you’re paying $13 for a drink, you want to be confident in the quality you’ll receive.

Let’s summarize the little clues in that story that led me to understand why this drink was bad.

  • First, there’s the fact that the bartender kind of hid from us while making our drinks. This might not have been intentional, but when someone orders a nice stirred drink, part of the experience is seeing it assembled and watching the bartender execute their trade. Are they using an atomizer for the absinthe, or are they doing a full glass rinse? These things matter in the world of the Sazerac.

  • Then there’s the low wash line - again - not an inherently good or bad thing, but it does sorta suggest that they didn’t plan their glassware intentionally for this drink. These were the house rocks glasses, and that’s what all the boozy cocktails were served in. Another missed opportunity for intentional design in the cocktail program.

  • The ugly garnishes indicate a lack of precision or experience on the part of the bartender, which isn’t her fault per se, but as a manager, you want to make sure that every drink being served looks beautiful. Just like you wouldn’t want a chef to spend a ton of time making your meal and then just serve it haphazardly, you want your cocktail to feel clean and crisply executed.

Now, the problem with the Sazeracs was that they were served warm. But all these little quality indicators along the way - including that suspiciously low wash line - allowed me to identify a faulty drink and then understand why it was faulty. Will I give that bar another chance? Maybe in a couple months when they have their act together a bit more. But you can bet that I’m going to be on the lookout for a colder drink and a higher wash line next time I visit.

What’s in a Wash Line?

Probably my favorite trippy thing about a wash line is that it is a thing - you can literally identify it when you peer at your cocktail glass, but it is also a relationship between two things: the drink and the vessel that holds it. And because one characteristic of liquids is that they fit the shape of any container, both the cocktail and the glass contribute equally to the wash line.

Knowing this, one trend to keep in mind is the size (or more specifically, the volume) of popular glassware through the years. This is something that has fluctuated widely since the birth of the cocktail, and it’s one of those form follows function situations. If you want a better understanding of the drinks that were developed during a certain time period, look at the type of glassware they were served in.

Glassware Through The Ages

At the turn of the 20th century, most cocktail glasses were a lot smaller than the ones we currently see behind bars. Instead of stemmed glassware that held 4-8 oz of liquid like we have today, the standard volume was only about 3-4 oz back in the golden age of the cocktail.

Then, after World War II, you had the popularization of tiki, which required large glassware like those hurricane glasses and all manner of tiki mugs. And tiki is largely exempt from the wash line conversation because these drinks are often served over crushed ice and consumed in ceramic tiki mugs using a straw. So if your tiki cocktail doesn’t make it to the top of the glass, just add a bit more crushed ice, and you’re good to go.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, large glassware got popular. The popular drinks often contained stuff like vodka, orange juice, pre-made sour mix, and peach schnapps. And when you’re downing harvey wallbangers and long island iced teas, you sort of expect them to be served in a big ol highball glass.  

Today, thanks to the cocktail renaissance, we’re enjoying a swing back in the direction of smaller and more intentionally chosen glassware, which is kinda cool. People are actually taking the time to look at their cocktail menu and consider the proper glassware for each drink.

Finding Your “Goldilocks” Wash Line

But what does that mean for home bartenders? I mean it’s not like each household has a dedicated glassware budget like most cocktail bars...so knowing what we know about glassware and about the importance of wash lines, how can we use this information to make better drinks at home?

Really, it all boils down to one simple question:

Where do I want my wash line, and why? Once you answer that question, the rest is just a little bit of math and technical execution.

For most cocktails - whether they’re served up or on the rocks - you’re looking for a wash line that’s about 10-15% below the rim of the glass. This prevents sloshing and spilling while still presenting a drink that has the appearance of “fullness.”

The one exception to this wash line rule is when you’re making an egg white drink with a frothy head. Because this cloud-like matrix of denatured proteins tends to stick together, it’s okay for it to go right up to the rim of the glass or a little bit above. And, in some extreme cases like the Ramos Gin Fizz, bartenders actually make a game out of how high their foam extends above the glass.

The cool thing about egg white cocktails is that you still actually get a wash line. It’s the place where the liquid ends and the foam begins, and that in and of itself adds a cool element of contrast to the aesthetics of the drink. Without this contrast, we wouldn’t be able to admire the beauty of some of our favorite cocktails like the Clover Club and the Pisco Sour.

The Wash Line Equation

So, if you decide you want your wash line to be in that 10-15% goldilocks zone where it appears full but doesn’t spill, you need to consider the four parts of the wash line equation:

  • Glass volume

  • Liquid Ingredients

  • Dilution

  • Ice/Displacement

This last item is for cocktails that are served on the rocks, or with a garnish that displaces some of the liquid volume of the drink. A big brandied cherry, a set of cocktail olives on a pick, or any other sizeable garnishes fall into this category.

Finding Your Glass Volume

To find your glass volume, simply fill up your cocktail glass with water, dump it in a measuring cup, and observe. Take this number and subtract 10-15%, and that’s the volume you want to hit if you’re aiming for a great wash line. So for a 6 oz cocktail glass, you’ll want a drink with around 5 oz of liquid volume. 

Calculating Your Drink’s Volume

Or, let’s say you’re starting with a cocktail and you want to figure out the perfect glass to serve it in. All you need to do here is measure up all the ingredients, add the dilution, and determine if any ice or garnish displacement will occur.

If we use our featured cocktail - The Last Word - as an example, that means we take four oz of liquid ingredients and add on about a 20% dilution factor from shaking and zero displacement from ice or garnishes. That measures out to about 4.8 oz, which is right around that Goldilocks wash line zone for a 6 oz glass. So what you learn here is that it would be totally unfeasible to serve this in a five oz glass because that would result in spillage, but that you certainly wouldn’t want to put it in anything larger than 6 oz because then the glass starts to feel a bit empty. 

Measuring Ice or Garnish Displacement

Let’s say you have a standard ice size for the cocktails you serve on the rocks. In my case, I use 2” square ice cubes, but that’s a dimensional measure, not a volumetric one. I find that the quickest way to figure out how much liquid volume your rock will displace is to place your rocks glass in a bowl, fill it up with water - all the way to the top - and then place your ice cube in so that it displaces liquid. Remove the rocks glass, measure how much water was displaced, and voila! That is what you need to factor into your wash line equations for drinks served over ice.

As you can see, just like the wash line sits right where the drink meets the glass, it also sits right at the intersection of form and function, technique and aesthetics. Yes, we want our drinks to look really nice, but most of the details and recommendations in this episode have dealt with standardization and execution.

To this end, the last and really critical point I want to make about wash lines is what they can signal to a bartender who is paying attention. If you’ve done the work to carefully choose your glassware with a nice full wash line in mind, you should be highly suspicious of any cocktail that doesn’t fit that appearance. As often happens, bartenders need to multitask. At a high volume cocktail bar, this means stirring two drinks at once while trying to remember the next order. And in the home it means you might need to answer the door or stir something on the stove right in the middle of building your drink.

So if you’re like me and you’re prone to making a mistake every couple years, it’s good to know you can take one quick glance at your glass and be able to tell if you left out one of the ingredients, or perhaps you shook the drink for too long. This brings us full circle to the cautionary tale of the Sazerac at the beginning of this episode. Even though I wasn’t the person who constructed this drink, I could tell right away that there was probably something wrong with it. 

That confidence - that fullness - that triune intersection of liquid, glass, and air - is the difference between a cocktail that you can be fully present with, one you can soak in using all your senses, and a cocktail that will - more likely than not - disappoint.