Whisky glassware is important to me in the same way I that I don’t want my tea served out of a frying pan, soup served in a wine glass or coffee from a bucket – these all hold liquid but they’re inappropriate for the purpose and affect the experience negatively. Glassware does have an impact on how your experience whisky. A lot of ‘taste’ is actually smell, what your olfactory sensors in your nose pick up. Having a glass that allows whisky vapors to volatalise (evaporate) to release aromas but also that funnels them into your nose helps you get the most out of a whisky by giving your nose the most to work with.
You may have noticed that I have a range of varied glassware in my images. Most of the glasses in the photos are those that I own. I’ll often go out and buy a glass just for a review – more about how I can do this without bankrupting myself below. Of course some glassware is provided by friends or family when I’m visiting or provided by the bar or distillery that I’m at. Not all the glassware I drink from is ideal from a tasting point of view – I choose some because of their aesthetics (they look pretty in the photos).
It’s worth mentioning that there are a bunch of factors related to glassware that are more subjective – like how the glass looks, the feel (especially the weight), how much of your body heat makes it through the glass to the whisky and whether you link that glass to a special memory (maybe you got the glass at your favourite distillery, or from a loved one for your birthday). These vary a lot and although I’m not going to go into these factors here they can influence why you like a glass over another.
Knowing your glassware may help you enjoy whisky more, but it should never get in the way of bonding with someone else over a dram. When I’ve hiked all day and someone pulls out a bottle of whisky I’ll happily hold my plastic mug out and say nothing about the merits of tulip shaped glasses. So don’t get too hung up about it, have your preferences but don’t be too much of a snob, you’ll still be able to enjoy whisky out of pretty much anything you’re likely to encounter (provided it’s clean). But if you’re serious about getting the most out of your whisky or you’re at the point that you want to get some good glassware and don’t know where to start…. read on.
Notes on shape, better types of glass and less favourable types of glass
It’s popularly considered that smallish glasses that are wider at the base than they are at the top are better for tasting whisky. The two key design elements are:
- Having a space (at the base of the bowl) for whisky to sit and evaporate a little to let the aromatics get into the air
- Narrowing towards the top to focus the vapors somewhat and make them a little more concentrated for where your nose can catch them without too much escaping into the outside air.
Smaller, tulip shaped glasses work really well for whisky – named because their shape is like an opening Tulip flower – round and wider at the base tapering up gradually towards the tip. The base of the glass is rounded and the slope of the sides of the glass changes gradually, meaning that when you tip the glass a little you get a little spirit – it doesn’t rush into your face. This allows you to sip and take in a little spirit at a time. The classic tulip tasting glass is called a copita or dock glass and these look more like a wine glass than a whisky glass. A lot of tasting events will use this style of glass because it’s so well suited to its purpose.
There are plenty of variations in the tulip style including glasses with stems or stemless and size variations. Glencairn, wine tasting glasses, dessert wine glasses and many liqueur glasses are examples of tulip shaped glasses. Their shape and volume are suited to neat whisky. What I call ‘bulb’ shaped glasses are also good, these are more rounded than a ‘tulip’ glass but still have a tapering between the bowl and rim to help get that whisky to your nose. These are more petite than a brandy balloon or snifter – usually a quarter to a third of the size (or even smaller).
What’s important in the above examples is the shape and also the size. There are other glasses that have a similar shape but are much bigger (see below) that’s aren’t so well suited to whisky.
Wine glasses, brandy balloons, Belgian (tulip) beer glasses, thistle glasses, tumblers (e.g. the popular double tumbler you often see in whisky ads or get at most bars) and most cognac glasses are generally substandard for drinking whisky neat – their large volume feels cumbersome and although they allow for evaporation and nosing the shape can allow too much volatilisation for whisky (i.e. some of the flavoursome parts of the whisky evaporate too fast). It’s also worth noting that the more surface area the whisky has to travel across to get to you the more evaporation will occur. Same again as the whisky washes back to settle in the bowl of the glass – the sides of a large red wine glass or brandy balloon will get coated in whisky and the larger surface area will allow more evaporation to happen while you’re focusing on what’s in your mouth. Larger glasses also put your nose further from the whisky and those vapors have to ‘work harder’ to get from the liquid to your nostrils. Some of the volatile aromatics we want to capture from whisky are delicate and fleeting and giving them too much space or distance allows them to dissipate before they reach us. The optimum distance or volume of space to allow a whisky to ‘release’ varies from whisky to whisky and person to person but will tend to fall into a fairly definable range of glass sizes and you’ll get a feel for what this is by seeing what good bars, distilleries, tasting rooms and experienced whisky drinkers use. There’s no coincidence that although there’s variation there’s a lot of similarities.
