Back in March, Founding Member Shane Helmick held an interesting Whisky Tasting as part of his group called Congress of the Biannual Scotch Club. Shane’s a good friend and supporter who has come to almost all of our local tastings, though it takes him about an hour to commute down from his neck of the Connecticut woods. On this occasion I determined to reciprocate and I am glad I did. Actually this is the second Shane Shindig I’ve attended and he always breaks out some fine hospitality. I’ll definitely be back for more (if he’ll have me!).
Shane themed this tasting around the questions of whether and how the shape of the delivery vessel impacts the nose and palate experience of a dram. In short: How does the shape of the glass affect the whisky experience? He started with three solid whiskies that represented a wide variety of the whisk(e)y realm, for comparison sake. There was a good blend (Compass Box Great King Street Blend), a bourbon (Rowan’s Creek) and a big peat (Laphroaig Quarter Cask). Then he created a notes sheet that broke the glass shapes down by category. There were the Tumblers (essentially rocks-glass-styled cups), the Wine Glasses (a typical narrow White and a typical bulbed Red), the Snifters (think Brandy glasses with squat stems), the Copitas (the small was represented by the typical tasting glass with a 2-inch stem topped by a white wine-styled vessel, while the medium and large took the form of tall-tapered red wine goblets without stems), the Glencairns (small, typical and Canadian), and finally the Flared set (with a small, short-stemmed Riedel with vertical, test-tube walls giving way to a slight flare at the top, a spittoon-looking squat thing and an “even flare” which looked very similar to the Canadian Glencairn, but with less sway to its hips and less flare to its lips, so to speak). While “Glencairn” is a name brand, it is most commonly associated with the tulip-shaped glass that bulbs out at the bottom, tapers on the rise, and flares almost imperceptibly at the rim as the taper gives way to a straight vertical rise. In this case, the small glass in the Glencairn category was actually our very own 10cl Single Cask Nation nosing glass!
So, before I get into the tasting itself, a word about Shane tastings generally: Shane is an excellent amateur chef who designs websites for a living (yes, feel free to contact him through the private SCN fb page if you need a website designed – if his web design is half as good as his cooking, you’ll be in good hands!). I happen to be a foodie, so the incredible pairings Shane prepares for the tastings is almost as much a draw as the whisk(e)y. Everybody brings a dish to contribute. Mine was the old standard that never fails me: A wheel of brie covered with sliced almonds, topped with butter pats and heated at 375 degrees until the almonds toast and the brie walls start to bulge, served with fine crackers and fig spread (Gratuitous free appetizer recipe for those who were paying attention! Wait, for those who were really, REALLY paying attention, “gratuitous” and “free” mean the same thing, don’t they? I meant “Unsolicited free appetizer recipe,” in that case.). And my appetizer was the slouch in the group, so we were treated to an evening of Epicureans’ Delight, while dressed unpretentiously (casually, for those of you who are actually unpretentious) and drinking whisk(e)y. What could be better than that?!
Now back to our program, already in progress…
We started with the blended Scotch whisky, pouring about a ½-oz pour into each vessel. We passed around each glass and took careful notes on the aromatic differences experienced from one glass to the next. Then the blended whisky was funneled back into the bottle, the glasses rinsed well, and the bourbon poured into each glass for nosing. Then that went back into the bottle and we rinsed and poured the Laphroaig Quarter Cask for nosing. We rated the glasses on nosing characteristics alone, before repeating the process for tasting. Yes, this post did promise to relate the details of a TASTING event, after all; and not just a Whisky Smelling.
It was immediately apparent from the nosing session that the vessel does indeed play a potentially huge role in the dram one experiences. Since olfaction accounts for most of taste, I must have great taste because I have a huge nose. I mean, since olfaction accounts for most of taste, it seemed to follow that the palate of each whisk(e)y would be influenced, as well, by the shape of the vessel from whence it was consumed. This finding did, in fact, bear out when we got around to the tasting portion of the event.
Here’s the breakdown of what most people experienced. Note that there was a degree of respectful dissension among participants, as many folks experience the nose and palate of a whisk(e)y slightly differently, but this post will endeavor to report the consensus findings.: Most folks found the rich, sweet bourbon to do well in the tumblers but that the bourbon really shined, believe it or not, in the brandy snifters. As for the blended and peated Scotch whiskies, there was great consensus that the Glencairn range of glasses produced the best experience, by far. The undisputed winner of the night for Scotch whisky was the Glencairn glass itself, with it’s smaller cousin, the Single Cask Nation 10cl glass coming in a close second. Interestingly, the SCN glass also held court with the bourbon, whereas the Glencairn did not fare quite as well.
