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Martin Kastner on His Barware Design Process, Kickstarter Success, and the Porthole

Photo: Amy McKeever/

Chicago designer Martin Kastner is the man responsible for one of the most coveted innovations in barware: The Porthole, a device that infuses a cocktail as you drink it. Kastner made the Porthole for Grant Achatz's bar The Aviary, where some of his other Crucial Detail glassware designs are also on display, from the aroma-containing cloche, to the sling that holds a cocktail-filled ice sphere.

In an interview last week, Kastner talked to Eater about his various cocktail-related designs, the gimmicks that help him solve cocktail problems for his clients, and how to make the perfect ice cube. He also talks about the insane success of the Porthole Kickstarter project that raised more than $700,000 — considerably more than the $28,500 that he had originally set out to raise — and lessons he learned over that process. Here now, Martin Kastner:

How do you have that conversation with your clients in terms of what they're looking for in a cocktail glass or a vessel?
It depends. There are probably two types of projects. One would be defined by having a very specific application, so it's functionally already articulated in a way and you need to give it form. So you're asking them, what does this need to do? What are the volumes?

But usually that's not where most projects start. Like a project where they say, okay, we have this cocktail, this is how it's going to work, these are the volumes. So you're like, okay, what's the user's experience? Is there anything in the way of interaction with the cocktail that's important to you? What needs to be emphasized? What makes this interesting? Ultimately, the question is why do you need a special service piece? Can you just put it in a glass? When people start to answer this, that gives you a pretty good summary of the restrictions on the project or the delimiting factors for the design process.

It's a lot easier to talk about a specific design. We don't want to serve it in a glass because we're using smoke and we want the smoke to be contained and to be consumed by just the guest.

This is the cloche?
Yeah, that would be the cloche. We need to figure out a way to contain it so it's a flavor in the drink, but how do we get it just to the guest? What are the options? Usually the first question would be what is the user's experience in your mind? How should they interact with it? In case of the smoke, it's really obvious, you have this physical thing that you have to do. So usually an experience is the goal. Other times it's the delivery of something that you already have in mind. If it's about challenging certain norms of service then it's a completely different thing. We haven't really done that in terms of cocktails. The cocktails have been kind of at that first stage conceptually where we're really looking at delivery mechanisms.

The cloche. [Photo: Crucial Detail]

So like problem-solving.
Right. It was very similar with Alinea, where we started with specific problems and, as we kind of learned our way around it, we started to look conceptually at the whole dining experience. I feel like there's an opportunity to do the same with the cocktails but, again, we first have to understand enough about the processes, the way it works, and how people respond to it.

The shape of the glass affects the way a drink or wine will taste, too. How does that factor into how you design as well as the practical issues?
Yeah absolutely. The volatiles are important. They affect the way you perceive flavor. You're really looking at a surface area to the opening ratio in the head of the glass. Do you want to concentrate the aroma or do you want to release it? All that stuff plays into it and it's definitely a factor.

It's one of the first things you think about. Because, ultimately, the first question really should be do we need to design something? It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, it's expensive. Do we need to do it? Is there something that already does it? And if it does but not well enough, why? Can you modify the drink to fit a glass or do you want to modify the vehicle to fit the cocktail? What is the active element of this cocktail that you're trying to deliver? You don't really want to have to change a ton of things for irrelevant details. But sometimes if the cocktail concept really needs to highlight certain aspects or you don't have a vehicle that works, then it's worth tinkering with.

So it's not just designing something for the heck of it.
Yeah. It's not a form-giving exercise in the sense of just trying to make something pretty. I like a good gimmick and the same applies to the cocktails. There needs to be a reason to do it in the first place. Inertia is a very powerful thing. You have to overcome the inertia by building up enough excitement about what you're doing. Having a sense of creating something that's different, that's new, that's going to change the way people perceive or interact with cocktails. You kind of have to have that kick to get moving.

