The Untold Story of Wine and Spirits Glass Evolution (Part 2 of 3, the Spirits Glass)
Although fermentation of beer and wine dates to China in 7000 BC, distillation was a relatively late arrival, with the first recorded distillations (disputed), by Anaxilaus of Thessaly (expelled from Rome in 28 BC for practicing the “magic” of distillation). The later arrival of distilled spirits, and a genuine, well-founded fear of quick intoxication, separates spirit glass development from that of the wine glass.
Until recently, the basic function of a spirits vessel was to conveniently transport the spirit from its storage container to the mouth. This purpose is well served by nearly any vessel, except that distilled spirits have always been more expensive to produce, and when consumed straight, at full strength, pack an additional knock-out punch bigger and quicker than beer and wine, leading to smaller glass sizes as the preference to waste.
The effect of strong alcohol on the nose was a major issue even in ancient times, evidenced by dilution of 20% ABV (yes, really) wines and distillates to 4-8% with water by the Romans. High alcohol in wine is still cause for concern today, and the strong smell of alcohol is, and has always been a major deterrent to enjoying spirits straight, particularly among ladies, who have significantly more sensitive noses than men.
Definable evolvement of spirits glasses prior to the 17th century appears random and unconnected, and many vessels have geographic origins. The examples listed below have a similar reason for their historic popularity. All are geographic region based exceptions to the convergent rim design (see part I, evolution of the wine glass), and are open mouth vessels widely used to dissipate the strong, nose-burning and numbing aroma of ethanol alcohol away from the nose. The independent origin of vessels from different regions demonstrate an unconnected worldwide aversion to high alcohol concentration right under the nose, in spite of the difficulty in handling and drinking from these types of vessels (wide open rim, divergent sides).
One of the oldest known spirits vessels is the gourd, and pre-Columbian Oaxacan mezcals were drunk from small half-gourds, and similar shaped clay jicaritas, and are still enjoyed that way today by some native Oaxacans.
The French tastevin evolved from the Roman cupel. Created for evaluating wine in the 16th century, its frequently polished inside bowl permits detection of color and contamination in dimly lit cellars and distilleries. The open mouth, however, dissipated some wine aromas too quickly, making it even more ideal for use in the spirits distillery to avoid olfactory fatigue from stronger ethanol.
The Scottish Quaich (pronounced “quake”, first written reference 1673), was the traditional social cup of the Highland clans, wide and shallow, for evaluating malted barley spirits, with double handles, perfect for passing in social ritual without the strong, numbing smell of ethanol. Some were made with glass bottoms so one could drink and still keep an eye on the untrustworthy.
Most drinking and mixing (dilution with water) vessels from the Etruscan, Greek and Roman early civilizations were wide mouthed to let the alcohol off, improving olfactory enjoyment of the wine, and were adopted early on for distilled spirits which were commonly diluted with water.
Distilled spirits have long been mixed as cocktails to reduce the strong, offensive odor and taste of ethanol alcohol as well as to slow intoxicating effects. Mixing with juices is an ancient pre-Roman practice, and signifies the early recognition that man is acutely aware of the difficult-to-handle side effects of drinking straight spirits, from stinging nose burn, to numbing and rapid intoxication.
Europeans have imbibed straight spirits for centuries, and for generations have been quite tolerant of the effect of alcohol on the nose, which set the drinking of spirits more into a men’s club setting, excluding the more sensitive noses of the ladies. During US prohibition, mixing spirits with fruit juices, honey, milk, ginger, and adding ice, hid the poor quality of distilled spirits made by those who were out for a quick, illegal buck. Cocktails became the standard way to enjoy spirits in the US, and were greatly romanticized in post prohibition marketing, making the US the cocktail capital of the world, probably more the result of poorly made spirits than anything else.
With two exceptions, “cocktail” glassware is dismissed from discussion as the result of artistic whim or public fad ranging from the margarita glass to the tall slender hurricane. The exceptions are the martini and coupe (borrowed from champagne), which provide the same distinct advantage of dissipating alcohol aromas away from the nose with low sides and wide liquid surface evaporation areas. They are frequently used for both pure spirits combinations and cocktails, such as the martini, cosmopolitan, and many others (more in the footnotes at the end of the article).
The temperature for drinking straight spirits is crucial. Anything less than room temperature provides an overabundance of ethanol because there is simply not enough thermal energy to increase molecular movement to the point where evaporation of other, more complex molecules can occur in sufficient quantities for reliable detection.
