How The Glencairn Became The Official Whiskey Glass

Oct 13, 2020

Category: Vices

Despite its relatively short history, the Glencairn glass has quickly emerged as the definitive favorite among whiskey tasting experts — to such an extent that it has even been heralded as the “official whiskey glass.” But the reality is that, in the past, there have been other glasses of great importance within the world of whiskey. And yet, despite their popularity, they never gained significant favor amongst experts, nor were they considered fit for the right to wear the whiskey glass crown.

Sure, everyone imagines the tumbler to be whiskey’s glass. However, this is largely a product of Hollywood popularizing an already commonplace drinking vessel. Because although the tumbler is great for a casual cocktail, in no way is it suited to the demands of in-depth whiskey appreciation. In other words, it makes for a fine choice at parties and bars, but you won’t find a tumbler at any tasting event.

Still, the Glencairn is far from the first glass designed to enhance one’s whiskey drinking experience. In fact, there had been several others created with the same intent in mind prior to the Glencairn’s debut. But in spite of their purpose-built designs, they never gained the favor of whiskey tasters. So how did the Glencairn glass become the official whiskey glass you ask? Kick back, pour yourself a glass, and read on.

Some Mixed Ancestry

The Quaich

One of mankind’s earliest examples of whiskey glassware, the quaich (pronounced like quake) has roots in the Gaelic word cuach. Some claim that its shallow bowl shape was inspired by the scalloped shells used for centuries by Scottish Highlanders. Others believe its history to be still older, with origins in ancient Druid ceremony. In any case, these simple cups were originally made from wood and intended purely for function. Used for both eating and drinking, they proved quite the versatile vessel.

Over time, however, quaichs became increasingly symbolic items. They were proffered to guests upon their arrival and upon their departure as a token of friendship and also among chieftains as a gesture of good faith. After all, the quaich’s lugs (handles) necessitated a good deal of trust among drinkers. For one man to pass the quaich to another, it required that he and the opposite party use both hands. To put it another way — while holding the cup, each drinker would be unable to draw any weapons, completely vulnerable to his fellow participant’s whim. Thus, having successfully shared a drink with his companion, a man could be counted on for his word, and the toast would be completed. Eventually, the quaich’s symbolism grew such that it was adopted as the cup of choice at ceremonial settings. And with its elevated status came a use exclusive to drams of whiskey.

Such applications demanded drinkware fit for the occasion. As a result, the quaich evolved into something not only more opulent but also more expensive than its humble wooden forebearer. When made from decorative materials — including glass, silver, and even gold — the quaich took on a role in everything from christenings to weddings to awards presentations. Its lugs also experienced a number of changes, becoming slimmer and more refined according to the tastes of the Scottish aristocracy. As with most symbolic items, the quaich’s meaning soon surpassed its utility. For though you can still find these Scottish cups in use today (for example, the Centenary Quaich, contested for during Six Nations Rugby), you won’t find them in any pub. So while the quaich was a fitting first attempt at an official whiskey glass, too much pomp derailed it from its purpose as an everyman’s vessel.

An Early Emerging Favorite

The Tumbler

First appearing on the scene during the 17th century, the tumbler got its name from its rounded glass bottom. At first glance, you might think a spherical cup to be a precarious choice for glassware, but — in that respect — you’d be mistaken. Heavily weighted in order to provide for increased stability, the most the tumbler could do was to bob back and forth. So, despite its round base, there was no real risk of it tipping and upending its contents. On the contrary, compared to a flat-bottomed glass that could spill if it were to be knocked over, the tumbler’s design actually prevented it from resting on its side. While you might lose some of your whiskey due to a clumsy errant knock, your drink would stand a far better chance than it would in any old cup. As such, the tumbler made for quite the safety precaution in bars and other crowded environments where things are apt to go awry.

Falling glass prices coupled with improved mass-production methods meant that the tumbler became an affordable option accessible to most. As whiskey enthusiasts searched for a more viable vessel, they increasingly favored glass compared to wood and other more expensive materials. By the 19th century, the tumbler had all but eclipsed the quaich in use. Both more practical to use and cheaper to be had, the widespread adoption of the tumbler marked the beginning of a new chapter in whiskey glassware.

Over time, the rounded tumbler took on a more traditional drinking glass shape, with a flat bottom and low-rise walls. Designed with one intention in mind — keeping your whiskey cold — the new tumbler featured several properties that made it great for the masses but ill-suited for serious connoisseurs. For instance, given that glass is such a poor heat conductor, the tumbler’s thick base prevented your hand from warming its contents. However, whiskey aficionados take their druthers warm because it allows for a more aromatic experience. Consequently, the tumbler proved a cup unfit for in-depth tasting.

