Friday, 10 May 2013

Glencairn glasses; I can smell things too!

well spotted. One of these is not a Glencairn glass. So?
I’d like to revisit a theme now that last cropped up in my Am I becoming a bit of a snob? post – the question of whisky glasses. I had started to bemoan the fact that whenever you order whisky in a pub, it seems to come in either what are known as ‘rocks’ glasses or even in small straight glasses – like what you’d normally expect to receive with a bottle of J2O.

Whisky though, is renowned for being a very complex spirit that can impart a huge variety of scents and flavours, yet the kinds of glass that most people seem to begin their whisky journeys drinking out of don’t facilitate the experiencing of this complex spirit to the full. Anyone who’s anyone in the world of whisky knows that there exists a glass that supposedly will help you make the most of your whisky tasting experience – the Glencairn glass, which first came into production in 2001, so quite recently.

This blog has up to this point been a journey of discovery for me, so that should explain some of my naïve questions and opinions. I’ve been somewhat sceptical of all those things people report experiencing in their whisky because I just enjoy whisky, and a part of me wanted to continue doing that without having to get all finicky about details like glasses and techniques, and am I tasting what you’re tasting and all that. The other part just felt like a teenager that had discovered a new favourite band and wanted to absorb all their recordings and discover their influences, and just immerse themselves in it.

When I heard about the Glencairn glass (£6.90 on Amazon – why are they not available in like, John Lewis or Debenhams or Ikea?), it didn’t really occur to me that there was any point in getting one, but then, as you might have read in previous weeks, I visited some distilleries in Islay, and not only did all the tastings involve Glencairn glasses, but also they were just throwing them at me, so I came home with five – branded with Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Caol Ila. Honestly, you get more of these in one day on Islay than you get napkins in two visits to a fried chicken joint – here’s your massive box of greasy chicken that you have to eat with your fingers, and here’s one single play napkin the size of a postage stamp.

Can I have some more napkins, please?


I decided it was time to put the glasses the test, and started using them. Now I can give you the results of my experiments.

So how good are they? Well, let’s get some aesthetic and practical considerations out of the way first. They are small, and they aren’t exactly masculine. Nor are they particularly comfortable to drink out of, since my nose gets in the way when I tip one back, which means I also need to tip my head back.

However, they are comfy to hold – they sit nicely between my index finger and thumb, and the base then sits pleasingly on my curled middle finger. You can swirl your spirit vigorously around the glass, and it doesn’t spill out the top as it might in certain other shapes and styles, and the bulb shape makes it easy to pour a suitably sized measure consistently without having to use a measuring cup; should you be concerned about such things, just pour until the liquid reaches the point where the curve begins to turn back on itself. And despite having to tip your head back a bit, the shape facilitates getting just the right quantity smoothly into your mouth for enjoying.

The important considerations though are:

                Is there any improvement in terms of nosing my whisky?
                Does it make the whisky taste any better?

I’m not going to keep you waiting here; the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes. Seriously. They are not making this shit up.

I think there might be a tiny element of the immersion in scotch on the Island of Islay having a positive influence on my enjoyment of whisky overall, but I now feel that these Glencairn glasses really help me to enjoy my whisky to the fullest extent. Let me give you some examples.

Firstly, I’ve never really been able to identify any individual scents or tastes in the whisky I’ve drunk beyond smoky, salty, peppery – to me those are very basic. When it comes to blackberries, chocolate, honey - I don’t know, some people can find anything in there – I was all at sea. Straight away though, I started finding things.

The first whisky I tried on my return home from Islay was my Balvenie 12 year old, double wood (40% ABV), earlier impressions on which you can find here and here. Immediately, on the nose I detected liquorice and vanilla, while on the palate I could taste oak, mint and (later – not on the same occasion) strawberries. I went from being non-plussed about this malt to being im-pressed in just a couple of tastings.

With the last of my Grant and MacPhail bottling of Scapa (43% ABV), I got tobacco on the nose and citrus on the palate. Sadly that was it, there was none left to analyse any further – but that’s still a massive improvement.

