By Justin Choo
Photos by Joel Lim
As a budding whisky drinker, you may have come across some literature expounding the virtues of a proper nosing glass to best experience whisky.
It may surprise you that many enthusiasts and some professionals even, underestimate how much difference a glass can make. It’s also a testament to how sensitive spirits, and in this case whisky, can be to its immediate environment.
While it’s one thing to get too pernickety about the details, at the same time we should not ignore the fundamentals: one of the most important factors in the tasting of whisky – and for that matter, any spirit – lies in nosing it. Ergo, the receptacle must be of the correct shape to release its aromas in a manner that is flattering, or honest, or as intended by the master blender.
We’re not advocating that you should make this the be all and end all of whisky, but awareness alone will certainly change how we experience whisky (and all spirits for that matter). As a result, we are also less likely to write off a whisky, and will be more inclined to explore, and find a situation in which it performs ‘best’. We may even be able to hone our instincts on what makes whisky tick. If you find nosing whisky difficult, maybe the right tools will make the job a little easier.
What makes glasses tick?
In recent years, we can see more concerted efforts in creating nosing glasses in a scientific manner. The NEAT glass is perhaps the first notable one, and followed recently by the upcoming Kickstarter-funded Norlan glass. But without making things complicated, here are some simple guidelines you can keep in mind. It’ll also come in handy when no specialty glasses are available.
While few things can be considered axioms, one general rule of thumb that holds true universally is to use a glass that has a wide base in relation to the width of its mouth; as you will see, it’s a trait that all glasses here have in common. Traditionally, a tulip-shaped glass or a copita (sometimes known as sherry copita glass) fulfils this requirement.
A wide bowl encourages evaporation, while a taper concentrates the vapour and delivers it to your nose. The best nosing glasses have the right combination of both attributes.
If it’s a strong whisky with an ABV of over 50 per cent, a glass that flares outward at the lip helps to take the edge off the alcohol fumes – the wider the lip, the easier it is for alcohol to dissipate. A wide lip alone does nothing to help you nose the whisky; a well-shaped glass helps to concentrate the aromas and the mouth helps to deliver it to your nose.
Whether a glass needs a stem or not is a matter of opinion and style. There are two schools of thought: one goes along the lines of not having your hands touch the bowl of the glass – Richard Paterson of Dalmore comes to mind – one of the reasons being that your hands will impart heat to the whisky, and subsequently alter its taste profile. On the other hand, there’re are some blenders who want you to warm the glass to bring out the flavours a little better; Brian Kinsman of Glenfiddich for example. If anything, this just serves to illustrate that there are no hard and fast rules; we do just what is necessary to bring out the best in the drink.
There is the other consideration when it comes to stems – looks vs practicality. Glasses with stems tend to be tipped over easily, courtesy of flailing arms when the drinks are flowing freely, while others prefer the smart and elegant look of stemmed glasses.
Crystal glasses are irrefutably beautiful; they catch light better than other glasses and refract it into a kaleidoscope of colours. Manufacturers can also make the walls of the glass thinner and more elegant. But ultimately, you are paying for aesthetics and presentation when it comes to crystal glasses as there’s no discernible difference in terms of smell and taste.
It’s important to note that many crystal glasses that you see out there are actually made from lead-free crystal. If you’re looking for the fancy cut crystal glasses that look amazing under the light, those are mostly old-style crystal glasses that have lead content – so do check the description before you buy; there’s no substitute for the real thing as lead is what helps to refract light. Lead also happens to be poisonous though, but it does not matter in the context of drinking glasses. Don’t store your whiskies for years in a lead crystal decanter though.
One factor that is not often considered is the size of the glass. It is pretty much in line with the idea of finding the ideal surface area in relation to the taper of the glass and the size of the opening. Bigger and wider glasses require bigger serving size, which will not necessarily be in line with how much you’d want to drink.
So what glass is best? Sad to say, as with all things in life, the answer is ‘it depends’.
Another point we have to consider is that whisky tastes different in different climate conditions. So what we’re drinking over here, may be possibly be different from what the Master Blender approved for bottling. It stands to reason that the experience will be completely different until we can mimic the original conditions perfectly. We can’t do that, but we can equip ourselves with as many tools as possible, to experiment with different conditions. And the humble whisky glass is one of the most important.
We examine 12 glasses to see what you can expect from them. It will not be a test to determine what is better – a true test will need to involve thousands of whiskies and ‘weighted’ to determine which glass brings out which flavours and aromas better, and even then it is still borders on the realm of subjectivity. Instead, we’ll categorise and generalise some of these glasses so that you have an idea of where they stand in the grand scheme of things.
The ClassicsThe Glencairn whisky glass is universally known as the ‘standard’ whisky glass. It’s relatively new, and is appreciated by many around the world. And for good reason. It has many desirable attributes as a whisky glass: a low centre of gravity that is klutz-friendly, more durable than other glasses so it’s easy to clean and you may not break them if you drop them (don’t try though), and it’s relatively affordable. It’s a decent all-rounder, although it doesn’t cope so well with high strength whiskies.
