Glassware 101: Choose the Best Glassware to Enjoy your Bourbon

If you are new to the world of whiskey, you may be wondering what the best whiskey for you to try is. Let’s be honest. If you’re an experienced whiskey drinker, you’re still probably searching out that perfect pour.

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If you are new to the world of whiskey, you may be wondering what the best whiskey for you to try is. Let’s be honest. If you’re an experienced whiskey drinker, you’re still probably searching out that perfect pour. There’s plenty of choices out there just in the field of Bourbon. And, as if that isn’t confusing enough, there’s the matter of choosing the right glassware.

Wait… what? Glassware? Why can’t I just use any old glass to enjoy my Bourbon?

You could, in all actuality, just grab a glass from your cupboard and pour yourself a drink. There are unlimited options for enjoying your Bourbon. You could select an Old Fashioned glass (also called a rocks glass), shot glass, wine glass, brandy snifter, Highball (also known as a water glass), Glencairn nosing glass, Canadian whiskey glass, NEAT glass or a variety of other glassware. Some are designed specifically for whiskey. Some look “cool” to drink from because a character drank from it in a movie.

The real question, however, is, does the glass matter? The answer is a definite, “Yes.” Your choice in glassware is going to determine what experience you want.

For the sake of brevity, today’s discussion will be limited to five types of glassware: Shot, Rocks, Wine, Glencairn and NEAT. I invite you to partake in a little experiment with me and pour a dram into each type of glass. You’ll quickly understand the nuances of each one.

Before you get too far ahead of yourself, consider that with ten or so ounces, that’s a great way to get drunk. By the time you get to the third or fourth, you’re not going to discover any differences. I recommend single pour into one glass, and then transfer the contents into the next. I go through the cycling of glasses twice: Once for nosing and the second for tasting. As you taste, you may need to top off to maintain the integrity of the experiment.

In case you’re wondering, it really doesn’t matter what Bourbon you use. Pick a favorite bottom-shelf dweller or a high-end allocated whiskey. The results will be similar no matter what you pour. I’ve done similar experiments with American Rye and Scotch. For complete transparency, I’m using perhaps the most commonly-found Bourbon out there: Evan Williams Black Label (86-proof). I’m also measuring out a two-ounce pour.

Let’s get on with the experiment.

The initial pour goes into a shot glass. No matter how many ways I try, the nose is very weak, because there’s nothing to direct the alcohol vapors. I could best describe this as boring.

My sip is also on the bland side. The entire mouth experience is the finish. There’s just nothing up front because, again, there’s no real aroma, just alcohol vapor. The olfactory experience has a direct effect on the tasting experience, and with a shot glass, you are missing that vital sense.

Time to transfer the contents. When I stick my nose in the glass and inhale, what do I get? A face full of fumes. It won’t, especially to those new to Bourbon, be inviting, and can, for some people, be a turn-off. Due to those fumes, it is difficult to sort out what flavors you might otherwise pick up.

As I can get more than just my lips to the rocks glass, my nose helps my mouth taste the whiskey, and there is definitely more depth than from the shot glass. The flavors are present but heavily muted.

Next, the Bourbon gets poured into the wine glass. You can’t swish Bourbon in a shot glass, and it is cumbersome in a rocks glass. But, you can easily accomplish this in a wine glass. Go for it. Get some air mixed into the Bourbon. If you’re like me, you’ll notice a huge change. The nose from the wine glass is much softer. I am able to pick up subtleties that weren’t evident in either of the previous glasses. The reason for this is the glass is curved to direct aromas to the nose.

Just as the nose is softer, so is the up-front on the palate. The shape of the glass helps offer a chance for the Bourbon to build on the tongue, which gives an opportunity to taste the different essences.

After the Bourbon is switched to the Glencairn glass, I’ll swish it around again, then bring it up to my nose and breathe in. The tulip shape of the glass enhances how the fragrance hits, and is much easier to pick up different smells than from the wine glass.

The shape of the glass, which directs the aroma at my nostrils as the liquid hits my tongue, brings out obvious flavors missed in the previous glasses. On a side note, the glass fits easily in my hand and has some weight, making it both easy to handle and swish air into the Bourbon.

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The last exchange of liquid sunshine is to the NEAT glass. Most obvious is the very unique appearance of it, being both short and squat. When I sniff, the bouquet just explodes. It leaves one wondering if this is even the same whiskey that was in the rocks glass a few moments ago.

I might assume the NEAT glass is going to give me the best mouthing experience and, surprisingly, I’d be wrong. Aside from being difficult to drink from, there is a lot lost in translation by the time it hits my palate. I find the Bourbon rather flat and lacking any complexity. As taste depends so heavily on the nose, this failure is a curiosity, just like the glass. My only guess is that the lip of the NEAT glass is so large and distant from the bowl, by the time the whiskey hits your mouth, that any nosing benefit is lost.

So, what’s the right glass?

  • If you want to slug something back and feel the burn, then the shot glass is for you.
  • If you are mixing a cocktail, or perhaps adding some rocks and letting your drink sit, your pick is the rocks glass.
  • If having a conversation piece and being different is the bigger part of your experience, grab that NEAT glass.
  • If you really want to enjoy your Bourbon as the Master Distiller intended, the Glencairn glass is one of the best vehicles available.
  • Finally, if you’re in a pinch and want to experience some of the subtleties of your Bourbon, a wine glass will do.

In the end, drink from what makes you happy. Your results may differ from my own. However, as you experiment with glassware, you’ll learn how much of a difference the glass affects the Bourbon you drink. As for me, while I’m sold on the Glencairn glass, I am always on the lookout for new glassware to make the best drinking experience possible.