There are also glasses designed specifically with the intent of creating a superior whisky glass. The ‘NEAT’ (Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology), the Denver and Liely Whisky Glass and the Norlan Whisky glass are a few examples. The idea is that these have been designed to allow just the right amount of volitalisation and optimise the factors I’ve mentioned above to get the best out of every whisky. Aesthetics and handfeel are also design considerations with these.
If you’re still scratching your head about shape and size or the importance of good glassware doesn’t make sense yet I encourage you to try drinking the same whisky out of three distinctly different types of glass and see what impact the shape and volume of the glass have on the whisky.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that my preferred whisky glasses are basically tulip or bulb shaped (there’s more on my three favourite glasses below).
But I don’t always use a Tulip shaped glass for my photos, you’ll see that I use straight sided glasses (like shot glasses and liqueur glasses) that don’t allow the vapour to collect or that have barely anywhere for me to put my nose.
This is partly because I think it’s boring to have the same glass in every shot and a Glencairn glass is not only pretty common on the internet it’s also not always practical for me to carry around – if I’m hiking or climbing I’ll take a more solid, smaller glass with me (e.g.a shot glass) so it’s not as heavy or bulky to carry and it’s also less likely to smash when it gets bounced around. A dram of whisky in a big double tumbler doesn’t make a great photo either. I’ve also found that I really like going out and choosing a glass for taking photos, it’s a fun part of the experience (although I don’t do this for every review!). I think it’s visually more interesting to have a range of glassware and I enjoy the variety.
This will affect how I experience the whisky and what flavors and aromas I detect – so I’ll often re-taste the whiskies, where possible in a more suitable glass when I get home. I can’t always do this though, for example when it’s someone else’s whisky and their glassware. But that’s ok to me, because the important thing is the experience, especially when I’m drinking with other people and the company you have while you drink whisky can affect your perception of a whisky just as much as the glassware – maybe more.
The temperature, how windy it is, what aromatic flora is nearby, whether I’m close to the ocean…. all of these will also influence my experience, but I aim to accurately capture as many impressions of each whisky as I can – just keep in mind this isn’t a clinical approach, it’s subject to a lot of variables, and glassware is just one of them.
Cleanliness – if the glass isn’t clean it’s more likely that you’ll be getting flavours and/or aromas from whatever was in the glass before. Always drink out of a clean glass. If you’re in a restaurant or bar and the glass is dirty send it back, it’s unacceptable. Ewwww, gross!
Shape – try to choose something roughly tulip shaped if you want to explore the aromas a whisky has to offer. You want something that allows the whisky to release aroma (through evaporation) then help these smells get into your nose. The glass should also be nice to sip out of. There are other options, but a tulip shaped glass is popular for a reason and a good place to start. See the notes about shape above for more info.
Whisky volume (in the glass) – For a tulip shaped glass I fill to the widest part of the glass, which, for my glasses (and I think this is a standard rule for glassware) is close to a UK standard measure of spirit (35.5ml, a standard measure of spirit in Australia is 30ml). Wine tasting glasses often have a 60ml marker but because of the shape of the glass 30ml isn’t halfway between the base of the glass to the marking, it’s a little lower and you’ll need to figure it out. Whatever glass you go for, you want enough room to swirl the whisky around to release aromas without it sloshing over the side and enough of a gap at the top that you can get the tip of your nose in (without touching the sides). This usually means lower than one third of the height of the glass (the bit that holds the liquid, forget about any stem or base) but it usually way lower (e.g. for a wine tasting glass, Glencairn or tulip shaped glass). Wider balloon shaped glasses (like mini brandy balloons) get closer to the 1/3. Shooter glasses are better than shot glasses if it comes to it – they allow some space above the spirit for you to take in the aromas. I rarely pour myself doubles but if you do you might want to take the above into account – overfilling might mean the glass won’t be able to do what it’s designed to do.
If you plan to drive, or you’re mindful of your alcohol intake for health or other reasons it’s worth taking the time to see where a standard measure (or whatever measure you use) comes to on your favourite glass/es. It’s also perfectly acceptable to use a measuring thimble (or other way of measuring). This helps a lot after you’ve had a few drams and your ability to judge accurately starts to slip.
Style/Aesthetics – whisky is an elegant, crafted spirit and I think it’s worthy of glassware to match. I like stylish glassware that have sophisticated design elements – clean lines, smooth curves, ornate flourishes and I really like cut crystal. I like glasses with some weight, so thick stems or heavy based (small) tumblers are good. As mentioned above, I like a volume of glass that is appropriate to the amount of whisky I’m having – I don’t want the whisky at the rim of the glass but equally I don’t want the whisky lost in some oversized vessel. I’ve had whisky out of plastic cups plenty of times, and when I’m camping or hiking this is perfectly fine – but it doesn’t help the whisky out and I’d much prefer to have it in a nice glass (more about this below). Choose something that you like the look and feel of, that helps match the occasion.