The Schott Zwiesel whisky nosing glass is effectively a Glencairn with a stem. As such, the experience is very close to that of a Glencairn, but with the stem of course. It feels a little unwieldy because of its sheer size, and as it is a rather tall glass, you’d be well advised to watch your hands lest you tip it over. If you like Glencairns and want one with a stem then this is pretty much spot on.
Before the Glencairn, there was the classic Copita, perhaps one of the safest options you can have for a whisky glass. Traditionally used for sherry, it found its way into the hands of whisky drinkers and has been a standard in many a household. The Copita has a gentle taper and does an okay job of nosing and tasting. The ISO Copita has a similar shape but is noticeably bigger, and also needs a bigger pour for optimum results. However in the face of the competition here, the Copita falls a little short; it has been upstaged by other more specialised glasses. But if you drink sherry anyway, why not?
The Cheap and Cheerful
The Rastal Bugatti Kelch is a glass that’s rather underrated as it does an adequate job for relatively little money. They’re readily available in Europe, but it might be a little tough to find one here. It has a rather small bowl, so it plays nice with small pours, and it generally ‘performs’ well with most whiskies. It also has a slight flare at the lip that makes nosing stronger spirits slightly easier.
One of the great ‘finds’ has got to be Chef & Sommelier Open Up Cool liqueur glass. The first thing you’d notice is its rather unusual shape. The glass has a fairly pronounced bowl, and a very sharp taper. It performs somewhat similarly to the Kelch, and is suitable for small pours. It’s also rather reasonably priced.
The Stolzle Lausitz cognac glass has all the hallmarks of a good everyday whisky glass. This elegant, tulip-shaped glass is a good all-rounder – even more refined than a Glencairn in most instances – and generally has a good presentation for most whiskies. It is also not expensive, although you might struggle to find it here in Singapore. The glass generally looks good enough to serve at home parties; although nitpickers may take issue with a clear moulding line along its stem.
Money is No Object
The Denver & Liely whisky glass is an interesting one, as it was designed to be a tumbler that can be used to nose whisky. And if you like, you can have your whisky on the rocks, use it as a cocktail glass; the large mouth takes ice easily. What’s unique is that it is a fairly good nosing glass, thanks to the large surface area vs mouth ratio, and it also takes the sting out of cask strength whiskies. But alcohol also evaporates quickly in this glass, so you either need to drink faster, or keep the whisky glass covered at all times.
In all honesty, the Louis XIII cognac glass by Christophe Pillet shouldn’t be anywhere in this lineup – after all they’re a little hard to come by, and are rather pricey, but it does sport a shape similar to a Copita or ISO Copita, and does perform similarly. But what the Louis XIII glass serves to illustrate here, is the beauty of lead crystal glassware, and one that is well cut to reflect light. It does make you feel like a million bucks, or makes you feel comfortable with that is another matter.
In a similar vein, The Macallan Glass by Lalique, is designed to be a looker, and in contrast to the Louis XIII, has a less flashy (literally) approach when it comes to design, but it is no less extravagant, with a rather exquisite – if not over the top – stem and base. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the C&S glass in terms of a more pronounced taper.
The Riedel Vinum Cognac Hennessy glass is a rather popular choice of glass for many an astute drinker, and it also happens to be the glass of choice at the Auld Alliance. This glass is very similar to the Stoltze, and you will be hard pressed to nail down the difference with a quick glance; or sniff, if you will. For those who want a proper crystal glass, this is a very classy glass.
A Cut Above the Rest
The Eisch Jeunesse malt whisky glass is not something that comes up often in conversation, and it’s a shame; while the difference between many of the glasses here are not overtly distinct if the shapes are more or less similar, the Jeunesse is one glass where you get a night and day experience – it’s especially apparent on the nose, and really gives it a lot more body.
As you can see, there aren’t any hard and fast rules, and in fact many of the good glasses here were adapted from other spirits. The trick is to find one that accentuates the characteristics that you enjoy. It’s rather difficult to think of a benchmark glass per se, because really, what would count as a benchmark? But you’d probably realise by now why sometimes you may have different opinions about whisky and have different notes – maybe it’s the glass!
We weren’t able to review every significant whisky glass, but here are some of the well-known glasses that we didn’t get our hands on.
The NEAT Glass is a little awkward to drink out of, but the designers obviously placed all their efforts in maximising the intensity of the nose. It’s best for those who wish to analyse every aspect of their whisky. The Riedel Vinum whisky glass bears a resemblance to a thistle-style glass, but it doesn’t have a taper, save for the flare of the lip. I feel that it really only shines for robust whiskies like your Octomores, where you don’t really need to concentrate the aromas. The Spiegleau Whisky Snifter is similar to the Jeunesse, in feels like a hybrid of a copita and the Jeunesse. It is also well-regarded, but hard to come by. The Classic Malt nosing glass is also a classic, somewhat like the Kelch, but with a more copita-like shape. For style points, the Villeroy and Boch nosing glass is a classy, copita-style glass with a slightly sharper taper at the lip; very pretty indeed. Finally, the Schott Zwiesel No Ice for LMDW is a rather interesting looking glass as it has a very sharp taper that really concentrates the alcohol vapours. A pronounced lip also takes the sting out of the vapour. Downside? It’s a pain to wash it.