The best glass for whiskey is the glass in your hand. Pour some whiskey in it and drink! But if you’re serious about tasting and want to experience all of the subtlety that high end whiskeys have to offer, it might be worth getting a fancy whiskey glass or two.
When I first started drinking higher-end whiskeys, I looked around, and found the Glencairn glass. It seemed to be the one all of the serious grown-up whiskey drinkers were using on video reviews. It was well-reviewed on Amazon. So I got myself a pair of them.
And for the most part, I liked it. It definitely brought out more complexity, but I have to admit, I haven’t been 100 percent satisfied. My main issue with the Glencairn glass is that when the whiskey is first poured, the nose is often overwhelmed by alcohol fume. Something about the shape of the glass, the very thing that concentrates aromas, also concentrates the boozy nose burn.
That dissipates after ten minutes or so, but when I pour a glass of whiskey, I don’t want to be waiting around for ten minutes! I have many virtues, but patience is not among them. I want drinkie in my mouth now!
Also, I find that I bump my nose on it when I drink. The opening is quite small, and my nose isn’t. It’s a great glass, but there is some room for improvement.
So let’s see if we can find a better glass, shall we?
Here are the contenders (pictured left to right):
Generally considered the glass of choice by whiskey aficionados. It is quite small and narrow, with a special shape to concentrate the complex bouquets of fine whisky.
Cost: a little under $10 per glass. Can be purchased singly or in sets.
A larger glass with a wider opening, but similar in shape to the original Glencairn glass. Appropriate for drinking whisky neat, on the rocks, or in cocktails. Not that I will ever make cocktails in it, of course, but apparently I could. I had high hopes for this glass, hoping it would concentrate aromas without burning my nose off when I was too impatient to wait for my booze. Which is, um, always.
Cost: a little under $10 per glass. Can be purchased singly or in sets.
A red wine glass
At the Iron Bridge Wine Company bourbon tasting, all of the bourbons were served in wine glasses. And you know, it was fine. And most of you have wine glasses in your house already, so maybe you don’t need to buy glassware. Let’s find out.
Now, a white wine glass might be a slightly better shape, but I had broken all of those, so we only have red wine glasses left in the house. My red wine glasses are quite large, the better to contain massive and unreasonable pours of wine so I can stay under my so-called “two-drink limit.” I could probably fit an entire bottle of wine into those two pours. Not that I do. But I could.
My red wine glasses are shaped very much like a brandy snifter, which I am not testing in this comparison. But I have often had whiskey served to me in snifters at bars, so this glass can stand in for that as well.
Cost: Varies, but you probably have them in your cabinet already, so free!
If you’re a beer geek as well as a whiskey geek, maybe you already have these (or similar) in your cabinet. This is the tulip glass preferred by my beer-geekiest friend. This tulip beer glass has the right kind of shape to concentrate aromas, but has a wider opening more similar to the Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass. Plus it’s pretty, with a stem.
Cost: $10-15 per glass. Can be purchased in sets of 2 or more.
The rocks/lowball glass that is already in your cabinet
For comparison purposes, I also included the basic rocks glass that I drank whiskey out of before I got all snooty about it. I like this glass because it’s pretty and heavy. It’s what I routinely drank from, and the first glass I give out now when I run out of Glencairn glasses. So, does it really matter? Could I have not bothered buying any new glassware at all? Let’s see.
Red plastic party cup
So let’s say you’re at a party and you’re drinking whiskey, and they have red plastic party cups out. Is it worth being the douchebag who dirties a glass from the host’s cabinet, or can you just use the plastic cup?
Cost: your dignity
I compared the glasses twice, once with Scotch and once with bourbon. For the Scotch comparison, I used the Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood. For bourbon, I used Col. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel.
Scotch: initial impression
Upon first pouring the Scotch, I cavalierly stuck my nose into the glasses to see what happened.
The Glencairn glass was surprisingly smooth. No booze burn in my nose and a very strong and complex bouquet immediately. Wow. This one is going to be tough to beat. The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass had a weaker concentration in the nose, but still quite nice. The wine glass was even weaker still, and had some burning alcohol fume. The tulip glass had a nice strong concentration of aromas, but also a very strong nose burn.
In the rocks/lowball glass, the smell of the whiskey was negligible. I went back to the Glencairn and others to see if I had just burned my receptors out, but no. They were still lovely. But in the rocks glass, pretty much no nose to speak of. The plastic party cup had a similar effect. Nothing to smell here. Move along.
After ten minutes, giving the whisky a chance to settle down, I smelled them all again.
The Glencairn glass still smelled lovely. The smells had blended more and become more integrated, but were still quite strong. Similarly, the Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass had also toned down. It was mellow enough after ten minutes that it became difficult to pick out individual notes in the nose.
The wine glass benefited considerably from the ten minute rest. The smell wasn’t as strong or luscious as the Glencairn glass, but was quite good. There was still a bit of alcohol fume, but not too extreme.
The tulip glass was amazing. As good as the Glencairn. The alcohol fume was completely gone.
Something odd happened in the rocks glass and party cup. The sweet notes in the Balvenie, in particular honey, came forward in the nose, while the peat retreated. If someone had handed me the Glencairn and the rocks glass, I would have said they were completely different Scotches. In fact, I might have said the rocks glass contained a bourbon. It was very strange.