From my notes on the bourbon findings, I will share that the glasses with narrow, untapered vertical walls tended to allow the heavier, mineralistic characters to rise. This created a mineral and limestone nose and palate, as one would expect from the high limestone mineral qualities of the Kentucky water used to produce bourbons. Meanwhile, the more bulbous shape of the snifters seemed to trap the heaver elements closer to the sauce, allowing more of the sweet tones to bubble upward. For those who enjoy bourbon specifically for its sweet character, as I do, the snifter kept the mineral and limestone qualities evident in the palate, while producing more brown sugar and molasses on the nose. This balanced the dram experience beautifully, making the snifter just a divine vessel for delivering a fine bourbon.
So why did the tumbler also deliver the bourbon fairly well, when its shape differs so greatly from the snifter? Well, the tumblers all had wide walls and wide mouths. Even though the mineralisic and limestone qualities were permitted by this design to float upward along with the sugars, in my opinion, those qualities maintained their mix on the way up so the vapors maintained a pleasant balance as they tickled the nose. I arrived at that hypothesis after noting another interesting observation: especially with the bourbon, the closer the nose was to the sauce, the more balanced the concoction smelled. So if the fumes escaping the vessel are allowed to escape in the same ratio, such as from a wide vessel with an open rim, the balance remains more-or-less intact. Yet there is another reason that I reckon the bourbon producers have settled on giving away tumblers in their holiday packs with their bourbons. I think that many casual American consumers who do not favor straight up whiskies will nevertheless take an occasional bourbon on the rocks, owing perhaps to its sweet, inoffensive palate. By its open shape, the tumbler is the most natural vessel in which to deliver whiskey over rocks, and it certainly does nothing to diminish the sweet/mineral balance of the spirit. And, of course, it is the only glass shape that will respectably allow a splash of Coke or other mixers for the trepidacious beginners! Therefore, the rocks tumbler has grown to become the best glass for distilleries to give away when trying to attract folks to their purty holiday-packs in well-stocked liquor stores frequented by the masses.
As for the Scotch whisky vessels, Glencairn claims the following on its official box: “In the long and illustrious history of whisky, there has never been a single definitive glass that the whisky world could call its own. Now, following in the tradition of Scottish innovation, the Glencairn Glass has arrived. Combining the knowledge and expertise of some of the whisky world’s leading innovators, the Glencairn Glass’s roots lie in the traditional nosing and tasting glasses used by master blenders and connoisseurs around the world. The unique and stylish shape has been crafted with eminent care to enhance the enjoyment of single malts and aged blends. The tapering mouth allows an ease of drinking not associated with traditional nosing glasses, while capturing that all-important bouquet. The wide bowl allows the fullest appreciation of the whisky’s colour and the solid base is designed to be easy on the hand. The time and effort put into all this development was rewarded in 2006 when the Glencairn Glass won The Queen’s Award for Innovation.”
We agree, with slight exception: While the solid base may be “easy on the hand,” it also insulates the spirit from the warmth of the palm. In selecting the SCN Member Glass, we honored the tulip-shaped bowl-and-taper of the Glencairn Glass, but we eschewed the base. In our opinion, the warming of a dram in the palm of the hand can often catalyze reactions in the malt that brings a dram along to its optimal character. Thus, our SCN Member Glass does without the base. But fear not! Joshua and I met up with the Glencairn Crystal Studio rep, Andrew Davidson, while at the World Whiskies Conference in NYC earlier this month. I would not be surprised to find SCN Glencairn Glasses in our SCN Store soon. So, if you prefer the base, be on the lookout for branded Glencairns to show off your affinity for Single Cask Nation while impressing your friends with our incredible expressions of single cask whisky!
After we consumed and compared the selected whiskies in the range of glasses, I sprang a surprise on the attendees. I brought along a couple bottles of SCN whisky and cracked them for sampling. As always, folks were blown away. In all, it was another great whisky night for the ages.
This post needs to end at some point, so I leave you with these thoughts: Brother Shane throws an excellent, creative, educational and delicious whisky tasting and I will return whenever I can to events of his Congress of the Biannual Scotch Club. Cheers, mate! But we can all throw together a fun whisky night for friends. It is easy and it allows us to spread the good word and convert more folks into whisky drinkers. Knowledgeable ones. Future members of the Nation.