Choosing a Spirits Nosing Glass

Glass Comparison Pic.

(Part 2 of 3 Arsilica, IncEducational Series)

Basic Glass Design:  For thousands of years, glass design was for appearance, not function.  Almost all glasses are convergent rim design, based on the mistaken concept that all aromas should be collected at the nose so nothing escapes.  Unfortunately alcohol also collects at the nose to “singe” the nose hairs and deaden your sense of smell.  Is your favorite glass one of the common glasses depicted in the picture above?

From left to right, they are:  copita, rocks, snifter, Glencairn, Riedel SMW, and NEAT glass. You can make the right choice by understanding the benefits and limitations of each.

The copita or sherry, is the oldest glass used today, and has a stem for unobstructed vision of the contents. Swirling doesn’t work well, but add a few drops of water to reduce nose burn. Hand warm by placing the stem between middle fingers, cupping bowl in hand.  It’s easy to use, but be careful of the nose burn common with convergent rim glassware. Spread the liquid around on the palate for the widest taste array.  Stem allows better visual evaluation for color and clarity, and can prevent overwarming.

The rocks glass or “old-fashioned” has straight, vertical sides. Users depend on larger versions to allow air to mix with vapors for less nose burn. Swirling is preferred, large area promotes evaporation. Add a little water and breathe through nose and mouth to help diminish alcohol burn. Although some hand warming is desirable, overwarming from hand heat could be a problem. If you must add water, do it sparingly to avoid shutting down evaporation.

The snifter is convergent rim, but many have large bowls which allow air to mix with vapors to dilute alcohol and decrease nose burn. Swirl to promote evaporation. The stem version is best to control hand heat. Adding water shuts down evaporation quickly.  Stemless versions are hard to hold, and easy to over warm with hand heat. Larger versions have greater ethanol dilution. You have to enjoy the alcohol odor to use a snifter.  Some nosers do not like to separate alcohol from the other aromas because of the unfamiliar smell.  They will just have to guess what’s hiding in their glass.

The Glencairn, inspired by the convergent rim copita, has a vertical chimney and large globular foot in place of a stem. Nosing methods are similar to the shorter copitas (which gives more aroma diversity). It has the smallest rim opening of all, forcing direct nosing of concentrated alcohol vapor, and pours a very thin stream onto the center of the tongue. The sizable foot is clumsy to hold, and prevents efficient hand warming by absorbing most of the hand heat, resulting in longer warming times and less control. Held by the foot, thumb and finger skin color refraction changes the spirit color.  Although the Glencairn was designed in 2003, the Queen’s Seal and its unique appearance drive its popularity.

The Riedel SMW, (single malt whiskey) has vertical sides and a slight rim flare. Nosing methods are similar to the rocks glass. Breathe through both nose and mouth to lessen nose burn. Surface area for swirling is small, compared to copita and Glencairn, and the short stem makes SMW more difficult to hold. It noses better than convergent rim copita and Glencairn. Delivers a wide stream of liquid to the palate, but it’s too tall to pick up subtler aromas. Holding by the short stem places thumb and finger on the bowl refracting skin color into the beverage.

NEAT has the lowest profile, placing the nose down close to pick up subtle aromas and concentrates all vapors into a small opening before flaring to let volatile, fast moving alcohol escape. The rim places the nose over the “sweet spot” to smell aromas alcohol-free.  Cradle in the palm for quick warming, or hold the neck between thumb and forefinger to cool.  Alternate to achieve the best evaluation temperature.  No need to breathe through the mouth because the alcohol is gone from the nosing sample.  Flared rim pours a wide sheet waterfall across palate for a uniform sensation of all tastes. The unique bowl shape aids in swirling, and catches and refracts light for a spectacular visual experience.  Swirl, place your lip on the rim, hold level, sniff slowly but deeply through the nose, and enjoy. The extreme curvature of the NEAT bowl necessitates a higher head tilt to get the last drop, but the intense aromas are definitely worth the extra effort.

As with the other glasses with awkward feet, or stems that are too short, color evaluation in NEAT will be affected while holding the bowl in the palm. Stemless NEAT’s ability to be held by the neck overcomes the drawback of skin color refraction when evaluating a spirits color. Rim flare prevents NEAT from falling through your fingers.

What is Flavor? There are only six different tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umame, and kokumi), and over a thousand smells detectable by the human nose. Melded by the brain, they are inseparable, and therefore smell and taste together define flavor. Smell is 95% of taste. We do not taste raspberry, we taste “sweet” and smell raspberry. Evaporation releases the different aromas we smell, and combined with taste, they form the flavors we evaluate.

Practice Good Nosing Technique and Choose Glassware Carefully

Proper spirits nosing/tasting depends on the following basic principles. Master them and become an expert.

Choose a Glass that Promotes Evaporation:  Large liquid surface area, large side areas and a very short distance to the nose from the liquid surface.  Tall glasses hinder evaporation of heavier components.

Swirl to Enhance Evaporation:  Evaporation is the only way the aromas can get to your nose.  Swirl, swirl, swirl to power aromas out of the glass.

Separate and Dissipate Alcohol: Convergent rim collects alcohol at the nose.  Alcohol numbs the senses, obscures, and masks other aromas.  Vertical glasses do nothing to dissipate alcohol.  Snifters dilute but do not dissipate.

Position the Nose to Avoid Alcohol Aromas: Not at the opening! That’s where the ethanol is! Place your nose above the rim outside the collected alcohol vapors and search for the aromas.

Use Hand Heat to Adjust Temperature: Temperature controls evaporation, and a little hand heat will bring a surprise to your nose.  Too much heat produces things you never wanted to smell.  Experimentation will find temperature for best enjoyment.


Your nose plays an important, major role in spirits evaluation and enjoyment, and using glassware properly will yield the best drinking experience.  If you are serious about getting the most from your investment in good spirits, don’t be short-changed by existing glassware.  Try NEAT, side-by-side with your current favorite glass.  Truth and science always win.


George F Manska CSO, Arsilica, Inc

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