Can you tell me about some of the gimmicks you've done with cocktails?
With the cloche, it's basically building the little volcano, concentrating the aroma in a really small area so you're not spreading the scent. It's intended as a complement to your drink, not to everybody else's drink. So what can you do? The solution is using a straw to drink and actually having the aroma come out through a small hole on top around the straw. So it's just like your private little experience.

What else is there? There are ices that we did that will come served in a conventional glass, but they're different sizes. The whole idea was developing different ice textures for dissolution, for flavoring the drink, or just a perfect cube. How do you get a perfect ice cube?

[Photo: In the Rocks Aviary/Facebook]

How do you get a perfect ice cube?
Well, you just make a good mold and then, if you really want it to be perfect, you iron down the ice in the mold. Just basically take a piece of metal and it melts any protrusions on the ice. It works like an iron, in a way. So you melt the top, it fills down, and you refreeze it. Those are little tricks that go beyond glassware. Another thing is the sling for [what used to be] the Old Fashioned, the sphere of ice that has the cocktail in it.

Oh, the In the Rocks.
How do you break that? It's really satisfying to be able to break that ice. But you don't want to break the glass, you just want to break the ice. The sling makes a lot of sense because it contains the impact. The other part of the equation is that they've probably had a drink already, or two, so you have to design for an impaired adult.

That seems like a hard calculation.
Yeah. Originally the sling did not have a wooden ring, but we learned pretty quickly that people can't be trusted at some point during the course of their experience at The Aviary. So it's a wooden ring that fits over the rim of the glass that you pull up and it breaks and pops the ice. You can't hit the rim of the glass and it's not going to have enough velocity to go through the bottom. It's going to be contained.

Tumblers. [Photo: Crucial Detail]

How about the tumblers that we were just talking about? What was your gimmick for those?
The challenge is [to create] a small tasting glass that will get refilled frequently and that will drive the guest to finish all of the contents and refill. Getting rid of the foot and making it unstable is one way to kind of subconsciously nudge people toward finishing the drink before putting the glass down because then you feel like you're not going to spill. And then the volume is small so you refill it frequently.

I do want to talk to you about The Porthole, too. Did you have any idea when you were making it how bananas people were going to go for it?
No, not when when I was making it. It's really hard to gauge when you're on the creative side of it. I just didn't know. But when I did bring my first prototype for the first test dinner and I set it down, you could see immediately people were drawn to it. They were responding to it immediately as an object. That was a little bit unusual. But I didn't expect anything like the whole Kickstarter thing to be that crazy.

Yeah, reaching your goal in two hours is pretty crazy.
Yeah. I'm not quite over that whole experience. It's intense. But we're done. I had no idea [it was going to be like this]. As soon as Aviary opened, people started calling and emailing, "Can I get this?" I was like, "It's really expensive and it takes a lot of time." "But we'll buy it!" Even if it's $500? And most people were like, "Oh, that's a lot." And other people would be like, "Yeah, I'll buy it. Put me down." By the time it was 150 people —

Oh wow, that many people called about it?
Yeah, and most of it happened in the first two or three months of The Aviary being open. So I was kind of like, if this many people contacted me, we can probably sell 500 of them and that is enough to justify tooling for it. Then we can bring the cost down. That's how I launched the campaign. I just emailed all the people who were on my list and was like, hey, this is going to be on Kickstarter in a week and if you're interested, you will be the first one to know. And it worked. I think every single person on the email list backed it within the first 20 minutes and that's kind of what made it.

The thing with Kickstarter, it just becomes a self-fulfilling thing. By having so many people so quickly backing it — it raised probably $20,000 in the first 20 minutes — you become the most popular. And when you're the most popular, you get on the front page of Kickstarter. And when you're on the front page of Kickstarter then everybody sees it. If you get the launch just right then it just kind of rolls on its own.

