Picking the right glassware is crucial – it can be the difference between an average drink and a memorable one – but not for the reason you might think. Here, MoM discovers why designing the perfect glass requires a combination of science, psychology and culture….
“Sometimes we can alter the wall thickness of a glass by a millimetre and dramatically change the nosing experience, it can be that fine,” explains Scott Davidson, new product development director at Glencairn Crystal. “If there’s too much straightness in the walls, aromas escape too quickly, but if we make [the glass] bowl-shaped, they build up. You get all the flavours into your nose and onto your tongue while you drink the liquid – so you mix what you’re smelling and what your palate is tasting. That mix is the experience master blenders want you to have.”
You might recognise Glencairn for the company’s tasting glass, an essential bit of kit for whisky geeks (ourselves included) the world over. When the family-owned business first developed the glass at the turn of the century, it set out to create a nosing glass for the casual drinker. Today the team crafts all kinds of bespoke tumblers – for brands like Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie and Woodford Reserve, as well as entire categories, such as Canadian Whisky – and the design cues and aesthetics can vary hugely from project to project.
“Some of them want a tumbler, some of them want a tasting glass,” says Davidson. “They all want a tasting and nosing function coupled with different applications.” The glass Glencairn created for the Canadian whisky industry, for example, had to be large enough to accommodate ice and mixer. Other brands might prefer the glass to be heavy, with almost paper-weight stature, or made with traditional cut crystal, to fulfil existing customer perceptions. Regional preferences aside, there’s a shedload of shape-specific physics to consider.
Trying the same wine from three different shaped glasses often results in three very different experiences, says Chix Chandaria, owner of Brixton-based wine bar and shop The Wine Parlour. “Certain shapes direct wine aromas towards the nose, whilst keeping the harsher ethanol notes contained,” she explains. “The size of the bowl determines how much oxygen can reach the surface area of the wine. The difference in diameter from bowl to rim affects the intensity of aroma. The rim of a glass will affect how much fluid is taken into the mouth and at what angle.”
The latter is particularly interesting – there’s no doubt that the shape of the glass alters the angle at which the liquid inside hits your tongue, but why? “Imagine you have a Martini in your hand – or better yet, make yourself a Martini,” says Chandaria. “Take a sip and take note of how your head moves slightly forwards. You are minimising the risk of spillage from that wide, cut rim, and as such you are sipping, skimming from the surface and pulling the fluid over your tongue front to back in small quantities.”
Now repeat the taste test, but with a red wine glass. Notice any changes? The rim is narrower and rolls inwards, forcing you to tilt your head back slightly, and the liquid enters your mouth in a completely different fashion. “The science of what is happening here is complex and multifaceted – it has to do with temperature, speed, texture, body, ratio of saliva to liquid and the amount of room left in your mouth for air to circulate,” she explains. “It’s about the aromas that are leaving the liquid as it passes from the glass, under your nose and into your mouth, and the less desirable ethanol notes that are left within the glass.”
Harking back to primary school science lessons and the ‘taste map’ of the tongue, this must mean that the Martini tastes sweet – since those taste receptors sit up front – while wine, hitting the back and side of the tongue, tastes bitter and sour? Well, no actually. “The cells are not arranged in block formations with bitter at the back, salt on the sides and sweet at the tip,” explains Chandaria. “In actuality, these cells have a more or less equal distribution over the tongue. Need proof? Stick a flake of sea salt on the very tip of your tongue and feel the misconception dissolve on your palate.”
While the shape, size, rim thickness, and diameter of any glass are responsible for improving and enhancing your imbibing experience, there’s a better reason for using specific glassware, she adds. In fact, there are three: respect, ritual and presentation. “When I pour a glass of wine for a customer often the first thing they will comment on is how lovely the glass is,” says Chandaria. “They see me handle the wine with respect and present it to them as something beautiful and interesting. It sets the tone, increases anticipation and heightens awareness.”
Glass is glass is glass, as Davidson points out. “If you have a similar shaped glass made in all the different materials, there’ll be no difference in the flavour,” he explains. “But a glass that you covet enhances your experience and changes your perception of the taste.” If you decant your favourite dram into a heavy-cut crystal glass, your brain is primed for a more enhanced experience. It’s the same as “taking the time to make an Old Fashioned rather than pouring bourbon over ice, or playing your favourite album on vinyl rather than simply hitting play on Spotify,” adds Chandaria.
FYI, the goal is not to eliminate ethanol vapours entirely. “They carry the aromas up into the glass,” she explains – “the process of creating alcohol creates many of the flavour compounds we are detecting in the first place. A well-made glass should encourage desirable aromas while suppressing undesirable aromas. It is a matter of balance and nuance.”