As in so many things, the world of whiskey is slowing catching up to the world of wine. Case-in-point: glassware.
Every self-respecting bar will have at least three dedicated glasses for wine: a small-bowled for whites, a globe-like for reds and a flute for bubbles. A high-end restaurant may have a different glass for each varietal or blend style! But for whiskey it’s often, eh, whatever glass is handy.
If nuanced expression of wine is subjective to the shape of the serving container, won’t whiskey be the same? Why should my delightfully delicate single barrel selection or limited edition blend be presented in a ‘and-coke’ glass?
Fortunately for the whiskey enthusiast, glassware manufacturers have heeded the cry for specialty glassware and have responded with a new plethora of offerings. So much so that this article is definitely not definitive – new specialty whiskey glasses are debuting regularly!
There are generally, though, two categories of whiskey glassware based upon consumption method – neat or chilled.
Imbibing whiskey neat can be an uncomfortable assault on the senses, especially the high-test stuff. So a glass that aids in separating the aromatics from the air-borne ethanol is valuable.
- Copita (Sherry) Glass – Literally ‘little glass’ in Spanish and traditionally used for fortified wines and some liqueurs, this glass has a stem with a tapered bowl that enhances the aromatic/nosing experience. It’s commonly seen in distillery sensory labs and does its job well.
- (Brandy) Snifter – With a short stem and a wider but still tapered bowl, the snifter glass is designed for the bowl to be held in the hand and the liquid to warm as a result releasing more aromatics. This is great for brandies and the glass has also been adopted by high-A.B.V. beers that are served in smaller pours. Works for whiskey in a pinch.
- Pretty Much Any Other Smaller-Bowl Wine Glass – Decent if it’s what you’ve got.
Modern Whiskey-Specific Glasses
- Glencairn – The idea of providing whiskey its own glass originated with the introduction of the Glencairn in 2001. Developed by Raymond Davidson for the Scotch whisky industry, this glass is designed to encourage the experience of the aromatics of whiskey without an assault of ethanol on the olfactory membranes. It’s become so ubiquitous and synonymous with whiskey tasting and drinking that the shape is often incorporated into logos to promote whiskey events. This is default glass for most tasting and judging for whiskeys.
- Neat – This nearly self-eponymous glass debuted in 2012 with the claim “designed by science.” It has an oversized bowl compared to other neat glasses and a flipped back lip that makes swirling and nosing with it the easiest of this category of glass. The Neat glass has been adopted by many major spirits judging competitions although a common complaint is that it’s less comfortable to hold and requires a bit more focus to actually drink from.
- Norlan – Emerging from a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, the Norlan has a unique double-wall construction with an airspace layer that allows one to comfortably hold the glass by the bowl without warming the liquid inside. It’s pretty much a copita inside a tumbler and has received much acclaim.
Once ice is involved, the whole neat glass category is off the table, so to speak. While the neat glasses are all about aromatic enhancement and ethanol deflection, rocks and cocktail glasses are all about temperature controls.
Tumbler / Lowball / Old Fashioned Glass – Despite its variety of names, the humble tumbler serves its purpose well as a go-to for imbibing any ice-chilled drink. It can hold a small amount of ice, a large amount of small ice or one really big chunk of ice equally well. Easy to hold, easy to drink from. Also, many flat cocktails – whiskey or otherwise – are usually presented in this glass.
Glencairn Mixer Glass – Sometimes referenced as a Canadian whisky glass, this vessel is Glencairn’s answer to drinking whiskey on the rocks with that little taper in the bowl that enhances the experience.
Beyond the aforementioned tumbler, certain whiskey cocktails have preferential glasses.
Highball / Collins Glasses – Bubbles are best served in tall, skinny glasses. Whiskey highballs are a glorious invention best served either pre-chilled or with light ice in a highball glass.
Martini & Coupe – Chilled cocktails presented without ice – think Manhattan and its Scottish relative, the Rob Roy – are traditionally served in the tall-stemmed, v-shaped bowled martini glass. As any server can tell you, it’s a pretty glass that’s a pain to walk with. The coupe, with its more curved sides, has gained in popularity as a swap-out replacement. Regardless, once you’ve gone to the trouble of chilling a drink and removing the ice, the last thing you want to do it raise the temperature back up by holding the bowl in your hand.
As an experiment, try the same volume pour of your favorite whiskey in whatever glasses you have lying around. The results are immediate and eye-opening. (My first encounter with this technique was a 25-glass review and I’ve never gone back to a tumbler for neat whiskey drinking.)
But what if all you have is a shot glass ?(Or worse, a little plastic sample cup?) Well, it’s better than not drinking whiskey, isn’t it? Bottoms up!
Tim Knittel is a professional Bourbon educator and writer based in Lexington, KY. He has over a decade of experience inside and outside of distilleries and holds the titles of Executive Bourbon Steward-in-Residence at The Kentucky Castle and Adjunct Professor of Tourism, Event Management and Bourbon Studies at Midway University....