With ice added, fuggedaboudit. Ice dumbs down everything, including all the character aromas of long complex molecular chains. This occurs for two reasons, (1) lower temperature = lower evaporation, and (2) ice dilutes as it melts, raising surface tension, more water = lower evaporation. Ice and fruit juice are the mixologists best friends for pleasing their client, because the mix hides less-than-excellent booze, keeping profit margins up and costs down. Glass shape matters not for most cocktails, and creative and artistic presentation becomes everything.
Spirits glassware exists in its present state-of-the-art for three primary reasons.
First: “If it’s true for wine it’s probably true for spirits.” Although no one has specifically given credence to this axiom until just now, the inference has always been there. The closest relative to the spirits industry is a more mature wine industry, and in the absence of knowledge to the contrary, discoveries and educational advances in the wine industry are usually tested quickly in the spirits industry. After all, both are alcoholic beverages. Most readers can see from part 1 of this article that convergent rim glassware was adopted from the wine industry.
This close correlation is further validated by recent emphasis (since the ‘60s) on appearance, color, nose, aroma, “finish”, and mouth feel, and again by adoption of the 100 point rating system, comparative public tastings, pairing dinners, media television programs and spirits oriented publications, with spirits always following close on the heels and in the footsteps of the wine industry.
Spirits’ characteristics and production methods were never discussed in-depth with the consumer until the wine industry crossed the line and made it “ok” to turn production information, previously held as “trade secrets”, or “internal information”, into marketing to build loyal customers by providing them with an education. Now, every spirit producer is eager to tell you the barrel type, time in oak, mash bill, nosing notes, taste and finish notes, still type and material, and much more, in order to endear themselves with attention to detail and product differentiation.
Second: Old habits become traditions and are hard to break. The most popular spirits glass design has been in use for well over 200 years. European competition for trade beginning in the 17th century, led the Dutch and English to dominate the international alcohol beverage industry as they discovered sherry, ports, rum, cognac, liqueurs, and the wines of Bordeaux. Spirits and wines were readily available in outlying countries, and prevented freight dead-heading, or empty ships returning to their ports of origin.
By the 1800s, learning from Oporto, the Spanish Jerezanos were adding brandy to satisfy the worldwide demand for sweet, high alcohol wines, and the copita (little cup) became their standard glass. Its size adequately handles 17-24% ABV of fortified wines in an amount suitable for a dessert wine. The English market and taste for sherry is legendary, and the English love drinking from the traditional copita, adopting it as their own, and helping to spread its use around the world.
As Scotch whisky distillers began the intense search for aging barrels, they discovered the treasure trove of used sherry barrels from English import houses who rebottled. Sherry barrels can impart very desirable, characteristics to whisky. Along with sherry barrels, the copita was quickly adopted as the standard tasting and blending glass for the Scotch whisky blenders.
The 1977 ISO standard wine glass is nearly an exact iteration of the earlier introduced copita, only slightly larger, and for all practical purposes the blenders and distillers, perhaps unknowingly, have adopted the ISO wine glass as their own, even though it is a century older than the standard itself. The ISO glass and ISO 3591:1977 standard have absolutely nothing to do with spirits. Ever.
Third: Renewed interest in improving the spirits drinking experience. In the last 50 years or so, perhaps beginning with the serious marketing of Scotch in the United States in the ‘60s, and perhaps spurred on by the revolution in wine tasting, distillers, brand ambassadors, and spirits educators have sought to improve the drinking experience by addressing uncomfortable alcohol on the nose when drinking from the standard copita style glass.
A few of these methods are (1) open mouth while inhaling to lessen nose burn, (2) add water to shut down evaporation of alcohol, often misunderstood as “opening up”, (3) waft aromas toward the nose before sampling for acclimation, (4) gradually approach the spirit as it is moved closer and closer to the nose for acclimation to high alcohol (5) the C-stem method of Adam Carmer, educator at UNLV.
These devices are all attempts to improve the experience with the “tried and true” copita, chimney, or Glencairn style glasses, all characterized by high aspect ratio (height to bowl diameter), with a tall, convergent rim, and small liquid surface area. These glasses and their derivatives have been used for centuries to enjoy 17-24% ABV fortified wines.
The average spirits aficionado is either unaware, or ignores the fact that most of the large, established alcohol distillers and blenders have long known the effects of high alcohol, and most blend their spirits water-diluted to as low as 20% ABV (most craft distillers have not yet adopted this nose-saving blending method).
Although most spirits are bottled for consumption at 40% ABV or higher cask strength, the conscientious blender cannot possibly last half an hour without severe olfactory fatigue, defeating his purpose and cutting his work day short. Diluting with water raises the surface tension of the liquid, shutting down the immense evaporation of aromas, stopping the “flood” of nose-burning, numbing ethanol molecules and delaying olfactory fatigue.