Your goal was pretty modest, especially compared to what you raked in. Was that just the baseline of what you needed?
It was pretty much what was necessary for us to produce the molds and do a short run. I'm really glad that we did better. I took at face value what the factories told me with the cost. At the end of the day, the cost of the tooling was significantly higher. So it would not have been enough. I'm really glad that we didn't get stuck having to figure out how to fund another $40,000 to make it happen. I feel like it's probably an issue with quite a few Kickstarter projects. If there's not enough buffer in what you're asking as your goal and, if you just make it, you might be in a pretty hard spot having to raise more funds.

The Porthole. [Photo: Kickstarter]

But if you give yourself too much buffer you might not make your goal and you might not get anything.
Yeah. It's a delicate balance there. But because of the Kickstarter, the project is a lot better. The quality of it all around is a lot nicer. It's a lot more expensive to make than what I originally planned, but once you get to those numbers you can leverage that. You cannot really afford to do it on a small 500-piece batch.

And the glasses [that accompany it] are super exciting. I really wanted to do something like that and I could never afford it. It's hard to get a foot in the door with really high-quality glass manufacturers unless you're doing some serious volume. So by coming to them and saying, "Okay, we're going to make 20,000 glasses," they were like, "Okay, we'll get you on the books." If you go there and you want 300 of them, then it's like, nope. So now I actually have a relationship and there's a level of trust. If I give them the designs, they'll spec it. They'll take a risk on us, too.

So I honestly did not know how successful the Porthole was going to be. I talked to Nick [Kokonas] and Grant [Achatz]. Nick was a little apprehensive, but he was excited because he was a business guy. Nick was like, "Don't worry, it'll be so successful." He's also the guy that, when he first saw the Porthole, was like, "This is great." I think he just has a really good sense of what's going to work. Maybe I just need to listen to him. But other than Nick's enthusiasm, there was no real telling what was going to happen. Anyway, I did not plan for that success. That's some sort of a false modesty probably.

Well, because it's not that you don't wish for it to be successful. It's almost being irresponsible because it is possible and now there is proof for me that it is possible. So I have to plan for that and I did not because I felt like it wasn't realistic. There was no contingency for that level of success. And that's one thing that I learned. It should be a part of the plan. You set the expectations before the pledging starts. The minute one backer has backed it, you can't change anything about it. The delivery date does not change even though you're producing 20 times as many pieces. So you're stuck with that expectation.

Were you just watching throughout the month being like, oh shit?
Yeah. The first day was exciting and then it was like, oh shit. And then, as it ends, that's kind of the worst time because you start to get a sense of where realistically it's going to be. But you can't modify anything. Just plan for crazy success because it might happen and if it does, you'd better be ready. The more successful it is, the bigger potential for disappointment. I think that's what's been so emotionally difficult about the whole process. You're doing all you can, but you can't really communicate it with the backers fully. You're going to sound like a whiny-ass baby.

If there's one thing that could have been better about the Porthole Kickstarter project, it would have been managing expectations. Looking back, you're like, okay, these are the signs I should have seen that there was going to be issues. It's a fascinating learning experience, though I'm not sure I'll ever utilize this know-how that I've learned.

You're not going to do it again?
I don't know. The bigger version of the tasting glasses, I'm really excited about them and I'm not sure I'll have the resources to actually produce them. We can always produce 300 pieces, but they're going to be really expensive. To get past that threshold, you need some resources to do that. Kickstarter is a great way to get those resources without having to go to a bank and ask for a loan. I think I said a few months ago that I would never do another Kickstarter. Maybe I will. This one is done.

It's just like when you run a race.
Right, don't ask me at mile 22. All this stuff I've learned about this process, I could leverage it if we do another project. The one thing that kind of scares me is the success of the Porthole. How much should we try to raise and what do we do if it gets too successful again? Or what do we do if it does not meet [the goal]? You're bringing your skin to the market. You're really vulnerable. I'd feel more so if I did it the second time around.

· All Martin Kastner Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cocktail Week Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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The Aviary

955 W Fulton Market Chicago, IL 60607

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