Up until the late 1990s Scotch whisky was, coincidentally, in a pretty similar boat. A range of different glasses, none of which were specifically designed for the enjoyment of whisky, would find their way to the bar. For instance, the rocks glass – although popular and practical – wasn’t, and still isn’t, suitable for appreciating a fine whisky’s organoleptic qualities; the balloon glass, on the other hand, is certainly elegant and stylish but is primarily associated with Cognac and other brandies. It was for this reason that, in the 1980s, the founder of glassmaking firm Glencairn Crystal, Raymond Davidson, set out to create a glass that would encourage the user to fully appreciate the nose and palate of a whisky.
“Champagne, brandy and wine, all had their own glasses,” explains Raymond Davidson’s son and Glencairn Crystal’s new product development director, Scott. “And whisky, despite the scale of its industry, never seemed to have a glass that it could call its own. That was the fundamental thing he [Raymond] wanted to achieve.” Scott Davidson points out that his father was after a design that could help drinkers appreciate whisky’s flavours and aromas but at the same time look aesthetically pleasing. The idea took a while to turn into reality: the first prototype was developed in the 80s but remained relegated to the filing cabinet for nearly 20 years. It was only in the late 90s that Raymond’s son Paul, now Glencairn’s managing director, discovered his father’s whisky glass prototype while looking through samples and believed it had some unexplored commercial potential. “The shape of the glass was like a short copita but without the stem. It looked nice, it felt comfortable in the hand and engaging to use,” says Scott Davidson.
The prototype was sent for feedback to some of Scotland’s most respected master distillers of the time, Robert Mcelroy from Diageo, David Stewart from William Grant & Sons, Robert Hicks from Allied Distillers, Richard Paterson from Whyte & Mackay, and John Ramsay from The Edrington Group. “It was essential to obtain the opinions of these five esteemed master blenders to ensure the concept would eventually be welcomed by the whisky industry,” highlights Raymond Davidson. After testing the prototype, the master distillers advised Davidson to scale up the glass’s design, in order to accommodate stronger spirits and “give them more space to breathe”, as Scott Davidson recalls. The final design – a larger, stemless copita-inspired shape – was eventually released 20 years ago and soon became an icon for Scotch and for the whisky industry as a whole.
For Scott Davidson, the Glencairn glass won the global whisky community over thanks to its elegant yet functional design, which sufficiently promotes the concentration of aromas needed for serious whisky tasting but maintains a profile that’s comfortable to hold and sturdy enough to drink from socially: “The copita is quite small by comparison and has a narrow aperture, so it’s hard to socially drink from. Likewise, you’ve got a brandy glass with its massive surface area which channels more alcohol [than a copita glass] towards the nose.”
According to the Davidsons, the Glencairn glass’ wide bowl is designed to allow easy appreciation of the whisky’s colour while its tapering mouth ushers aromas to the nostrils, thus allowing for the detection of subtle nuances. The base avoids contact between the hand and the bowl, which would warm up the liquid. It also allows the drinker to swirl the glass while looking unpretentious enough to fit in a relaxed bar environment, where whisky isn’t necessarily the focus of the conversation. Admittedly, this is a combination of factors that neither a copita nor a balloon benefit from – let alone rocks or shot glasses – but there happens to be far more to the success of the Glencairn glass than mere aesthetic and functional performance.
“For us the glass’s story is important,” explains Julie Trevisan-Hunter, marketing director at The Scotch Whisky Experience, one of Edinburgh and Scotland’s top tourist destinations. She believes that, with some of Scotch whisky’s most distinguished personalities involved in its final design, the glass presented itself more as a team effort for the greater good than a conventional business venture. “The fact that it was created collectively and collaboratively by so many people from many different distilleries, has certainly had an impact on its widespread popularity.”
In pre-Glencairn times, The Scotch Whisky Experience would rely on plastic cups and small balloon glasses: “Those brandy glasses! They were pretty much all you could get that would allow you, to some degree, to assess colour, body, legs and those kinds of things. But they weren’t ideal. People would immediately say, ‘Oh, you use brandy glasses?’. They were not expecting to be drinking Scotch and presented with something linked to a different category and product.”
But lack of identification between vessel and liquid wasn’t the only issue: “You would constantly find bits of broken glass in the dishwasher,” Julie recalls. “The Glencairn is a crystal glass, it’s of quality of course, but somehow it’s also really robust as an item.”
Trevisan-Hunter guarantees that practicality was certainly the key to granting Glencairn the industry’s seal of approval and the factor which led to its adoption by The Scotch Whisky Experience. “We do lots of tastings and events and wash thousands of glasses. If they were really fragile it would be a disaster. But storing the Glencairns, transporting them, stacking them, taking them out, putting them in, dishwashing them… they are really practical to use and safe for people to take home and transport them in their bags. As a commercial business, this element is absolutely critical.”
For Birmingham Whisky Club owner Amy Seton, not only is the Glencairn glass practical, it’s a springboard to kick-start a conversation around whisky, too: “People are fascinated by the design and it’s always nice to expand on that. As we are all about education, we do take time to chat about why whisky glasses are made in a certain way and why we use them. We find it’s neither too delicate nor too clunky, so a wide range of people feel comfortable using it. Newcomers to whisky don’t feel it’s too specialist but it still looks good and enhances the whisky-drinking experience.”
On top of its intrinsic qualities, the Glencairn glass benefited considerably from the endorsement of influential organisations and firms such as the Scotch Whisky Association – the trade body that represents about 95 per cent of all Scotch production – or The Scotch Whisky Experience itself. The Experience welcomes nearly 400,000 visitors a year, 80 per cent of which come from overseas. After each tour, tourists receive a Glencairn to take home as a free gift (some two million over the past decade alone), which turns the glass into a tactile memory that visitors may transfer on to relatives and friends. Not only does this process broaden the reach of Glencairn’s business and of the Scotch Whisky Experience, it simultaneously promotes Scotch whisky as a drink of choice.
Unsurprisingly, widespread endorsement has been coming from brands, too: “It’s an easy win for a brand to give their own Glencairn glasses to bars,” says Birmingham Whisky Club’s Seton. “We have numerous branded ones from whiskies we’ve worked with. And once whisky clubs started doing their own and posting about them... I imagine that’s when [branded Glencairn glasses] started to snowball.”
According to Seton, the number of branded glasses you have at home and post about on social media tells the world how serious a whisky drinker you are. “It’s a status symbol,” she adds, “as it will immediately indicate the tastings you go to and the brands you’re involved with.”
Seton is particularly devoted to the glass herself and she has even made it the main element of her club’s logo: a barley ear inside a Glencairn glass. “The brief to my designer was to make something easily memorable but a clean and clear image. We played around with other glasses but the grain [barley ear] only worked well with the Glencairn. It really is the only glass that says ‘whisky’... The Glencairn is more linked to Scotch drinking than anything else. Other glasses are used for other drinks as well and we wanted to be very clear and speak to whisky drinkers without using text.”
Indeed, over the 20 years since the launch of the Glencairn glass, the vessel and the drink have entered into a mutually favourable symbiosis. This bond, in line with Raymond Davidson’s vision, gifted Scotch and the wider world of whisky with a glass that all distillers and whisky drinkers can call their own.