There is no wrong way to drink bourbon. Whether it is over ice, poured neat, or mixed in a cocktail, it is all good as long as you are enjoying the experience. There as many ways to enjoy bourbon as there are drinkers in this world, but there are ways to enhance the experience. Bourbon glassware is an important part of the bourbon drinking experience. The shape of the glass can have a huge effect of the aroma coming off the bourbon and the actual tasting experience.
It is important to understand the role of bourbon glassware. Here’s an example. Take a water glass, a rocks glass, a white wine glass, a brandy snifter, a Glencairn whiskey glass, the Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass, and a Tupperware bowl, and pour a half ounce in each container and just nose the bourbon.
You will find each container will give you a different experience. The glasses with straight sides will have a weaker nose than the glasses that curve inward toward the lip, which concentrates the aromas under the nose. The size of the bowl will effect the experience as well, as a larger surface area releases more aromas. However, if the surface area is too broad, then it becomes harder to pick out individual aromas.
Try this experiment with the whiskey neat at first, and then add a little water or an ice cube. Note how this changes the aromas. Every person’s sense of smell is different, so don’t be surprised if you and your friends don’t agree on the best glass to use for a tasting experience.
I will not try to say what your experiences will be, as they will be different for each person, but I will describe my experiences with different types of commonly used bourbon glassware. I like my bourbon neat. I believe in experiencing it as the distillery meant it to be experienced without water or ice.
Water Glass: The straight sided version is better than a glass that gets larger towards the mouth of the glass. It is hard to get individual aromas from this style of glass.
Rocks Glass: This glass is very common and many bars will use this for serving their pours. It is not a very good glass for picking out individual aromas, but does a very good job at allowing the dominate aromas come forward.
White Wine Glass: This glass does a better job of concentrating the aromas than many other glasses. There is a good ratio of chimney effect under the nose to surface area of the liquid. The only problem for me is the long stem. It is too easy to knock over and spill the whiskey.
Brandy Snifter: I like the smaller ones but I feel the large ones have too much surface area for the liquid. I find it harder to pick out the individual aromas in the large snifters and I also find it harder to drink from because of the shape of the bowl. The small snifters are good at concentrating the aromas and easier to drink from than the large snifters.
Glencairn Whiskey Glass: This is a very practical tasting glass. It has a good ratio of chimney effect to bowl size. There are other nosing glasses out there, but they all have drawbacks in my opinion that make them inferior to the Glencairn glass. The Reidel glasses are expensive and their stems break too easily. The “Neat” glass looks like a glass spittoon and has too big of a lip. You get a nice concentration of aromas, but drinking from it without spilling it on your face is way too difficult. The Glencairn does a great job of concentrating the aromas under the nose, and is also easy to drink from.
Glencairn Canadian Whiskey Glass: This is a larger version of the standard Glencairn glass. It is a decent nosing glass, but at the same time large enough to use as a rocks glass or as a cocktail glass. The more I use this glass, the better I like it.
The Tupperware Bowl: A very large surface area allows for the dominant aromas to be released. You can get your whole face in the bowl to experience the aromas close-hand, but it is very hard to drink from and you will look silly doing so.
You should take time and experiment with the different types of glassware. Each will give you a different tasting experience, and in some cases you may want to use more than one style of glass to pin down that elusive aroma in a bourbon. In any case, the glassware style can enhance your tasting experience.
Michael Veach was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s written and contributed to five books and is the foremost authority on bourbon history. In addition to this he is the Filson Historical Society‘s Bourbon Historian. Michael has provided bourbon history education in many different forms...