Which Whiskey Glass?

Like whiskeys, there are more whiskey glasses than time to try them all. Which to use?

We each have a lifetime. So in whatever time that is, we may enjoy our whiskey in whatever way—and whatever glass—we enjoy it most. But figuring that out can take some exploration.

The science of why one might prefer a given glass to another—if it can be called a “science”—is difficult to verify. Physics may be universal. But people are so infinitely different from one another. There is how the shape of a glass influences the taste of what’s in it. But there is also one’s personal mood on a given night, or the occasion at which one is drinking. These two factors alone inject a good amount of chaos theory into the science of glass selection.

Some have tried to nail this science down. The folks behind the high-end Norlan glasses, for example. Norlan now produces three glasses—their Norlan Whisky, Vawe Highball, and Rauk Heavy Tumbler:

According to the folks at Norlan, each glass is the result of extensive scientific and experiential research into what provides the most pleasing drinking experience. On their website they describe their glasses as a “meeting point of advanced digital design, inventive production techniques and the intimate whisky ritual.” The clear emphasis in their advertising is on the cool-eyed, modern design. The customer they appear to be after is wealthy, fashion-conscious, and seemingly humorless. It’s an intentional far cry from various common old-timey whiskey associations: 

And, with the Rauk glass at least (the first Norlan I’ve tried), a not too subtle appeal to Blade Runner fans is made in the in-box brochure, identifying you the buyer as an “off-world galactic pilot.” The connection is merely in the “sci-fi” of “science,” specifically the now retro cool-factor of the 1982 film’s brooding space-age cop, Rick Deckard, perched on his dystopian 2019 Los Angeles balcony, sipping Johnny Walker Black Label. It’s a clever marketing detail, if unnecessary, and despite Harrison Ford’s iconic Blade Runner glass looking nothing like the Norlan whatsoever:

Cool by association? In line with this aim to supersede an icon, there’s an air of pretension to the Norlan website with its black and white photographs of the three guys behind it, all looking very serious, like U2 in the 1980s. But it’s a whiskey glass. It’s neither rock and roll nor Blade Runner.

Despite my misgivings about the marketing, as a whiskey glass it does earn the attention it craves. More on that later.

Easily the most common whiskey tasting glass today is the now classic Glencairn, created by Raymond Davidson, founder of the Glencairn Crystal Company in Scotland, in consultation with master blenders from top Scottish distilleries. It is designed expressly for nosing and tasting whiskies. And for ease of measuring, a single shot conveniently reaches the level of the bowl’s widest width.

For a time, I used the Glencairn unquestioningly for anything I tasted. But as my glass collection grew and my taste for whiskeys diversified, I started to notice the impact a given glass had on my whiskey tasting experience. Over time the Glencairn demonstrated itself to be not as universally effective as I’d assumed. Unsurprisingly, it seemed to work most consistently for scotch, the whisky made by the makers of the glass. Some American bourbons, for example, didn’t always show themselves as well in a Glencairn as they did in a small tumbler or brandy glass.

Why? I can’t say scientifically. But in practice I’ve found certain trends fairly consistent. What follows is my un-scientific account of what glasses I find work well for what whiskeys. It is not a neat and tidy study, given the range of factors. But hopefully it will be of help and interest to anyone looking for just the right glasses to complement their personal whiskey experiences.

First I’ll identify some GENERAL principles to go by. Then I’ll note some glasses I find nice for CELEBRATORY occasions, and others that are GIMMICKY. Finally I’ll list off some RANDOM PECULIARITIES I’ve found between specific whiskeys and glasses.

For the purpose of photographing my home glass collection, and to reaffirm the effects of various glasses, I chose a bottle of Tom’s Foolery Cask Strength Bourbon. It has a nice, medium burnt-orange color. But the primary factor behind this choice is that it is an American bourbon with a nose and flavor profile as vibrantly fragrant as one might expect from a good rye or scotch. It seemed this would provide each glass the chance to offer strong feedback.

Incidentally, it was interesting to chart this Tom’s Foolery bourbon across eighteen glasses. Nosing and tasting it, I picked up a much wider variety of aromas and flavors than when I originally assessed it. Notably, a great range of cinnamons were coming forward to compliment that familiar Tom’s Foolery breadiness and its field of rye, straw, and other long swaying grasses. It occurred to me I could complicate all future whiskey tastings by adding a handful of glasses to the process!

On to the glasses…

GENERAL

For scotch whiskies, as well as notably fragrant ryes like Willett, Old Potrero, or Tom’s Foolery, I tend to go with a traditional Glencairn, already pictured in the how-to illustration above. The Canadian Glencairn is also very suited to the ryes—not a surprise given the primary grain used in Canada is rye.