Material – There really isn’t an adequate substitute for glass. Hard wearing, inert (means it doesn’t taint your whisky with flavour), attractive and inexpensive, glass is perfect for putting whisky into. Never, ever, ever serve or consume whisky in a metal cup – it taints the whisky with a metallic taste that ruins your drink. Some metals will also start to react or dissolve in the whisky so these can have negative effects on your health. These are important consideration if you plan to carry your whisky around in a metal flask so research your options well and be prepared to pay for a good quality flask. I prefer a small solid glass bottle (an ex-whisky sample bottle works well for this) over a shiny steel hip flash.
I avoid lead crystal glass for a similar reason, over time the lead can dissolve into the fluid in your glass. This does take a while to occur though (hours of contact) and is worse for more acidic fluids, but given that it’s easy to find non-lead crystal glass I just steer clear of lead crystal and avoid the worry.
Where to get glassware
I purchase my glassware from a number of places – from a dedicated whisky store for my Glencairns and tumblers, homeware stores for my highball glasses and some liqueur glasses but my favourite and best glassware has come from charity stores that stock cheap, second hand goods. These often have a great range of cheap cut crystal and liqueur glasses. If you’re looking for glassware on a budget charity stores can’t be beaten – and it goes towards a good cause too.
Glassware in bars
Getting a decent glass in a bar can be hard – usually whisky gets served in some sort of enormous, oversized tumbler. keep in mind that’s because whisky in most bars is served on the rocks, and when you ask for it neat they don’t think to put it in a more appropriate glass. Don’t be afraid to ask a bartender to put your whisky in something else e.g. a liqueur glass. I’ll often have a look over the wine list and if they have a dessert wine (e.g. a muscat, tokay or sauternes) or port then I’ll ask them to put the whisky in whatever they’d normally serve that in. This usually that ends up being something like a wine tasting glass (smaller and narrower than your average white wine glass). Side note: An example on the blog of where I did this was for the Glenmorangie Signet. Many bars have a Glencairn glass sitting next to their whiskies (often it’s the only Glencairn glass) and I’ve been known to ask them to hand it over with a clean cloth and have had my whisky in that. If a bar has a Glencairn glass on display what else is it there for than to drink whisky out of? Importantly be as polite and clear as possible, gauge when to give in and don’t wait until the bartender has poured your drink to get difficult about glassware. Finally if the glass isn’t clean don’t hesitate to demand one that is.
My favorite glassware
For the record, these are my favourite glasses to drink whisky from, they’re also what I use if I want to properly taste a whisky:
There’s a reason these are so popular, the shape is great for letting the whisky develop and there’s a bit of time before the whisky hits your lips when you tilt the glass so there’s a moment of anticipation (you can even see it coming if you want to!). They feel wonderful in the hand and they look great. I fill this to around the widest part of the glass, which is 40ml, so a bit more than a standard measure (usually 30ml in Australia).
A variation on the classic tulip these have an elongated air space and a slightly narrower opening (i.e. diameter of the rim).
I bought this from a whisky store for less than $10.
Wide base liqueur glass
Superb for oakier whiskies, more complex whiskies and has proven to be superb for cask strength whiskies. This has more space (i.e. a wider surface area on the surface of the spirit) to allow the whisky to develop and I think the shape is elegant and fantastic. Although I’d still put this into the ‘tulip’ shaped category the shape is different – the sides are concave (on the outer surface) and the transition from the ‘air space’ to the ‘bowl’ is sharper with a higher ratio of air contact to volume. Where this works compared to straight sided tumblers is that although there is still a lot of surface area to evaporate the liquid the vapours are funneled together at the top of the glass, helping them collect together, rather then letting them fly sraight out of the glass.
I fill this to around the widest part of the glass, which is 40ml, (the same as the Glencairn). The aperture (open end of the glass) and the height of the glass (minus the stem) are almost identical to the Glencairn.
This came from a charity store for 50c and is probably my favourite glass. I only have one of these and although I’ve seen similar glasses I’ve never found another that is exactly the same shape and size with a slender stem.
Bulb shaped liqueur glass
Somewhere between a tulip and a balloon shape these are reasonably petite and hold a standard dram nicely. These are a little sturdier than similar liqueur glasses and that makes them a little better for traveling with when I’m visiting friends or family.
I purchased these in a set of four for a few dollars from a charity store. I see these fairly frequently in stores so they shouldn’t be difficult to find. These are great for doing tastings with friends as they’re stylish yet functional and robust. Having a set of several identical glasses also helps for tasting multiple whiskies in a session without having to use the same glass (and risk ‘contamination from the previous dram).