Next I moved on to my Woodford Reserve bourbon (43.2% ABV) and found caramel and dark chocolate on the nose, with sweet apple juice on the palate that actually took me right back to a school trip to the Jorvik Centre in York, where part of the tour takes you through a strong smell of apples that is supposed to represent the Vikings’ cultivation of orchards.

The most I’ve experienced in a single glass so far comes from a bottle of 10 year old Bladnoch (46% ABV). It’s a real delicate and mellow scotch that doesn’t give away its above average strength, and on the nose for that one I got something quite weird. It was incredibly familiar, but I couldn’t quite pin down what it was at first. Finally it came to me; ice cream cake, like your friend’s mum used to serve at birthday parties. I know, it sounds silly. Perhaps that’s the vanilla that everyone’s always finding. Then there was tobacco, and later, cheese – though not as strongly as Bruichladdich’sOrganic expression.

The palate was spicy and contained a hint of orange, followed by chocolate truffle.

Finally I was starting to see what everyone was talking about – not because I had to really strain and grasp in order to convince myself that I could detect these things, but because they were just sitting there at the top of my Glencairn glass, and (inexplicably) on my tongue. How the glass could possibly affect the overall flavour, I don’t know – perhaps this is the Islay immersion’s effect – but all I know is that I definitely noticed a difference.

Oddly though the cagiest whisky I’ve tried so far in terms of giving up distinct scents or flavours is my Caol Ila Distillers Edition that I’ve been enjoying immensely. It’s sweet like nectar, but I’m getting nothing familiar from it – excepting the mellow peatiness that causes it to act like God’s own room odouriser, and on my 6th or 7th tasting, a mild suggestion of sizzling bacon.

Previously I simply enjoyed whisky (among other spirits) very much, but the Glencairn glass has opened up a whole new layer of possibilities for me to explore, and that’s pretty exciting, so I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m delighted. However, in some small way, the universal laws of physics are reflected here, in that there have turned out to be drawbacks – perhaps not to the point of an equal and opposite reaction, but just drawbacks.

Firstly, you can forget about enjoying a nice glass of whisky on a night out anymore. You’ll just be throwing your money away, paying over the odds for something that you’re not going to get the full benefit from.

It’s getting a bit silly really. I was thinking about buying a half bottle in the Duty Free at Manchester Airport to take to Vietnam with me, and I started thinking, but they won’t have the right type of glasses in Vietnam… Honestly, what a geek.  Did it anyway.

Secondly, these glasses only seem to work with whisky. I’ve tried my 20 year old Armagnac, my 10 Cane rum ,and my Blanc e Neri grappa and neither of them has benefitted in the slightest, which only goes to reinforce the supposition that whisky is the most complex spirit there is. Previously I loved all kinds of spirits, but now I can’t help feeling that in some way they are all inferior to whisky, and that maybe this matters. And that’s no way to be!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like so much of my whisky tasting up to now has been a waste of time, and that perhaps I need to try so many of them all over again – the Black Grouse, Aldi’s Highland Black, definitely the Highland Park 12 year old. Whether it’s because I think maybe I didn’t like them when I might have, or whether it’s a case of if it was that good, imagine how good it could be… it doesn’t matter; I’ve wasted so much time! And money! And words!

Ah, whaddaya gonna do? Life goes on, so get on with it. Whisky is awesome with or without fancy glasses. If you want to know exactly how awesome it can be though, just get one. Totally worth it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I was a stalwart believer as well until I heard Satan's siren call of apostasy

  3. thanks for visiting, and for pointing out the review, Morlock. As I state in my article, my conclusions are based on personal experiments in which I felt the use of a glencairn glass proved to be beneficial. I'm certainly not going to change my mind based on the review, but I will bear its comments in mind. In fact, I have a bottle of the Talisker 10 at the moment, so when I open that, I'll be sure to try it in a few different glasses. Perhaps the glencairn glass benefits some malts but not others?