These glasses pull out the nose of these whiskeys well. Bourbon is fine in a traditional Glencairn. But for some reason I sometimes find bourbons more difficult to nose in them. Occasionally I even notice more of the glass’ own scent itself.

Regardless of the particular whiskey, the full effect of the Glencairn is optimal with a full pour, and when tasting I am often pouring smaller amounts. This might not explain the scotch / bourbon dichotomy noted above. But it could account for the occasional presence of the glass’ own scent figuring into the mix.

regular Glencairn (L) and wee Glencairn (R)

The wee Glencairn is an oddity. It’s cute, and intended for tasting smaller pours. A half-shot will reach the level of the bowl’s widest width. However, it does not allow for the same direct nosing that its larger predecessor does. With some simple maneuvering left and right from one nostril to the other, one can get a good sense of the whiskey’s nose. I tried the wee Glencairn next to a regular Glencairn and found them essentially equally effective for nosing. Tasting is then a bit better in the larger Glencairn because your nose is still involved, which impacts taste. Color is also easier to assess in the larger Glencairn given there is more depth of volume to work with. The wee Glencairn takes a wee more effort, and for that reason alone I don’t use it much. For a friend intimidated by whiskey, though, I might offer this glass. Its cute factor can help alleviate the qualms of the whiskey-fearful.

It’s also worth noting that for casual and social drinking, where the focus is less on formal whiskey tasting, I tend not to use either the large or wee Glencairns. They don’t make a very social glass, since one must tip one’s head far back to get a sip. That isn’t the case with the average tumbler, for example, which one can sip on easily while still looking at other folks around the table. The Canadian Glencairn’s extra width does accommodate sociability. (Canadians have that reputation for being friendly. 🇨🇦🙂)

small round tumblers

For the average bourbon and rye, I mostly use a standard Libby 5-ounce brandy glass. Second to that, a small round tumbler. Small tumblers used to be my go-to for tasting bourbon, rye, and Irish whisky. But then I noticed Jimmy Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey, was often using basic brandy glasses. I figured if they’re good enough for Jimmy Russell they’re good enough for me. The round bowl of the brandy glass carries the aromas very well. Though an entirely different shape, the small simple tumblers seem to achieve a similar effect, with slightly less oomph behind the nose. But dip your nose deeper into the tumbler and a clear aroma can be found. The brandy glass seems to do the job somewhat effortlessly. For this reason, if I were to name my “standard” tasting glass for bourbons and ryes, it’s the 5-ounce brandy glass. Like the Glencairn, the brandy glass also requires tilting your head back to get a sip. So for casual drinking with guests, I go for the more sociable small tumblers.

Wider-bottomed tumblers work well for rich bourbons that fall not too far above the 100-proof mark. Higher proofs can literally burn out your nose in these. But the palm-sized, flat-bottomed bowl of the glass holds aromas and flavors well. So, lower proofed or otherwise subtler whiskeys do well here. Japanese whiskies, for example, with their tendency toward subtlety, come across fine in a Glencairn, where their light coloring is also shown off nicely. But I’ve found a good wide-bottomed tumbler, into which one can immerse one’s nose fully, also works well to bring out those subtle Japanese whisky nuances with some oomph. These wider tumblers can also hold a lot of ice, so they make great cocktail glasses.

This 8-ounce tapered tumbler is nice and heavy. It can be satisfying to set down heavy whiskey glasses, especially as the night wears on and one’s senses wear out! There is no question when these glasses hit the table. Generally, this tumbler works much like its non-tapered cousins. It does diffuse the nose a bit, which can be useful with higher proof whiskeys that might threaten the nostrils. 

This fancy Irish crystal tapered tumbler is so large, whiskeys seem to get lost in it. I seldom use it. It doesn’t fit quite easily in the hand. The crosshatched design neatly measures out 3 ounces of whiskey. This offers a nice look, if you know you want a double shot. This glass was my first lesson in why bigger is not better when it comes to whiskey glasses. I love how the classic design helps measure the volume of the pour. But I’d prefer a 7-ounce version to this massive 12-ounce bucket. Smaller glasses are easier to handle, and they hold on to flavors more comfortably. That said, if I was more of an ice user I could see myself throwing a big cube or two in this and enjoying the clink-clink.

CELEBRATORY

That Irish crystal tumbler makes a good celebratory look. However, if given the choice, a good celebration deserves both a nice look and effective functionality.

I found this glass in an antique store. It was made in the mid-1960s. The etched lines in the glass are hand cut, and it has a nicely detailed gold rim. Both regal and old-school American, this is a nice tumbler befitting top-notch rare whiskeys or special occasions. It fits nicely in the hand, looks special without tipping into gaudy, and at 8-ounces is a nice size for nosing and tasting bourbons and ryes in particular. It can hold a good sized ice cube as well, and makes a great cocktail glass. I always enjoy drinking from this glass. It makes any whiskey feel like an occasion.

a gift glass!

