Thursday, September 20, 2012

Does Glassware Really Make a Difference?

It's a debate as old as whisk(e)y connoisseurship: does the glass you're drinking out of actually make a difference in how the spirit tastes? There's a fairly solid consensus that the standard rocks glass/tumbler doesn't help much if you want to get details. The volatile compounds that make up the smells become too diffuse and it's hard to pick up specific attributes. However, there is currently a wide array of specialized glassware on the market right now which all purports to provide a better and more nuanced experience. I've managed to pick up a few things here and there and became curious to find out whether or not there were actually significant differences between them.

My procedure was fairly simple: each glass was filled with 0.5 oz of spirit, covered for a few minutes, then sampled. I tried this with two different spirits that I have previously reviewed - Eagle Rare bourbon and Glenfiddich Distiller's Edition. I sampled each spirit in its own session, trying to keep reasonably consistency each time. However, this is far from a true scientific sampling as it was impossible to do so blind and I'm sure I have some biases. However, it was still an interesting and enlightening experience.

Arran Gift Set Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: caramel riding over mild, sweet, fresh oak, hints of berries

Taste: lightly sweet/sour up front, clarifies into creamy caramel, oak, pepper, and a hint of fruit near the finish

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: slightly dry and musty, light fruity/malt sweetness, fairly prominent alcohol, light oak, hint of chocolate and vanilla, creamy, briny, peat

Taste: very strong malt/sherry/chocolate sweetness, mild bitter/pepper at the back, slightly briny

This glass comes from the Arran 10 YO Gift Set, which I picked up earlier this year. The shape is very similar to the Glencairn tulip, which gives a significant amount of surface area for volatile compounds to evaporate, which are then concentrated by the narrower neck of the glass. It's become my standard tasting glass, especially for minis, because its ideal fill point is ~0.75 oz, which lets me get two solid tastings out of a mini.

Goodwill Angular Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: vague caramel, little oak, more alcohol, a hint of rye grain, honey, chocolate

Taste: flatter, a little drier, more rye

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: balanced malt/fruity sherry, greenish/sour malt, a bit of chocolate

Taste: balanced malt sugar/fruity sweetness, bittersweet chocolate at the back, medium pepper

This is one of two tasting glasses I found at Goodwill a few months ago. Sadly I can't find much information about it, but it was only a dollar, so I figured I'd see how it went. Sadly I found that it didn't work particularly well, though that might not be the case with other spirits.

Goodwill Rounded Glass

Eagle Rare

Nose: pineapple, caramel, oak, subtle rye grain, bread

Taste: fairly sweet up front, then some sour oak and big pepper, mint in the finish

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: sour malt, very subdued sherry fruitiness, floral, oaky chocolate

Taste: sweetness is sherry-driven up front, great oloroso flavors, sour malt comes in mid-palate, creamy chocolate

This was another Goodwill find. Like the first, its ideal fill point is 0.5 oz. I found that this one worked better, giving a full, clear nose and palate from a rather small pour. While I'm rarely interested in such small pours, it may come in handy if I ever order dram samples from Master of Malt, which are only 30 mL. This glass would let me split them in two without feeling like I was getting an incomplete experience each time.

Vinoteque Snifter

Eagle Rare

Nose: grassier, green fruits, fresher, less caramel and oak, hints of sweet rye grain, bready

Taste: very sweet, sugary all the way through, still fresh, big pepper fades quickly, a hint of bitter oak, very subdued caramel

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: malty/floral, light but rich sherry, chocolate, subtle pepper

Taste: intense sugar/malt/fruit/sherry sweetness carries through, floral mid-palate, chocolate big pepper near the finish

This was the first proper tasting glass I ever bought and has been used in a number of my reviews. The ideal fill point is ~1 oz, which makes it a bit bigger than any of the previous glasses. The tulip shape is even more exaggerated than the Arran glass and it seems to do a very good job. I find it to be a good all-around tasting glass as it's big enough for some more extended dramming, but small enough that smaller pours aren't swallowed.


Eagle Rare

Nose: caramel-focused, a lot of alcohol, a hint of rye

Taste: sugary sweetness throughout, some musty oak and rye, a hint of chocolate

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: malty, a hint of sherry, leafy vegetables, slightly musty/dusty

Taste: brighter, more intense sweetness + lighter sherry, bitter chocolate/wood/oak and pepper near the back

This was another Goodwill find. While it's a classic design and works well for sherry, it doesn't seem to be ideal for whisk(e)y, especially in terms of the nose. Some of that may just be that it needs a heavier pour to work well, but I'm rarely drinking that much at once.