Along comes the noted Glencairn glass, brainchild of Raymond Davidson, first produced in 2001, and derived from traditional nosing copitas used in the whisky blending rooms around Scotland. The result of a collaboration of several Scotch master blenders, it is adapted to blenders’ needs at their preferred, diluted strengths.
This glass has quickly become a standard for drinking straight scotch and other whiskey. The vast majority of spirits drinkers believe that straight spirits should be consumed from the bottle at 40% or higher ABV. However, when drinking undiluted spirits from this style of glassware, it is extremely difficult to detect and discern characteristic aromas through the over-abundance of nose-numbing alcohol without years of trained nosing practice and systematic dilution with water, as in its ancestor the copita.
In essence, consumers themselves have sabotaged their own quest for maximum enjoyment as they adopt the glass simply to use what the professionals use, without regard as to its true utility as a blenders’ tool at diluted strengths. Consumers will not likely change their preferences for full strength spirits to drinking 20% ABV spirits any time soon.
Derivation of another key glass popular with spirits drinkers, the snifter, is said to have evolved from the goblet, which evolved from the early Greek krater, and which appears first in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Roman statesman in 50 AD. The snifter is said to be represented in Da Vinci’s Last Supper, although doubts persist. The name snifter comes from Middle English: snyfter, originating around 1850.
Significantly, the development of the large bowl volume brandy snifter is the only design in spirits glassware which can be attributed to the purpose of capturing ethanol to promote intoxication, further enhanced by heating the vessel prior to drinking. Although the volume of air over the liquid surface is huge when compared to a copita, evaporation is encouraged, and the narrow rim opening collects all aromas including an abundance of alcohol right at the nose.
Among the cognac and brandy drinkers, there are a few “huffers” who practice heating the spirit in the snifter as a rapid way to intoxication. Heating rapidly promotes evaporation, driving off the alcohol, for quick assimilation into the blood stream through the lungs, rather than having to wait for the digestive tract to get it into the bloodstream (20% of alcohol is absorbed in the stomach, the remaining in the small intestine, where small blood vessels carry it into the bloodstream). Heating brandy destroys its balance, drives many unpleasant aromas to the nose, and offers the opportunity to fry one’s lip to the glass rim if overdone. Simply not a sound practice.
Until recently there have been two schools of spirits glassware, the snifter school and the copita school. Each have their avid proponents, and they also have one thing in common. Both present high concentrations of alcohol right at the nose, requiring extreme care in nosing to avoid numbing, nose-burn, and olfactory fatigue, which ultimately work against that elusive enjoyment factor for which we continually search. The differences between the two, is that the alcohol of the snifter is inseparably mixed with the aromas, and the alcohol of the copita can be reduced with adding water and training in the methods previously described (inhaling with mouth open, wafting, C-stem, etc).
As a result, it takes a trained expert, who has learned how to detect and separate aromas from the smell of nose-numbing ethanol. Time to take back the power with glassware designed to accommodate the way the consumer prefers to drink, straight up, no ice, no water, no mixer. In part 3, Applying Science to Spirits Glass Design, we will discuss the future of a spirits glass specifically designed for those who love their spirits straight.
Footnotes on “neglected” cocktail glassware:
Martini glass: A previous, smaller version with similar, straight-but-highly-angled sides was known early on as the cocktail glass. In the early 1900s it was raised higher on the stem for handling the frosty cold glass bowl, precluding hand warming; and the rim was widened to spread the botanical aromas of the gin (martini prime ingredient, not vodka). Forget the myth that it had a wide mouth to aid in spilling when the Feds hit the door during prohibition. Fully recognized as a Martini in its own glass by 1922, the ingredients were gin and, most commonly, Martini vermouth.
Coupe glass: Sorry to burst bubbles (pun intended), but the coupe was NOT designed in the shape of the breasts of any of the following women; Marie Antoinette, Madame du Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Empress Josephine, Diane de Poitier, nor Helen of Troy, or any other name which may come to mind as a figure of loveliness. With all due respect to the Francophiles, the coupe was invented in England in 1663, specifically for champagne. To burst another bubble, the first recorded sparkling wine from champagne was Blanquet de Limoux, invented by the Benedictine Monks of Saint-Hilaire in 1531. English scientist Christopher Merret described the methode de champenoise in 1662 to the Royal Society, six years prior to Dom Perignon’s arrival at Abbey of Hautvillers. Facts trump myth any day.