This large tumbler is a sentimental favorite. It may look familiar if you follow the Right Spirit Instagram or Twitter accounts! At 11-ounces it’s a bit big. But the proportions don’t have quite the same overwhelm as the Irish crystal tumbler above. The angle of this photo makes it appear slightly tapered, but it’s actually straight. This glass was a gift from the cast of The Black Rider, a musical by Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs that I directed at The Shotgun Players in Berkeley, CA. The surreal image of the crow with a deer in its stomach relates to imagery in the show. And who doesn’t associate Tom Waits music with whiskey? Also, the crow’s foreleg neatly measures out one shot exactly! It’s a very basic glass. But the image and its being a gift make it special.

GIMMICKY

These are glasses that attempt to be cool or useful. But for one or another reason they may not actually get the job done.

Peugeot Impitoyable Whisky Tasting Glass

The Peugeot Impitoyable Whisky Tasting Glass is complicated and not particularly effective for assessing color, nosing, or tasting. And “impitoyable” is French for ruthless, pitiless, or merciless.

Hmm…

The full set-up includes the glass, a hubcap-like freezable metal base used to chill the glass, and a leather coaster for the chilled base to sit on:

The idea is worthy: to chill the whiskey without having to add ice, which would dilute it. And the gadget fan in me enjoys the contraption aspect of it. But the glass didn’t seem to get the road testing it needed. The base set-up clutters the overall look. The glass itself is thin, and its large bowl spreads the whiskey out in a similarly thin ring around the central island. One must pour a good amount to be able to get a sense of a whiskey’s color.

Peugeot is a French car manufacturer. So this glass is no doubt a contract-made accessory for… when you’re driving? The Peugeot website states that “Peugeot combines Design, Style and Emotion in all areas, with its ambition to be the world’s high-end generalist brand.” Hopefully their cars are better road tested than their whiskey glasses!

Corkcicle Whiskey Wedge

Like the Peugeot, the Corkcicle Whiskey Wedge glass also attempts something practical and suffers from complications. It’s not a glass for spontaneous drinking, as it requires advanced prep:

The process is simple enough. Pour water in the glass through the inserted silicone ice wedge. Leave it in the freezer for a handful of hours. The water freezes in the shape of a wedge on one side of the glass.

The idea is that the ice wedge, itself frozen to the chilled glass, won’t melt as quickly as a regular ice cube. But in practice I found the ice wedge melts as quickly as a smaller sized ice cube. Larger square or round cubes actually last a bit longer.

But the real idea is to make something that looks cool, and this glass/ice combo does look cool in a simplified cubist sort of way. To achieve the full look, however, one must pour a substantial amount of whiskey into the glass. So if you know you want a double out of the gate, great. I did enjoy the Tom’s Foolery chilled. The ice and water released some crisper, almost fruity spiced notes. But it didn’t take long for the ice to melt and dilute the taste down to the intensity of a light, watery iced tea.

I’m ultimately not the best assessor of this glass, actually, since I generally don’t use ice. It is fun to look at. And I’ve used the glass occasionally for very high proof bourbons that I don’t mind getting diluted by the melting ice, and to chart how the bourbon responds to progressive rather than a singular dilution. But for anyone who does like ice, and cubist art, this might be a perfect glass. I just have to remember to put it in the freezer before they arrive!

So, the Norlan Rauk Heavy Tumbler.

It is gimmicky. But it also works.

The Rauk has a nice heavy feel. You can set it down with confidence. And yet the heavy weight appears to float given the precise footing of the base. The 8-ounce size and sleek design make it easy to assess color, offering both flat wide surfaces and refracting corners that reveal nuances of color.

The Tom’s Foolery bourbon was very fragrant in the Rauk, and tasted similarly as it did in other glasses. As this glass is newer to me, however, I wanted to give it a thorough try. So after the Tom’s Foolery I tried some Rubicon Rye, a very sweet and fruity American craft whiskey. The Rauk pulled out rich butterscotch notes of a kind I most associate with Y2K-era Wild Turkey and certain of the better Henry McKenna single barrel batches. I’d literally never tasted that flavor in the Rubicon before, and it’s a bottle I’ve been enjoying for a few months now in a variety of circumstances. I associate Rubicon Rye most with sweet and juicy cherries. But if I were tasting this Rubicon Rye blind in the Norlan Rauk, I might have guessed it was a certain butterscotch-bomb of a 2001 Wild Turkey 101 I’m fond of. 