Scotch: let’s drink
Let’s stop sniffing glasses and get some booze in the pie hole, shall we?
The differences between glasses were less pronounced when drinking than they were when sniffing, although the enhanced sweetness in the rocks glass and plastic cup were also present when tasting.
The tulip glass was the standout. I felt that my nose was deep in the glass by the time the Scotch hit my lips, and the particular shape worked perfectly to create a beautiful smell-taste experience.
My nose was also deep in the wine and Glencairn Canadian Whisky glasses, but they didn’t have the same heady effect as the tulip.
If you’re willing to wait for the alcohol fume to dissipate, go for the tulip glass. If not, the Glencairn glass was a close second. Although I will say that I was surprised that the Glencairn didn’t produce a nose burn with the Balvenie. It often does for me with other whiskeys. The red wine glass was acceptable, and better than the rocks glass.
The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass was also good, but if you’re going to be buying a new glass, buy the tulip instead. If you’re at a party, the plastic cup is not substantially different from a rocks/lowball glass, but if you can get your hands on a wine glass, do that.
Bourbon: initial impression
Moving on to bourbon, the initial nosing of the Glencairn glass revealed the familiar nose burn. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but the alcohol fume was strong enough that picking other elements from the nose was difficult.
The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass fared better. No alcohol fume, and a nice bouquet with individual scents distinguishable. The wine glass on the other hand was all booze burn. It hurt to put my nose in there.
The tulip glass had a bit of fume, but less than the Glencairn. The nose showed good complexity, better than the Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass.
And similar to the Scotch, both rocks glass and party cup had almost no smell immediately after pouring.
Bourbon: ten minutes later
Consistent with my previous experience, ten minutes in the glass was enough to dissipate the alcohol fume in the Glencairn glass, leaving great complexity and depth behind. The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass didn’t change much in the ten minute rest period. It was still good, but hadn’t really improved.
The red wine glass developed beautifully in ten minutes. The sweet apricot and tropical fruit smells in particular came forward very strongly. I could have left my face in there all day. Very nice.
The tulip glass was also very good, but very different. More oak and nutty notes came forward. Some alcohol fume remained even after ten minutes.
And as before, the rocks glass and plastic cup enhanced the sweeter aromas of fruit and honey, while dropping the ball on the wood and earthier notes.
Bourbon: Can I please stop sniffing glasses and just drink now?
OK, first let me start by saying that I love this bourbon. Have I mentioned that I love this bourbon? Sniffing it, waiting, sniffing again… that was hard. The first sip after all of that teasing was quite delightful.
The Glencairn glass was beautiful with this bourbon. Once the fume subsides, it’s hard to beat. The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass was also very good. The fruitiness I noticed from the wine glass was also present when drinking, and was extremely enjoyable.
The fume in the tulip glass, while not overwhelming, was still off-putting once I really got my face in there to drink it. The very thing that made the tulip magical for the Scotch seems to be the same thing that burns the nose if the fumes aren’t gone. It was strong enough that my breath caught and I didn’t even take the sip the first time. After another 5-10 minutes, it had dissipated, and was delightful. But that’s a prohibitively long time to wait to drink your hooch.
Again, the rocks glass and party cup pushed the sweetness while reducing complexity. It wasn’t unpleasant, but felt a bit like a waste of amazing bourbon.
The Glencairn glass and red wine glass were the winners here, but both required time to let the booze fume settle down. The tulip glass was also very good, but required an even longer time to relax. If you want to drink right away, the Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass was a good compromise.
OK, I guess all of the experts were right. The Glencairn glass really is probably the best all around glass out there. But you have to be patient if your whiskey is producing an alcohol fume. Grrrr. I hate waiting. And I still don’t like how it bumps my nose when I drink.
On the up-side, a shot looks right in the Glencairn glass, whereas it looks pretty meager in most of the other glasses. I think maybe the Glencairn glass slows down my consumption, which is probably a good thing.
The Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass was a bit of a disappointment. It was fine, and better than a rocks/lowball glass, but it didn’t concentrate the aromas the way I wanted it to. That said, if you want to start drinking immediately after pouring, it was the best of the non-fume-concentrating options.
The wine glass was a pleasant surprise. Not bad at all. If you don’t want to buy new whiskey glasses, use a nice big rounded wine glass. You won’t be missing much and will have some extra money to buy more whiskey.
The tulip glass was a revelation with Scotch. I had borrowed my friend’s glass for this little experiment, but will definitely be buying some for myself. And bonus, they work for snooty beer too! You can be all kinds of snooty!
The biggest thing I learned was this: Don’t drink whiskey neat out of a rocks/lowball glass! I was shocked at how little I could perceive from it compared to the other glasses. If you don’t want special whiskey glasses, use a wine glass. Don’t use a lowball or rocks glass. When I’m at someone else’s house, I habitually pull out one of those for my whiskey. No more. Wine glass from now on.
And finally, the biggest issue with the party cup was the fact that it was opaque. Once my face was up in there blocking the light, I couldn’t see the whiskey traveling to my mouth, so I wound up taking bigger sips. And yeah, it didn’t feel nice on my lips. That too. But it doesn’t make a noticeable difference in terms of smell or taste compared to a rocks glass.
So you’ll take bigger sips, and get drunk faster, which is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to evaluating a party cup. But if you can snag a wine glass for your whiskey instead, the difference is worth the effort to wash a glass.