The holiday season is so close you can almost taste it. Soon you'll be relaxing with a few drinks surrounded by loved ones and friends, perhaps accompanied by "the light music of whisky falling into glasses", as James Joyce put it.
When it's time to sip your favourite tipple, which type of glass should you use?
Arguments about glassware are about as hopeless as whisky stones. The sturdy tumbler is regularly bemoaned by industry professionals, who prefer snifters and copitas. On the other hand, the tumbler is almost exclusively the glass of choice of advertisers and emotionally fragile film and TV characters.
Now a new contender has now entered the fold. The Denver & Liely Whisky Glass, recently released by Melbourne-based designers Denver Cramer and Liely Faulkner, is reheating the debate by offering a compromise.
"We designed the D&L Whisky Glass because there was an obvious gap in the market," Cramer told me. "For a majority of whisky drinkers the humble tumbler is considered to be the popular vessel of choice, while the 'whisky snifter' has been relegated to the world of true whisky tasters. But we think our design brings the best of these two worlds together."
Many a Scotsman has told me that the best glass to drink whisky out of is the one that doesn't leak. Fair play. In the interests of being a little more prescriptive, I decided to seek out some whisky experts to analyse five prominent glass types in a tasting, including the new D&L model, to find out if design makes any difference when appreciating a dram and, if so, which glass does it better than the rest.
The panel decided to assess the glasses against a few basic principles: comfort, price and durability; how it performed when nosing and drinking; style and presentation; and versatility (whether the glass could be used for multiple purposes).
To keep things nice and scientific we tried the same whisky out of each glass. We settled on three unique expressions: a rare single cask Rosebank from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the Michter's Small Batch Bourbon, and a limited release Benromach 10 Year Old 100 Proof.
The tasting professionals included Ian McKinlay, managing director of Alba Whisky and importer of the 'Glencairn' glass; Nick Rose, development manager for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society; and Brooke Hayman and Julian White, owners of Melbourne bar Whisky & Alement where prototypes of the D&L glass have been regularly road-tested.
We analysed five glasses in total: a trusty tumbler from German manufacturer Stolzle Weinland; the scientifically tested NEAT Glass from the US; a basic stemmed copita tasting glass; a Glencairn Glass; and the Denver & Liely Whisky Glass.
It's hard to go past the D&L glass, the Glencairn and the tumbler for comfort and durability. While the D&L glasses are more expensive, all three are ideal for those who don't want to constantly replace fragile and expensive glassware.
But on the nose, the glasses vary dramatically. "With a wider-rimmed glass like the tumbler," Julian White explains, "you seem to pick up more of the alcohols and volatiles. It's much easier to identify fruity and floral notes out of the narrow-rimmed glasses like the copita, the Glencairn and the D&L."
Nick Rose also thinks the NEAT Glass is superior for nosing. "The NEAT Glass gives off so much aroma without any alcohol. There's no volatility. For people who don't like the smell of alcohol, it's perfect," he says.
Style certainly matters. The D&L and Glencairn glasses definitely took out the style award, with our panel expressing some blunt views on the NEAT Glass. "The NEAT Glass is definitely weird, it sort of looks like an ashtray," Rose offers. McKinlay is equally confused: "It looks like something you'd grow a plant out of."
The diameter of the rim of the glass is crucial. "Delivery of aroma and flavour onto the palate works much better with glasses that have a narrower rim," says McKinlay. The more concise the rim, the more directly the whisky is channelled to the front of the palate, allowing you to then work it around at your leisure. As a result, the Glencairn, the copita and the D&L are highly commended.
When tasting, the NEAT Glass again comes in for some flak. "It brings out amazing aromas, but it's horrible to drink from," Hayman says. Adds Rose: "It's like drinking out of a fish bowl."
On the rocks
Out came the ice. Not the preference of many purists, but it's certainly one of the most popular ways to drink whisky, particularly in the warmer months. The ice immediately closes down much of the aroma and flavour, but here the tumbler and the D&L glass come to the fore.
"If I was going to put ice in my whisky, I'd choose the D&L glass. It's an attractive shape, and it would work well for cocktails and other mixers," McKinlay says.
Hayman agrees. "As a gift, the D&L glass would work really well because it's multi-purpose and that's often what people are looking for."
The glasses used in this tasting all have their own advantages. The NEAT Glass is ideal for the serious analysis of a spirit – the highly respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition swears by it – but we found it impractical and unworkable for nearly everything else. The Glencairn and the copita, both beloved by the aficionado, are fantastic all-rounders and tick most boxes.
The tumbler will continue to be popular because some of us still get suspicious of dainty, stemmed glassware. If that's you, but you still want to discover the flavours and intricacies of the most complex spirit in the world, then the D&L Whisky Glass might be a good investment.
I finished the tasting by asking the panel which glass is the best. Julian White sums it up thus: "The right glass is the one with the best whisky in it." Flawless logic.
What's your glass of choice for sipping spirits?