Tasting Success

Gavin D. Smith meets the family behind the iconic glass
By Gavin D. Smith
For most Scotch whisky drinkers it is difficult to imagine life without the 'Glencairn Glass.' Go to any distillery visitor centre or whiskyrelated event and you will find it in use, complete with bespoke engraving. It is the official tasting glass for Whisky Live and Whisky Magazine.

Remarkably, more than five million units of the glass have been sold since it was launched by Glencairn Crystal Studio of East Kilbride, near Glasgow, in 2002. However, there is much more to Glencairn Crystal than just the ubiquitous tasting glass, even if it is largely responsible for the public's heightened awareness of the brand name.

The company was established in 1981 by Airdrieborn Raymond Davidson, who trained as an environmental test engineer, working with aircraft components, before his passion for interacting with people saw him take on a sales role with glassware manufacturer Edinburgh Crystal.

"I would try to encourage directors of whisky companies to fill their spirit into crystal decanters, and offer glass sets to go with them," recalls Davidson."That was how I first became involved with the Scotch whisky industry."

Ultimately, Davidson decided to strike out on his own, setting up Glencairn Crystal Studio in 1981."Part of our success has been because from the outset I decided to concentrate solely on corporate business and not the retail side of things.

"From the start we offered customers a full design package, with an artist to do the work, right through to designing the boxes. We took the burden from the customer and gave him something much better than he was expecting at the end of the day. That philosophy is still at the core of what we do.

“We created strong partnerships with all the major crystal houses in Europe, and we have a range of suppliers. Some are very good at certain specialist things, and we will go to them when required. All the ‘finishing’ is done at our factory.”

Today, Raymond is managing director of the family firm, with his three sons all working alongside him in the business. Scott is in charge of finance, strategic planning, product development and marketing, while Paul handles the day to day running relating to production. Youngest son Andrew takes care of the Glencairn website.

“For all the time we have been in existence, the Scotch whisky industry has accounted for about 50 per cent of our business,” notes Raymond, though Glencairn boasts an overall portfolio of more than 1,000 clients, including such ‘blue chip’ names as the Cunard shipping line and Rolls Royce.

So just how did that eponymous ‘tasting glass’ come about?

“I’d always been a whisky drinker,” explains Raymond,“and in bars I would ask them to put it in a wine glass for me. One day I thought ‘this is crazy. I own a crystal company!’ So I designed a glass based on the nosing copita used by blenders. But no self-respecting whisky drinker wants a stem, so I did away with that and opened up the bowl to make it a more obvious drinking glass, and gave it a more masculine base.Then I forgot about it for 17 years! Eventually, my son Paul found the sample we had made in the warehouse and took it with him when he visited Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay later that day.”

Paterson recalls: “I was really excited about it. Apart from my specialist sample glasses, everything else was, frankly, pretty useless for whisky. This was the first opportunity for the public to use the right glass to sample whisky.”

Following its favourable reception by Richard Paterson, the Davidsons showed their innovation to a number of other master blenders, and the overall opinion was that the ‘pot’ of the glass should be slightly bigger, but other than increasing the size, the design that went into production was exactly as created.

Raymond explains: “You can’t use it without nosing the whisky – that’s the way it was designed. We want people to be able to nose a whisky and decide if they like it, if they want to drink it. Our aim is to encourage people to experiment, to move around the bar.”

In terms of specialist whisky-related work, Glenclairn has recently created an eye-catching decanter and glass set for a rare, limited edition 23 Years Old Van Winkle Bourbon expression. “We’ve worked on it with Julian and Preston Van Winkle,”says Scott.“Their thought was that when you’ve got Bourbon this special you shouldn’t just fill it into standard bottles.”

The company was also responsible for creating the 100 exquisite bottles that hold Johnnie Walker Blue Label 1805, complete with an etched Johnnie Walker facsimile signature in the glass and 24-carat gold silhouette.“We love the challenge of doing really specialist stuff like that,”says Scott.

Following the great success of the Scotch whisky tasting glass, a new bespoke Canadian whisky glass has been produced, with the first 250,000 units dispatched to Ontario earlier this year. It was designed in association with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and a range of Canadian master blenders.

Raymond declares that: “It’s great to work with people in the whisky industry. The camaraderie is fantastic.”
No doubt those same people would happily raise a glass to the success of the Davidson family’s achievements ...