Whiskey tasting glasses – a comparison


Image, left to right: Norlan, classic Glencairn, NEAT, Copita

Why are there so many different whiskey glasses?  They come in all shapes, sizes, weights, and decorative cuts serving different purposes.  Some for nosing and assessing, some for casual drinking, some for sheer whimsy.  

Trust me, there’s a glass out there for you and your specific imbibing requirements.  My go-to vessel for the nightly dram is a Dorset crystal old-fashioned glass picked up at Williams Sonoma.  It’s hefty and feels great to hold – not to mention the cut crystal plays with the light wonderfully on the whiskey.

The glasses we’re going to chat about today are centered around discovery – nosing and tasting to appraise whiskey and bourbon.  These are considered by many to be the best to truly taste spirits — and as a favor to you, ok, really for my own curiosity, I tested them out.

All of these vessels are designed to funnel the aromas directly to your nose, thereby letting you experience the most that your barrel-aged liquid gold has to offer.  They are also designed to discourage you from heating up the whiskey by holding the bulb of the glass.  Can a glass really make a difference in your sensory appreciation?  Hell to the yeah, it can!

Here we go – 2017 whiskey tasting glass try-outs using Bowmore 12

THE GLENCAIRN GLASS – ah, the recent classic Glencairn.  This is the glass most identified with whiskey tastings and is used by bartenders, distilleries, and home hooch fanatics alike.  Winner of the 2006 Queen’s Award for Innovation.  This glass is sexy in appearance.  Even sexier when filled with amber liquid.  I’ve always considered this a personal favorite as I brought home a pair used in Scotland at a distillery.  Bulbous at the bottom and tapering through the neck.  There are quite a few provocative comparisons that could be made here!

Test results: ethanol forward.  You must gently approach for nosing first.  Aromas are rich, strong, earthy smoke, dried herbs and dried berries and kiwi.  The scents are distinguishable, though it takes a few nosings to get there.  Honey and oak and malt come through as the nose acclimates to the alcohol.  The initial ethanol vapors off the top evaporate more which gives way to more of the fruity olfactory fun.

GLENCAIRN COPITA – a design that has been around since the early 18th century for spirit assessment.  This is the preferred tasting vessel of Richard “The Nose” Paterson, who possesses 50 years of experience in the whisky industry.  I’d say the man knows his shit.  Now, if you watch a video of this man explaining how to taste whiskey, try to refrain from screaming at your computer screen in abject horror as the man ‘rinses out’ his tasting glass with fine whiskey, subsequently hurling it to the floor like sludge from a bucket.  I volunteer for tongue-lapping clean up in aisle 7.  

Test results:  this drinking glass comes with a lid.  A lid?  WTF?  I’m drinking the spirit, not transporting it to the next location.  Online instructions guide us to let the lid sit on the glass for around 5 minutes.  Ok, done.  I can see this being handy when pouring several different expressions prior to a tasting getting underway, but not for general home use.  Interesting… ethanol forward, like the classic glencairn, perhaps even more so.  Honey, grass, light on the smoke, definitely malty.  But those distinct armas take more time to discern as they are concentrated into the very narrow opening.  I keep sticking my nose in so as to work through the ethanol.  The glass is delicate and I’m somewhat nervous to handle.  I do like the overall feel of the glass as it is elegance to accompany a finely aged dram.

NEAT – a ‘neat’ acronym for Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology and used by judges at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  Created in 2003 by accident, or is it 2012, I’m confused by their website – is this another gimmicky attempt at “we engineered the perfect glass”?  You might think that it’s a gimmick at first sight.  The NEAT glass is reminiscent, no, make that a dead ringer for, a vase intended for a small table setting.  Yet I think I have a new nosing love!  

Test results:  The glass seems to live up to its intended purpose of lessening the alcohol nose burn over the center of the glass with the ethanol pushed to the outer edges of the rim of the glass, giving way to more fine aromas normally concealed by the spirit.  Could the Glencairn have had its ass kicked?  For experiencing the full breadth and depth of aromas, it 100% has.  This is a Bowmore 12 we’re testing, remember?  Normally one of the first aromas to strike is the smoke.  Yet with the NEAT, the first aromas to arrive were gentle and docile – honey, butter, toffee, sweet, spring water, malt; perhaps even golden raisins?  That’s impressive!

Still, it feels like I’m drinking from a mini flower vase.  The design forces me to sip, but I also seem to take in as much air as liquid into the mouth.  When I’m not utilizing this glass to carefully assess a new aqua vitae it will likely have a carnation sticking out of it.

NORLAN – one helluva successful Kickstarter project.  If you visit their Kickstarter page you will find the full engineering ho-down in all its glory.  When this first appeared on Kickstarter I was genuinely intrigued.  Then my “ooh! Squirrel!” brain took over and I forgot about it.  My friend Andrew’s interest was also piqued in the project and he took the investment plunge.  It is his glass that I am utilizing to test.  The overall design is a uniquely insulated tulip inside a tumbler with some knobbies in the base of the glass for aromatic diffusion… I’m not sure I should use “knobbies” in the same sentence with “aromatic diffusion”, but it’s done.

Test results:  subdued smell – nuanced earth and little smoke; the dried berries and herbs are present.  Love that it feels like there’s no traditional lip to this glass.  Now, like the NEAT glass, the ethanol hit is minimized, however, the strength of the scents are not as pronounced.  It’s a very nuanced smell contact.  I have to say this is my least favorite of the testing entries.

Final thoughts – These are a fine grouping of glasses to experience whisky in-depth.  As smell is a very large percentage of overall flavor reception, it seems clear that the NEAT glass is head and shoulders above the rest in successful engineering to bring more aromas to the front compared with the other glasses in which the alcohol can still cover subtleties.  This is _not_ to say that the other glasses do not do a fine job!  The classic Glencairn glass remains a fantastic (and sexy) design that does the job well.

When life spills whisky, make whisky hand lotion

On an end note, I spilled some whisky on the table pouring unused liquid back to bottle.  It’s my whisky, I can do what I want, stop recoiling in disgust.  If you come to my house, don’t drink the Bowmore 12.  In some YouTube video’s I had seen whisky experts splash a little in their hands and rub them together to allow the ethanol to evaporate, then quickly envelop the entirety of their nose with whisky rubbed hands.

As it turns out, the heating of the whisky in the hand helps to release additional delicate essences that are sometimes covered by the alcohol in the glass.  As I never wish to waste a drop, I ran my hand through the spilled whisky on the table and gave it a go – – – WOW, smokey peat.  Tobacco hanging to dry in a very old wood shed.  Smells like wood, earth, and wet stone.  It immediately reminded me of walking in an 1800’s barn in North Carolina with my dad this past Fall.  Quintessential old barn, and I love that!

Have you tried any of these glasses?  Did you find similar or completely different results, what are your thoughts?  Have you tested any other glasses specific to assessing whisky that I’ve missed?  Please tell me in the comments below, I’d love to hear about your experiences.  Oh, and try to the hand rubbing thing, you may be surprised!

Slainte Mhath!


Bottoms up!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Angela says:

    Your whimsy glass is hilarious!!


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