Guide: Selecting the Right Glassware for Brandy and Whisky

While much has been said about vintages, brands, tasting notes and traditions, the part one's glassware plays has not been given much attention. We attempt to redress the situation

Wine and spirits experts talk at length about the best way to get the best experience out of any given drink. Paradoxically, despite the extensive tasting notes and historical exposition, these same experts often say that there is no right or wrong way to drink. Adding to already conflicting advice, some insiders add a bit of fire - at one particular tasting with a garrulous master blender of Scotch whisky, mortal harm was promised to any who dared add water or, God-forbid, ice to the beverage at hand.

Spirits inspire much passion, that is for certain. Just like national cuisines, there’s more than just professional pride at stake. Sometimes, using the wrong utensils can provoke outrage and ruin a perfectly good meal – literally. For example, bringing a stainless steel spoon to a dish of caviar is a bit like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

With this in mind, we decided to address an area that is seldom discussed in the world of spirits: how to match glassware to the appropriate spirit. In fact, this is simplicity itself because one only needs to consider the nose of the matter. Science, art and indeed marketing have not yet imposed copious amounts of jargon on the subject.

Strictly speaking, only beer, wine – including champagne – and brandy have proper associated glassware. Beer and wine glasses, champagne flutes and brandy snifters are very well known and well suited to their respective spirits. By way of contrast, vodka and tequila are associated only with shot glasses while whisky has to share the lowball glass with every other spirit. Still, whisky does have a traditional serving glass called a quaich, which is essentially a small and shallow bowl.

  • Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 2Although brandy snifters can hold a large amount of liquid, the point isn't to fill it up to the brim. Instead, the extra space is meant to allow the brandy to breathe
  • Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 3The tulip-shaped glass has gained traction recently as a good vessel for whisky and brandy. In fact, the master blenders of Scotch whisky use glasses like this one in the course of their numerous tastings
  • Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 4A long stem is typical of wine glasses and is meant to allow one to hold the glass without warming its contents. This is a good idea, especially in warmer climates because there is no need to activate the flavor of red wine or brandy with body heat
  • Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 5Stylized 'rocks' and lowball glasses are gaining favor in bars, and are a clever way of injecting a bit of flair into your glassware collection. One only needs to take care that the design favors enjoying the drink at hand. Once more, a case in point of design defeating the drink it was meant for is the skinny champagne flute, which utterly kills the aroma of the liquid
  • Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 6Also known as a tumbler, this type of glass has long been traditional for whisky. The thick base is useful when it comes to housing ice and delivering that satisfying 'clink'. In a way, this glass is the opposite of the brandy sniffer

Building on the example of wine and beer glasses, the following points can be observed:

Volume

  • Don’t be stingy. Unless your only aim is to swallow your alcohol without tasting it, generous glasses are best. Small glasses restrict your mixing options and, most importantly, detract from the aroma of your drink.
  • A bigger glass is always preferable to a smaller one because it has more utility (you can use it for different drinks).
  • Get something that comfortably holds more than two shots of fluid, yet still has space for ice and a mixer. A shot is 1.5 ounces.
  • Between eight to 10 ounces is best, so the traditional lowball glass or rocks glass will do. These typically hold between four to 10 ounces. 
  • The above automatically disqualifies shot glasses. If precision matters to you (even at home), shot glasses can be useful for accurate measurements, such as for cocktails. 
  • For wine, glasses that hold 16 ounces and more are the most versatile. 
  • Essentially, a wine glass should be able to accommodate a pint (16 ounces) if filled to the brim. Understandably, this might be on the large side but what you want is a glass that allows the spirit to breathe adequately.
  • At minimum, choose wine glasses that hold at least 12 ounces.

Clarity

  • When possible, and it is always possible, go for clear glass. 
  • Where whisky is concerned, the traditional quaich is not the best choice. Serve whiskies in glass or crystal instead so that you can see the liquid within.
  • You always want to allow light to shine through the vessel, bringing the liquid within to life. 
  • As mentioned, both glass and crystal are acceptable, although some will feel glass too flimsy and, just as likely, crystal too portentous.
  • The bottom line: whether you use crystal or glass is a personal choice. Using crystal or glass will not affect flavor or presentation so it's entirely up to you to decide depending on aesthetic preferences. 

Shape

  • You cannot go wrong with a big bottom and concave edges towards the top. 
  • Typically called the tulip because it resembles the flower a little, this configuration both allows the fluid to breathe and focuses the aromas, drawing them naturally toward your nose. 
  • With or without stem, the bowl allows the spirit to breathe, thus enhancing inherent complexities and revealing weaknesses.
  • This is useful for all sophisticated spirits, including port, sherry and rum. 
  • Even Belgian ale, with its generous head, calls for a pint-sized (see above) tulip-shaped glass. In this case, you would fill it to the brim.
  • A note about the typical long champagne flute: avoid the versions with small lips that do not allow one to nose the drink.

To end this guide, you might wonder what sort of glasses would sit well in your cabinets. We humbly suggest, for the sake of practicality, sets of wine, tulip-shaped and lowball glasses. These are the most versatile types and will do well for everyday use. The typical wine glass works just fine for all types of wine, including dessert wines and even champagne.

For more robust spirits, the tulip-shaped glass does the trick, being acceptable to both whisky and brandy aficionados. Basically, any spirit that is aromatically impressive, including XO rum for example, will present excellently in this type of glass. As for the ubiquitous lowball glass, from modest cocktails to simple on-the-rocks concoctions, you cannot go wrong.

Research Tools

While there is a wealth of information about glass and crystalware, there is not much on the evolution of vessels for alcoholic beverages. The following bartending and cocktail websites will give you only the most useful facts - Drinks Mixer and DrinkStreet

As far as books go, there is nothing dealing exclusively with choosing the right glass for one's drink but again, general cocktail books cover the subject. Here’s a list of recommended reading:

Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 7

The Bartender's Bible

Guide Selecting The Right Glass For The Right Drink 8

The Craft of the Cocktail

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