Eagle Rare

Nose: alcohol is prominent, light but balanced caramel, oak, and rye grain

Taste: caramel sweetness, light grain, oak, pepper, sweet/dusty near the back

Glenfiddich DE

Nose: hints of sherry and vegetal peat, very light sweetness, chocolate raisins, underlying malt

Taste: sharp acidic sweetness/sherry up front, malt, pepper, and peat further back, some chocolate

The glencairn glass is the standard for whisky tasting. It's ideal fill point is ~1.5 oz, which makes it significantly bigger than any other glass tested than the copita. It doesn't seem to work as well with small pours, so I'll stick to using it when I want a healthier dram.

While I won't draw too many firm conclusions, I'm willing to say that I think glassware does make a difference. I'd need to retest them in a random order to see if the trends are consistent, because my tastebuds may have been getting fatigued after half a dozen pours (however small they may have been).  The biggest thing I'm willing to say is that if you want to do very close examinations of taste and smell, it's worthwhile to get different sizes of tulip-shaped glasses. You want to be able to pour to the widest part of the glass for maximum surface area (especially when nosing) and its likely there will be times when you want to drink more or less at a time.


  1. Excellent and very thorough testing of some very interesting glasses. I've been meaning to do the same for a while - but it's likely to be well over 6 months before I can. My principle glasses are a bit different. My main glass is a mini-glencairn called "The Perfect Dram". I had to order them from England. They allow useful micro-dramming of sub 0.5 oz pours. I also use the Glencairn, of course, and the Reidel Scotch glass, and, lately, the NEAT glass - particularly for cask strength drams. All of these glasses eat my old whisky glasses (Waterford cut crystal double shots) for lunch.

    Glassware makes a huge difference - particularly if you compare any of these good glasses with a distinctly bad glass, such as a tumbler or highball. When I was drinking Canadian whisky on the airplane a few weeks ago I compared the Perfect Dram against an airline plastic water cup. The Perfect Dram provided nuanced aroma information. The plastic water cup provided almost no aromas at all - other than a vague medicinal alcohol burn. It was an astounding different. The airline cup is particularly useless for whisky - almost all the aromas are lost. Yet I would wager millions of drams a year are wasted in such vessels. I had a better glass handy, but I wonder how many other people really travel with high-end whisky glassware readily at hand in their bag?

    1. Hey Josh, what do you think of the NEAT glass? Are you using it for cask strengths more often than the Glencairn?

      Also, not to sound like a glass fetishist or anything, but that Vinoteque Snifter is a gorgeous glass.

    2. Michael, if I was going to pick just one glass, it'd probably be the Vinoteque. It's a great compromise in terms of size and, as you point out, looks great. You can still get them from Amazon, but only in packs of half a dozen.

    3. I've been meaning to really formally test the NEAT glass for a while. The fact that I don't ever seem to get around to doing so tells me something. The NEAT glass is awkward in the hand, awkward to get the last drops out of, and feels insecure concerning spills. Furthermore it doesn't do a great job concentrating odors and requires a more generous pour to really get cooking than I usually drink. That being said - it teases apart subtle nosing notes in powerful cask strength drams in a way other glasses don't. That's what it was designed to do. So I'd conclude it's a necessary tool in the arsenal for serious dedicated nosers - as a niche item for powerful cask strength items - or when you're looking for another perspective on a dram. It doesn't get much use at my house.

      The Vinoteque snifter (and the slew of liquor glasses of that family of shapes - like the Goodwill items here and the tiny long stemmed "wine glass" shaped liqueur glasses I bought back in the 80s, are a matter. I like them quite a bit. They nose well and look classy. They allow you to drink without cupping your whisky in your palm (which makes Richard Paterson angry). They come in a variety of sizes and some are quite small - like the Goodwill round glass featured here. The ability to meaningfully nose and taste half and ounce or less has become important to me.

      That being said, I love the break resistance and hand feel of the Glencairn and the mini-glencairn-like Perfect Dram. Those are my go-to everyday glasses.

      The ability to meaningfully nose and get a dram session out of tiny pours has become the dominant factor for me. I want to try a lot of samples and have little sample bottles give a bunch of different tastings. Plus this kind of glass will let you meaningfully taste 6-12 different whiskies in a mammoth dram session without getting plastered. This is the mantra of microdramming.

      The benefits of microdramming were dramatically brought home in a recent tasting session with the beer blogger @idrinkipa. I gave him a sample of Charbay S, but he's an IPA specialist. He wanted to try R5. I get a pour of Charbay R5 from a generous bar keeper at Ward III - about an ounce - and stashed it in a sample bottle (you DO bring empty sample bottles with you everywhere at all times, don't you?). I knew I wanted to dram this against Racer 5 IPA with @idrinkipa so I divided this little 1 oz pour into two 1/2 ounce pours in little Perfect Dram glasses and we did a meaningful dram session and head2head with the component beer, Racer5, in wine glasses. The 1/2 oz pour was enough - with the right glass.