Whether it’s Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, or good old Kentucky bourbon, whiskey drinkers spend a lot of time and money on finding the perfect dram to drink. But how often do we give serious thought to what we’re drinking it out of? While whiskey is typically served in either a standard rocks glass, experts have designed glassware specifically to bring out the best in your brown booze—especially when you drink it neat.
Investing in the right glasses can make any whiskey taste better, from high-end single-malts to even the stuff you’ll regret in the morning. We rounded up both classic and newfangled whiskey tasting options, and put them through their paces by sampling some of our favorite whiskies in each one… for the sake of science, of course.
The Glencairn Glass: For the Whiskey Purist
Maybe you’ve heard someone describe a whiskey as having “notes of vanilla,” or “cedar and tobacco on the nose,” and wondered if they’d already had a little too much to drink. Well, the Glencairn Glass might offer just the help you need to wax poetic about the subtleties of your favorite whiskey. First introduced in 2001, The Glencairn Glass has become the industry standard for tasting whiskey because of its ability to focus the smells and flavors of its contents. Used at every major distiller in Scotland and Ireland (and many in other countries as well) the Glencairn is starting to be seen more and more in pubs and home bars. The glass’s narrow, tulip-shaped bowl and small-angled pedestal have become iconic, and the shape is designed to focus the flavors on the nose, where most tasting really happens. Glencairn also makes a Canadian whiskey glass that’s a little larger, and leaves room to add ice, if that’s your jam.
What we thought: This thing really works. Of all the glasses, the Glencairn’s narrow opening concentrated the smells, flavors, and alcohol of our sample whiskies the most (which can be good or bad!). If you really want to distill down (see what we did there?) the essence of your whiskey, we can see why this has become the industry standard. It’s a bit narrow to put ice in, though, so if you prefer your whiskey on the rocks, you may prefer their Canadian version.
NEAT Glass: For the Boozy Scientist
The designers of the NEAT Glass (which stands for Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology) claim that they have found a better and more scientific way to produce the best spirits tasting glass. According to NEAT glass inventor George Manska, most tasting glasses send too much ethanol up your nose, numbing your olfactory senses. The NEAT was designed with a wider rim to encourage diffusion of the alcohol, while putting your nose closer to the wide bowl, where evaporation takes place, releasing the character aromas without the alcohol burn. This “sweet spot” allows the alcohol and aromatic aspects to be perceived separately, giving a more nuanced perception of whatever spirit you’re tasting in it. The NEAT also looks unique, kind of like drinking from a small bud vase without the annoying flower.
What we thought: George Manska is onto something here. Although the alcohol aspect wasn’t as in-your-face as it is with many other glasses we tried, the NEAT was still able to pick up the secondary notes and subtle differences between various whiskies. This was especially notable on overproof whiskies. If we were tasting or comparing a number of different whiskies in one sitting, the way the NEAT takes the alcohol edge off would let us do it without burning ourselves out. Our only complaint was that its shape, while great for smelling, can be a little awkward to drink out of.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Official Tasting Glass by Libbey: For the Bourbon Aficionado
The phrase “approval by committee” often has negative connotations, but in the case of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Official Tasting Glass, it was a good thing. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association developed the shape for this glass by consulting with a group of 8 of the most prominent and renowned distillers in the bourbon business. After multiple rounds of tastings from different designs brought to the table by the distillers, they settled on a shape that they agreed brought out the best qualities in bourbon. In terms of form factor, the glass looks like what might happen if a Glencairn glass was sent to live with its American cousins for a year, and ate too much delicious barbecue. It sports a larger, rounder belly, and a wider mouth opening (see how this analogy holds up?), and flares a bit at the rim. In many ways, the glass is a hybrid of some of the best features of the others, with the wide bowl of the NEAT, the flowerlike curves of the Glencairn, and the flared rim of the Riedel Single Malt. It’s also a bit less fragile, and not as pricey as some of the other options.
What we thought: This glass features many of the advantages of the others rolled into one moderately-priced package. Though not quite as focused as the pure nosing glasses, it was really well-suited to the delicious overproof bourbon we tried, and would be a perfect option for any high proof whiskey. This glass bridges the gap between tasting and drinking, and feels solid in the hand, with plenty of room to add some ice if you prefer.
Riedel Vinum Single Malt: For the Elegant Aesthete
Wine drinkers will already be familiar with Riedel, the centuries old Austrian glass company that introduced the wine world to the idea of glasses designed for specific varietals. Today, Riedel’s offerings include not only wine glasses, but also glasses intended to enhance the properties of specific types of beer and spirits. Known for their elegant shapes and sophisticated thin walls, Riedel’s Vinum collection includes a stylish Single Malt glass that both looks great and works really well. The Vinum Single Malt doesn’t narrow as much at the top as some of the other glasses, with a smoothly shaped columnar body, and a flower-like flared lip. With its thin glass and less concentrated vapors, this glass is great for enjoying and drinking your whiskey rather than just tasting and smelling it. And you’ll look posh doing it.
