What is the ideal glass for drinking single malt whisky, some often ask? Traditionally, you have the ‘Old Fashioned’ tumbler that is common in most bars. The tumbler, with its wide rim is ideal with blended whiskies where ice and soda, cola, or Chinese green tea are added. Their shortcoming is that the tumbler is only able to reflect the most aggressive notes, losing much of the subtle nuances when trying to distinguish the scent of the whisky.
Tulip shape glasses, on the other hand, with a narrower aperture at the brim, are ideal for nosing a single malt. For example, the narrow opening of a Glencairn glass makes an ideal snifter that nicely captures the aromas and taste profile of the whisky. The tulip shape design allows for a concentration of scents and is small enough that the whisky does not get exposed to air as it does in a tumbler. Some whisky aficionados prefer a stemmed tulip shape glass to avoid heating the contents of the glass with their hand and to avoid any odours that the hand may give off, taking the nosing and tasting experience to another level…however, each to their own.
So why all the fuss over a glass? The reason is that different types of glasses create different oxidation effects when the whisky is in contact with the air. The wider the shoulder of the glass, the more surface contact the whisky has with the air, which provides for faster oxygenation. Here, the alcohol molecules in the glass disperse and, in doing so, reduces some of the complexity and flavour profile. With a tulip shape glass, the odor molecules are concentrated and tasting notes are highlighted.
Each time we open the bottle, alcohol molecules are displaced causing the initial harshness and flavour profile to become less noticeable. For some, this is a good thing as removing the harshness smooths out the flavour and rounds out the whisky. On the other hand, adding a few drops of water or pouring the whisky into the glass through a wine aerator, also diffuses the alcohol which helps clarify, rather than mask the odor and flavour notes. For bottles opened and reopened and left on the shelf for periods of time, the lower the ABV (alcohol by volume), the flattening effect is far more subtle compared to a cask strength bottle where the loss of flavour and complexity is far more evident.
Some might argue that the narrow aperture of the brim of the Glencairn glass only allows enough room for the nose when sniffing or the lips when tasting, but not both together. There are other glasses designed for whisky that provide a slightly larger brim. Examples include the Riedel Vinum Single Malt Whisky Glass with its beautiful thin design. The NEAT glass (Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology) that looks like a flattened, wide belly version of the Glencairn, is intended to redirect the harsh alcohol vapours away from the nose without having to add the splash of water. And, as technology and innovation continue, the Norlan glass, a double walled hand-blown borosilicate glass, has a concave lip that fits both the lower lip and the nose to enhance the whisky experience.
So, does glassware affect the whisky experience? Like whisky itself, each dram opens us to something different. Much depends on what we are looking for and how it fits within our circumstances at the time. For those who have discovered the difference… we raise a dram.