So I poured some of that 2001 Wild Turkey 101 into the Rauk. Interesting. The nose was smoky butterscotch with even stronger cherry than the typically cherry-rific Rubicon. This followed through onto the pallet, where the classic Wild Turkey autumnal spices emerged—though less than I’m accustomed to. I would never have thought an older Wild Turkey 101 and this relatively new Rubicon Rye could ever be comparable, much less potentially mistaken for one another! In the Norlan Rauk glass, they are.

Finally, I tried the Rauk with one of the benchmarks of bourbon, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year. The color was exquisitely clear, shifting from a pale straw yellow to deep rich orange at different angles. The nose was likewise clear, with tangy vanilla caramel and buttery soft oak. The taste was similarly rich, vibrant, clear, with oaky tannins giving it edge not astringency. Everything had a sense of confidence about it, both forward and restrained. Maybe my senses were well warmed up by this point. But the Rauk glass does seem to do things to further open my senses to these various familiar whiskeys.

Over the course of the next week, I tried a variety of whiskeys in the Rauk—Weller Special Reserve, Rebel Yell 100, Wild Turkey Diamond, Horse Soldier Barrel Strength Bourbon, Knob Creek Rye, Stagg Jr., Willett 4-Year Rye, a 128-proof Booker’s, a 129-proof OBSV Four Roses Single Barrel… The fairly consistent impact of the Rauk seems to be a general brightening and clarifying of aromas and flavors. Some darker bass notes get lost or downplayed. (Although the exact opposite was true with the 128-proof Booker’s, which tasted darker in the Rauk than in a brandy glass or Glencairn.) But the trade off is a certain vibrancy, and the surprise of a new perspective on familiar whiskeys. Very interesting.

Maybe Norlan needed its sleek advertising campaign to break into the whiskey glass world and gain traction fast. But it’s too bad. Personally, I find their chilly vibe incongruous to the inherent warmth of whiskey. The slo-mo coolness of their video ads comes across as a self-consciously cinematic attempt at outtakes from a Blade Runner spinoff. Gimmicky marketing aside, for function and style the Rauk is indeed a winner and I highly recommend it. The $50+ price tag prohibits my gathering a full set for guests. But for my own future tastings, I imagine I’ll now be rotating regularly between the brandy glass, Glencairn, and Rauk.

RANDOM PECULIARITIES

When I first tried Larceny Wheated Bourbon, I found it to be okay. Then I tried it in this shot glass and it tasted great:

Is it the deeply curved bowl inside the glass? How much my nose is able and unable to get in the glass? However it works, it works. And it’s a classic, simple shot glass with a hefty amount of weight to it for its size.

Curiously, Larceny did not taste quite as good in another shot glass:

This second shot glass (left above) has thinner sides and is deceptively large. It can hold 3 ounces and is wide enough to get one’s nose in it. The inner bowl is less curved than the first glass, and the sides likewise straight up. These details impact how aromas rise and dissipate. This shot glass makes a decent small tasting glass in general, easier to maneuver than the wee Glencairn.

Weller 12 tastes best in the tapered tumbler, discussed in the GENERAL section above, offering a more balanced experience than some other glasses that allow that occasional Weller astringency to come through a bit more:

This green tapered tumbler loves Wild Turkey and other autumnal bourbons. It distorts the color a bit, though never unpleasingly:

This wide bottomed tumbler (see GENERAL above) loves butterscotchy Henry McKenna and older, rich Wild Turkey vintages:

This one-of-kind shot glass was handmade by an artist in Wrocław, Poland, whose shop I wandered into while visiting that city for a theater festival:

The glass is designed for Polish vodka, of course. But it actually makes a great glass for exceptionally high proof bourbons, like Booker’s. When I want those intense Booker’s flavors without the alcohol burn that can sometimes come with them, I’ll use this shot glass. My nose can’t get inside of it. Some flavors are lost as a result, of course. But Booker’s abounds with flavor, and this glass offers a more relaxed experience without the need for added water to tame the bourbon. Plus the glass looks cool. It’s very unique, like every batch of Booker’s.

CHEERS!

A good glass, the “right” glass, adds positively to the experience of the whiskey. Balancing functionality with design, atmosphere, association, and mood enhances the details and helps forge stronger memories. When a glass is more style than substance, as with the Peugeot, it can be memorable for the wrong reasons. Conversely, all function and no style doesn’t really exist in whiskey glasses, in my experience, except perhaps when it comes to poorly manufactured glasses that lack weight or have too-sharp rims. None of the examples above fit that description.

I enjoy exploring whiskey vessels. The hunt for the glass is akin to the hunt for the whiskey. Finding that special, perfect glass makes drinking a whiskey an extra pleasure.

So, happy glass hunting. And happy toasting.

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