Hold on tight my friends, we are about to enter into a topic that can bring some whiskey lovers to fisticuffs!
When I am leading spirit tastings I am often asked the question, “Does glassware really matter?”
The answer is YES but it’s also no.. . kind of. Before we begin discussing how glass shape affects flavors, let’s discuss our whisk(e)y categories and why I am putting the “E” in parentheses.
If you are a bourbon drinker, you’re probably going to automatically spell whiskey with an “E”. The majority of the American whiskey on your shelf, whether it’s rye or Tennessee whiskey, will have the “E” included in the spelling.
Now if you are a Scotch whisky drinker primarily, your favorite whisky will be spelled without the “E”. The same goes for Canadian and Japanese whisky as well. The spelling of your whisk(e)y might be an indication of what type of glass you will want to enjoy your whisk(e)y in.
I am going to focus on two of the most popular whisk(e)y glasses currently, the Glencairn glass and the rocks glass. There will be no mention of the shot glass here because we all know whisk(e)y is for sipping not shooting, right?
The standard Glencairn glass was introduced to the market in 2001. It is important here to notice the date this glass hit the market; it is not a traditional whisky glass and it was not designed for high-proof whisky. The Glencairn glass was designed by a host of Master Blenders in Scotland as a more whisky-focused version of the traditional copita glass, or “nosing glass”.
The base of the Glencairn, similar to a wine glass, is separated from the bulb so your hands don’t warm the glass around the liquid. The bulb is wide enough to swirl the liquid, and the tulip shape concentrates the aromas into a tight bouquet and directs the aromas up through the thinner part of the glass straight to your nose. This process of directing the aromas up to your nose will also concentrate the alcohol and direct it upwards. This can make a high-proof whiskey seem excessively vaporous in this type of glass, and that’s not a good thing.
The size of the glass is important as well, so if you intend to use your Glencairn for the purposes of nosing whiskies that are under 95-93 proof, then great. And if your purpose is to drink a small dram or two, also great. These glasses are not intended to be filled up because when you fill the glass past the bulb, you are defeating the purpose of the glass shape. Shorter pours are great for swirling in this glass.
The standard rocks glass has more room for a swirl, room for aeration, and room for a nice king cube should you choose to enjoy your whiskey chilled. You can pour more liquid in this glass without changing the experience. It is a great option for high-proof whiskey, where that liquid needs plenty of contact with air.
A red wine glass is another nice option for a higher-proof whiskey. The stem keeps your hand from warming the bulb, there is room for collection and mingling of flavors with a mouth wide enough for alcohol vapors to escape and aromas to open up. Although it’s not a common way to enjoy whiskey, it’s absolutely an option.
Beware of the Brandy snifter. As with the Glencairn, this would not be my recommended glass for a higher-proof whiskey. The narrow top traps the aroma inside the glass which in turn will trap the alcohol vapors inside the glass and possibly overtake the desired aromas of the whiskey. (But do drink Brandy from a Brandy snifter every single time!)
My advice: a rocks glass is a great choice for higher proof whiskey 95 + and a Glencairn for introducing yourself to the aromas and flavors of new-to-you lower proof whiskies and your favorite lower proof whisky. A red wine glass is an alternative option for nosing and tasting new whiskies of any proof. But the rocks glass is my go-to option for drinking all whisk(e)y in any form.
Sailor Guevara, a veteran of the spirits and hospitality industry, is the 2020 winner of the World of Whiskey Icon award – bestowed on the individual who most capably advances understanding and appreciation for the craft of whiskey making. She is an author and contributor to American Whiskey Magazine and an acclaimed podcast host and published mixologist. Sailor’s passion for whiskey and spirits history is unmatched and easily contagious when she’s in a room. In late 2020, Sailor launched her own company, Sailor Guevara Experiences, providing virtual cocktail and spirits experiences and custom experience boxes.