What we thought: The Vinum Single Malt is a pleasure to drink out of. It doesn’t focus the smells and tastes of the whiskey quite as much as some of the other glasses, but that’s not always a bad thing. It offers a nice balance of enhancing the flavors and smells just enough, while smoothing out the rough edges of higher proof spirits, and looking and feeling great in the process. This is a glass for drinking and enjoying rather than nosing and tasting, though it isn’t really made for drinking with ice. A nice, posh glass that does carry a fairly posh price.
Norlan Whisky Glass: For the Design Maven
The folks at Norlan have come up with a cool way of incorporating both the contour benefits of the Glencairn-style glass and a modern design sensibility that is visually arresting. And when we say it’s cool, we mean really cool. Designed with the help of master Distiller Jim McEwan (of Bruichladdich Scotch fame), the Norlan Whisky Glass has transparent double walls, so it looks like a tulip-shaped tasting glass suspended inside a classic tumbler. The design is supposed to offer the nosing performance of a fancy tasting glass with the form factor of a rocks glass. The two are joined together with a smooth rounded rim that feels good in the hand but also makes a great conversation piece. Norlan also offers an equally cool-looking blacked-out edition called “Vaild” that provides a blind tasting and smelling experience. And if that isn’t enough coolness for your bar, they also have a super heavy tumbler for rocks drinks called “Rauk” that has enough heft to sub as a blunt weapon, and features extruded facets on the bottom to grip muddled ingredients in your old fashioneds.
What we thought: Not only did the Norlan’s performance really impress us, offering a nicely focused but not overly harsh wave of smell and taste, but it also is super cool to look at and feels nice to the mouth and hand (TWSS?). And it lets you drink without having to tilt your head way back like some of the others. If a whiskey glass could actually make you cooler and get you laid, it would be this one.
NOS’R by Brümate: For the Temperature Sensitive Taster
A bit like the Norlan, Brümate’s NOS’R glass has a contoured inner shape surrounded by a larger, tumbler-like exterior. But this glass is insulated stainless steel, offering twenty times the temperature retention of a standard glass according to Brümate. This shatter-proof offering is also completely opaque, coming in matte black and walnut finishes, and offers a blind tasting experience.
What we thought: NOS’R doesn’t look like a traditional tasting glass, and offers a couple of unique features. While not quite as refined-feeling as some of the others, it offered good nosing and tasting, felt solid in the hand, and is definitely a conversation piece. Brümate is known for its temperature-retaining beer vessels, and this has a similar design, though that feature probably isn’t as critical in a whiskey glass. Because of its strong steel construction and the opaque exterior, this would be a fun glass to bust out at a tasting party if you didn’t want to risk breaking more delicate glassware.
Basic Rocks Glass: For the wannabe dad
Whether you call it a rocks glass, a lowball, or a tumbler, chances are you’ve done most of your whiskey drinking from one of these, just like your dad (and his). It’s practical, classic, and won’t raise any eyebrows. It’s also great for an old fashioned or other whiskey cocktail, and leaves plenty of room for ice. You can find them at just about any price point, and chances are you’ll buy them based on looks and price rather than function. This particular one reminds us of how wise you are in the ways of drinking by quoting our favorite Lannister.
What we thought: It feels good to drink your whiskey from one of these. That’s how Marlon Brando would have done it. And if we’re out in public, we probably wouldn’t be caught dead asking for a fancy tasting glass. But after using all the purpose-built tasting glasses, this one made us miss the focused tastes and smells that they offered (even as we chuckled smugly about the inscription). A tumbler just doesn’t work that well, and the aromas and nuances of really good whiskey can be harder to find as you sniff your way around. It just didn’t do a serious dram justice, and we decided that real tasting glasses are money well spent. Still, it’s nice to have tumblers around for when you’re feeling less fussy (or more drunk).
Old School Shot Glass: For the “Do You Even Lift?” Bro
This is the leather football helmet of the whiskey glass world. It doesn’t offer much in the way of features, but chances are that’s not what you’re looking for if you’re using a shot glass. The best feature they can offer is the logo of South of the Border from that spring break trip sophomore year. The good news is that they’re hard to break, and easy to replace. And sometimes you’ll find yourself drinking a whiskey (or some spirit that you haven’t had since college) that is best left un-smelled and un-tasted. That’s when it’s time to bust out the shot glasses.
What we thought: The shot glasses offered almost no distinctive smell from their contents until you stick your nose right up to it. And sometimes that’s a good thing. These allow you to down almost any whiskey quickly and without judgment, leaving the judgment for the following morning. They may not be great for the first whiskey of the night, but they work well for the last. Bottoms up!