There are enough whiskey glasses on the market that you could probably use a different one every day of the year and two on federal holidays and still have some you never quite got to. A lot of those glasses also come with various claims about how effective they are at perfectly capturing the magic of whiskey and presenting it to you in the sophisticated way you deserve.
I’m skeptical about those claims. If there really was a way to capture the immaculate essence of bourbon or any other type of whiskey, wouldn’t most of these glasses follow roughly the same template? If an inwardly curving glass captures whiskey’s vapors the best, why do we have bourbon glasses that have sharp outward inclines? If a straight up and down rocks glass can handle bourbon neat, why do so many glasses have bulbs or twists?
Does Glassware Actually Make a Difference?
There’s plenty of elitism in the bourbon community, ranging from the bottles and brands that get the most hype to even the way to drink whiskey. Glassware is no exception, and certain drinking vessels come with a roiling undercurrent of condescension flowing under much of the testimony from industry experts.
To give those experts their due, it’s worth admitting that the delivery system you choose affects the smell and taste of whiskey. A shot glass doesn’t allow for the same experience as a rocks glass, after all — though shot glasses don’t really enter the picture if you’re looking to savor the scent and taste of a good whiskey. Making the moderately pretentious argument that glassware affects whiskey and then pointing to a shot glass as evidence is like saying golf is a thinking man’s sport then taking your date to a putt putt course.
But it’s also worth noting that much of the evidence for the superiority of a particular glass comes from brands actively trying to sell you something. Waterford Crystal explaining the truth about glassware, for example, clearly has some motive: selling pricey glasses.
Controlled tasting sessions offer the best evidence of how the shape of a glass impacts the flavor of the whiskey inside. In one such session, the team at Drinkhacker pit a rocks glass, cocktail glass, and Glencairn glass against each other and found the nose and taste of the whiskey changes with each glass. In another example, whiskey expert Jeffrey Schwartz did a comparison tasting for Bourbon & Banter. He found that each glass type he tested changed the aroma largely because of how much room there is for aeration and the space each glass had to capture the whiskey’s bouquet. Since our olfactory sense is so deeply connected to our sense of taste, getting a big whiff of whiskey before or during your sip means the taste will change.
But tasting sessions are subjective. They depend on the people taking part, and I, for one, have drunk many whiskeys out of many glasses and sometimes the same whiskey out of many different glasses without noticing a significant change in the taste and aroma.
To find what you like best, do a side-by-side comparison for yourself. You, too, might find that the main component of a good bourbon glass is that it has space to hold the whiskey’s natural vapors and a bit of an inward curve at the top of the glass to do a better job of holding the vapors inside. Or you might realize that the right bourbon glass is the one you grab first.
The Best Bourbon Glasses
I’m not going to pretend to recommend bourbon glasses that will lay out the nuance of a particular bourbon like a toddling Baby Boomer sorting through his baseball cards. Instead, these recommendations are all glasses that have done a good job of helping people smell and taste whiskey. You’re on your own for the nuance.
The Glencairn (pronounced glen-kehrn) is the result of years of Scotch dominance in the whiskey market. Regardless of your feelings on Scotch, it’s a good glass no matter the type of whiskey. Surprisingly, the Scottish didn’t build in a self-immolation feature in case a hedonistic drinker ever “accidentally” splashed bourbon into a Glencairn.
Túath Irish Whiskey Glass
This is the Irish whiskey industry’s answer to the Glencairn. The Túath (pronounced too-ah) glass likely won’t ever hit the ubiquity of the Glencairn, especially since a lot of Irish distilleries and whiskey experts still use the Glencairn, but it’s a good looking glass with some character to it. If I’m ever sharing a new Irish whiskey with friends or family, I play into the image and serve it up in one of these. Consider the Irish-American aspect in the history of American whiskey and stick some bourbon in this one, too.
Crystal Bourbon Glasses
You wouldn’t think it looking at the twisting shape of this glass, but it’s easily one of the most comfortable I’ve ever held. I took it one step further and used it the way the box wanted me to, with a nice round ball of ice. Not that the glass can’t handle bourbon neat, but Lorsia sends an ice mold with it, so might as well put it to use.
There’s a handful of geographical whiskey glasses out there. While they’re all cool, I like the Grand Tetons the most. Not for any sentimental reason. Mostly because I didn’t like how the others all had the mountains sticking out of the middle of the glass like it was trying to poke me in the eye with each sip. This glass keeps the whiskey in the valley, which feels more right.
Rauk Heavy Whiskey Tumbler
One of the best things about whiskey is how articulate it makes you (at least to a point). Bourbon in particular seems to draw out my best thoughts, and the more I have, the more intelligent I sound. At least, that’s what having a heavy glass like this makes it feel like. It weighs more than a pound and picking it up and putting it down does some incredible work punctuating my bourbon-inspired thought processes.