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Through the looking glass

Can the shape and quality of the glass really make a difference to the enjoyment of whisky? And will whiskyfollow the example of the wine industry with increasing numbers of glasses designed to complement differentstyles of dram? Richard Jones reports.
By Richard Jones
If you accosted a number of random strangers in the street and asked them to describe a whisky glass the chances are, after making sure you weren’t after their mobile phone, that they would come up with something that broadly resembles the traditional whisky tumbler. With its straight sides, wide rim and heavy base, the tumbler remains one of the classic images of whisky service. You would almost certainly find this style of glass in your hand if you ordered a single malt or blend in most bars and pubs around the globe. A fact that Raymond Davidson of glass manufacturers Glencairn Crystal was all too aware of.“I’ve been a whisky drinker all my adult life and I started to get fed up with the tumblers that were used in pubs,” he explains. “The tumbler is fine if you want ice or a mixer with your whisky, but it does little to enhance the aromas of a dram served neat or with a drop of water. It got to the point where I actually started to ask bar staff to serve my whisky in a wine glass.” Richard Andrews of Sandbar agrees: “the 10oz straight-sided old fashioned style glass that you find in pubs does nothing for the taste of whisky.” Steve McGraw, managing director of glassware company Riedel UK, notes that one of the problems with the whisky tumbler is its broad rim. “One of the main differences in designing a glass for a spirit as opposed to a wine is the alcohol. Alarge surface area in the glass serves to emphasize the alcohol, which can overpower the other flavour elements on the nose.” As well as overwhelming aromas, the large surface area found in a tumbler also encourages the spirit to evaporate, reducing the flavours contained in the average whisky all too rapidly.Faced with these serving problems on his travels, Raymond Davidson was in a unique position to do something about it. He began to consider the optimal shape and size of glass for whisky, and took as his basis the copita sherry glass found in tasting rooms and laboratories around the world, not just in the whisky industry but in spirits such as gin, vodka and brandy.Also used as the traditional vessel for (Fino) sherry, the copita glass features a tulip shape and narrow opening to enhance aromas from the liquid without emphasizing the alcohol therein.It is perfect for nosing a whisky, but the narrow rim makes it problematic to actually drink the stuff; hence Raymond’s decision to open up the top slightly. For aesthetic and durability factors, he decided to do away with the tall, fragile stem found on the copita glass, and then embarked on an extensive programme of testing featuring the great and good of the whisky world.The result is the Glencairn glass that is currently used by Whisky Magazine for their tastings, as well as countless others in the industry.Glencairn was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for its efforts, but they are certainly not finished there. Raymond has now embarked on the mission to ensure that, “If you order a whisky anywhere in the world, and you don’t want ice or a mixer with it, the Glencairn glass is what it’s served in.” Of course, Glencairn’s competitors in the glass manufacturing industry would rather like to have something so say about that.Richard Andrews of Sandbar produces bespoke glasses for a number of premium blends and malts.He argues that how a glass looks and feels in the hands of a drinker is as important as the effect it has on the taste of the whisky.Consequently, he rejects the idea of stems on a whisky glass and instead produces glasses that combine features of the traditional whisky tumbler and the tulip shape used in professional tasting. The glasses narrow towards the top to ‘hold the flavours in’, but possess a similar weight and feel to a tumbler when you hold it.Riedel is an Austrian based company that has made its name in the wine industry but is increasingly looking towards other areas of glassware. Riedel pioneered the approach that different wines should be served in their own dedicated glasses.If the concept sounds a touch gimmicky or simply an excuse to sell more glasses, thousands of wine lovers have certainly embraced the concept although many, I suspect, own a number of basic shapes that they use to cover all styles of wine.So will we see a similar approach adopted to whisky?Certainly the range of styles and flavours found in whisky from different regions and countries around the world would indicate there is a potential. Raymond Davidson and his son Paul remain unconvinced, arguing that using different glasses would be ‘completely pretentious’ and a ‘fad’. Richard Andrews at Sandbar is slightly more open to such an idea noting that the glasses he produces for Islay distilleries tend to be more open at the top than those for Speyside styles of whisky to avoid overpowering the drinker with peaty flavours.Steve McGraw at Riedel UK states that, “It is absolutely clear that different shaped glasses do make a difference to our perception of wines and spirits,” he remarks.Riedel own current whisky glass was developed around 15 years ago in conjunction with master blenders and other authorities on the subject. Designed to be an all-round vessel for ‘drinking and enjoying whisky’, the glass is thistle-shaped with a short stem and straight sides that curve slightly at the rim.The rim remains narrow for reasons already explained relating to alcohol; the tapering is introduced due to our perceptions of taste.“The slightly curved lip at the top of the glass pulls the liquid towards the front of the tongue when we drink the whisky,” Steve McGraw explains. “The front of the tongue is where we pick up sweetness, so it helps emphasize the sweetness. Although the liquid obviously covers the rest of our mouths during the process of tasting, our brain takes an initial snapshot at the beginning, so enhanced sweetness is the impression that remains.” So much for the theory, but how do different whisky glasses compare in practice?Well, after a brief tasting with different styles of whisky, I’m convinced glassware can make a significant different in aroma, taste and overall enjoyment. The whisky tumbler was a non starter for all types of whisky in its unadulterated form. With a lighter, sweeter Speyside whisky such as Glen Moray 12 Years Old, the floral and fruity notes were much better delineated in the Riedel glass. With Springbank 10 Year Old the gently peaty, spicy nose was initial superior in the Riedel, but then seemed to fade.In the Glencairn, the whisky was ultimately more powerful with strong flavours of caramel. With a heavily peated malt such as Ardbeg Still Young, the aromas appeared more precise and restrained in the Riedel, and more briny and intense in the Glencairn. As a general point, I found the Glencairn glass much less pleasant to taste from due to its narrow rim.It was a fascinating, if limited, experiment that goes to show the complexities of matching different whiskies to the best glassware. The Davidsons at Glencairn believe that their glass allows for better comparison between different drams which, given that it is modelled on the style used in tasting rooms, is hardly surprising. Steve McGraw points out that no glass can ever be considered neutral, and that even benchmark designs favour some styles over others. It is this point that will provide much interest on the subject of whisky glassware in the near future. For Riedel will shortly be convening a research seminar in Glasgow to design a new whisky tasting glass. Or could that be ‘glasses’? Because Steve McGraw refuses to rule out the possibility. “At the moment we really don’t know what we’ll find out,” he concludes. “It may be that the panel decides that the perfect tasting glass already exists, or it may be we decide that a single glass is not applicable for all styles of whisky. A strong peaty, medicinal style of whisky is very different from a subtle and floral Lowland, after all.”