It may not be the first question on most peoples’ lips when talking about whsky, but the issue of the correct glass for the drink to be consumed in is a fairly big deal. For the last 12 years that deal has centred largely around “THE OFFICIAL” (caps necessary) whsky glass, the Glencairn. Since its launch in 2001, the Glencairn glass has become quite ubiquitous with whisky – most prominently with Scotch whisky, but also with other global distilleries – and it is the favoured vessel at whsky tastings, festivals, and distilleries around the world. If you’ve yet to encounter this particular glass – and there’s a chance that you won’t have since its use does not seem to be as widespread in the States as it is in the UK – then it is best described as a snifter-type glass with a tapered neck and a thick, solid stem. Alternatively, you could take a look at the handy picture below:
Its design is based on the copita, an aroma-enhancing sherry glass with a distinctive narrow taper towards the lip of the glass, and the company very cleverly pounced on the fact that “brandy, champagne, wine and beer all have their own distinct glasses. Yet Whisky… can be found served in anything from Rocks tumblers to Paris goblets.” Hence, the launch of “THE OFFICIAL whisky glass”. It’s a great idea in principle, as its aim as a drinking vessel is to heighten whisky drinkers’ appreciation of the ‘nose’ of a spirit, allowing a bit more focus on the way a whsky smells over – or alongside, I should say – the way it tastes. There’s no great secret in the fact that our sense of smell is more powerful than our sense of taste and the human nose is capable of distinguishing hundreds of smells while the tongue can distinguish just five qualities of taste (sweet; sour; salty; bitter; and umami). Furthermore, the sensation and flavour of the things we eat and drink are heavily reliant on our olfactory system; our sense of smell. Without it, we would get far less enjoyment (and excitement!) from things such as whisky.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Glencairn glass has carved out this little niche in the global whsky world as producers and distillers frequently discuss the smell (‘nose’) alongside its taste. Its design makes for a perfectly marketable successor to the aforementioned copita, which has been utilised by distillers and master blenders in the whsky industry for many years as well as having an influence on the wine industry, with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) having a specification for a wine-tasting glass that is very similar to the copita. Of course, you would not expect to walk into a store and be confronted with hundreds of ISOs when looking for a set of wine glasses, and the point-of-focus on the ISO glass is that it is designed for wine tasting, which is distinctly different to – though not necessarily separate from – wine drinking. ‘Tasting’ is, in this sense, a professional and somewhat clinical dissection of a product, whereas ‘drinking’ is arguably for refreshment and/or enjoyment. That’s not to say that a wine tasting can’t be enjoyable in a social context but – and I’m speaking from experience here – it’s largely unavoidable to prevent a tasting session become a drinking session. With me so far?
- The ISO tasting glass (second from left, tilt head to right) and similar variants. © MaltManiacs.net
The same applies to whsky. I’ve hosted many whsky tastings over the past few years and in attempting to find my comfort level with such events I’ve struggled with the balance between the formal aspect of tasting and the more sociably enjoyable concept of drinking. It’s a tough one because your remit in hosting a tasting is to advise and educate as much as it is to provide enjoyment for the participants, and there is a very fine line that separates an overly-formal, bordering-on-sterile event from a balls-out, bombastic drinking session. Suffice to say that one thing that is ever-present at whisky tastings is some form of tastingglass, be it the Glencairn, an ISO, or a copita. When guiding people through a whsky tasting, it’s important to focus on the impact of smell and its relevance in building an experience while drinking and these glasses are perfect for that, though some would argue that they are less conducive to casual drinking.
However, to say that the Glencairn is the ONLY glass for whsky is akin to saying that wine should only be consumed from an ISO, or that beer must be drunk from a pint glass. In fact, the argument for a universal whsky glass completely overlooks the differences in style within the category, as well as in the wine and beer industries. On a base level you could divide wine glasses simply into red and white, but what if you wanted to differentiate between a standard white and a Chardonnay glass? Or between Pinot Noir, Bordeaux, and Cabernet Sauvignon? And with beer, is the pint glass nonic, tulip, or straight? What about Pokals and chalices, or specific glasses for wheat beer or pilsner? Hell, even the brandy snifter comes in various shapes and sizes. Perhaps most importantly of all, though: what if your vessel of choice is a trusty Solo cup? (I like the blue ones, but red is cool too.)
- That lass from Girls Aloud doesn’t even need a glass, damnit. © The Mirror
And then there’s whsky: the most versatile and unique of all spirits, with varying specifications on its production dependent on location, not to mention a multitude of different styles. Are we really to believe that one glass is enough? We can argue about additions such as ice, water, soda, and bitters another day: right now I’m concerned with the very fact that sometimes – oftentimes, in fact – a stemmed, tulip-lipped glass just ain’t going to cut it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a Glencairn, an ISO, and a copita in my glass cupboard for the times that I use them – and I do reach for them regularly – but when drinking a whsky purely for pleasure I more regularly reach for a small, rounded tumbler. I’ve never been a fan of heavy-bottomed or cut-glass tumblers, but there is something primally satisfying about holding a glass in its entirety, and not just clutching a stem. That said, I have a rocks glass on hand for when I fancy an Old Fashioned or something similar, and I have been known to throw a healthy measure of brown liquor into a Peanuts hi-ball with ice and a mixer. Whenever I find myself in a thrift store (which is often, thanks to my lovely wife) I find myself keeping an eye ouut for other styles of glass that might suit a certain whsky-taking mood. I’ve long since stopped looking for THE whsky glass, and instead focus a little more on situational drinking and the glassware that might suit a certain scenario.
This post was strongly inspired by the Whisky Advocate article A Glass for Spirit by Cormac MacConnell (Summer 2013), which, while I didn’t agree with every word and sentiment, was a very interesting and relevant read and I’ve been planning this “follow-up” piece for about 3 months since reading it!
I also found solace in these words by Whisky Advocate publisher & editor John Hansell in his blog. He makes a very good argument for whisky “anoraks” to appreciate other ways of enjoying whisky, though the other half of the equation is convincing non-anoraks to consider glasses such as the Glencairn and the copita in the first place.
Read a bit more about the olfactory epithelium and the subjective nature of tasting on The Whisky Exchange blog
The Glencairn Glass IS available to buy in the U.S.A and it is my considered opinion that every whsky fan should have at least one at their disposal. Check them out at GlencairnWhiskyGlass.com
Rastal also make some good glassware, and their Fiori tulip tasting glass is (as far as I can tell) very similar to the glasses used by The Whisky Show in London, one of the few UK whisky festivals to eschew the Glencairn glass. Check out Chrislan Ceramics
Finally, although I have neither the time nor inclination (just the latter actually, I have plenty of spare time right now) to conduct experiments in this area there are those out there that do. If you’d like to read about the perceived effectiveness of various glass styles, have a look at the following:
DRNK: Old Fashioned w/ Angel’s Envy