Similarly, although the tumbler’s wide mouth made for easy ice filling, it prevented aromas from accumulating in the air above the whiskey. So while you could fill your cup to your heart’s content, it was often at the expense of the drink’s nuanced flavors. Finally, most tumblers are cut with a decorative surface design. Though it provides for a handsome piece of glassware, it also makes it difficult for experienced tasters to watch how the whiskey behaves in-glass.

Without an element of ceremony or a design serving to enhance whiskey taste, the tumbler could never possibly assert itself as the definitive whiskey glass. Sure, it was incredibly popular in its own right, but it lacked the distinction necessary to gain traction as a bonafide expert-endorsed favorite. Instead, it’s become whiskey’s unofficial everyday glass — what most people think of when they envision three fingers worth of brown. While the tumbler is great for a wide range of whiskey applications, it’s ultimately a pretty mediocre performer when it comes to nosing.

Uncertainty Drives Experimentation

The Options

In spite of the tumbler’s widespread popularity, the 19th-century glass boom inspired the creation of further glassware varieties in the coming decades. Everything from the old-fashioned to the shot glass to the highball became fair game, with whiskey drinkers reaching for different cups depending on the occasion (or whatever they could get their hands on). While beer, wine, and even other spirits each had their respective glasses, whiskey was still without its own piece of proper drinkware.

However, with an increase in glass circulation came a corresponding increase in whiskey consumption. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, drinkers continued to become more and more interested in the quality and the taste of malt whiskey. But even more important than the flavor of the whiskey was one’s ability to diagnose its complexities, a skill that required a complete experience of the spirit in order to break its profile down into subtle nuances. Unsatisfied with the existing glassware options available to them, the people of the whiskey community called for a cup that would bring out the best in their premium liquor.

By 1992, whiskey fervor had reached such a pitch that a panel of single malt experts convened to decide on an official glass. They met in Riedel, Austria (the headquarters of the Riedel glass, debuted just a few decades earlier) in order to test a variety of designs and determine once and for all what should become whiskey’s glass. Above all else, it was established that the cup should allow for a better appreciation of whiskey and its complexities — one that would satisfy the experts and also work for the general population. Though we take it for granted today that drinkware can have a discernible effect on the experience (take beer glasses, for example), it was a pretty novel idea at the time.

At the meeting, a total of 18 different glasses was presented before the experts, each with its own unique shape designed for more sophisticated whiskey appreciation. The panel gave feedback on each design, and Georg Riedel took it upon himself to look further into the effect of glass shape on whiskey flavor. He traveled throughout Scotland, meeting with a number of master distillers in the search for the perfect drinking vessel. Pairing his knowledge of wine glassmaking with what he learned from the Scotsmen, he eventually settled on a design we now know as the vinum. With a short, truncated stem and a narrow, bell-shaped body, the vinum proved a welcome departure from the squat little tumbler. While it has since become a popular piece of glassware amongst whiskey drinkers, it did little to quell the uncertainty of the moment. If anything, it inspired the creation of still further specialized glasses.

Photo: Raymond Davison | Glencairn Crystal

Initial Prototyping Unpursued

The Inventor

Though the experts of the whiskey world had only just discovered the benefits of purpose-built glassware, Raymond Davidson had been hard at work developing his own design since the early 1980s. Having started his career as a technical apprentice at Honeywell — later becoming an environmental test engineer — Davidson was well-versed in innovation. After he took a job managing the corporate division of Edinburg Crystal, he quickly realized that there was a gap in the existing whiskey glass market.

In 1982, Raymond Davidson founded Glencairn Crystal. A longtime music lover, he was still very much involved in the local scene at the time of the company’s founding — whether that was by holding dances, joining in bands, or playing solo part-time. As such, Davidson kept Glencairn as something of a side project; if it flopped, he’d simply play more nights to cover the expense.

Shortly after starting Glencairn Crystal, Raymond Davidson met artist Jim Drysdale. Insistent that his products should be aesthetically pleasing and also functional, Davidson worked with Drysdale to refine his design. What resulted was a glass specifically for the whiskey drinker. Taking inspiration from the sherry nosing glass (known as a Copita), he designed his piece to facilitate an appreciation for the whiskey’s nose and palate. But that’s not all — Davidson also wanted his glass to be tough enough to stand up to crowded bar environments.

Despite his invention of the Glencairn glass, Raymond Davidson did little to advance the design. It would take almost 20 years before it would be received by the wider whiskey community.

A Champion Is Crowned At Last

The Glencairn

When Davidson’s sons discovered their father’s hidden gem, they immediately knew that he was onto something. Before long, they’d brought it before the five largest distilleries in Scotland for consultation, including Allied Distillers, Diageo, Erdington Group, Whyte & Mackay, and William Grant & Sons. Together with Raymond Davidson’s sons, the distilleries optimized the design further still, making it slightly larger and more bulbous.

The glass was quickly picked up by whiskey experts all over Scotland, immensely popular because of its superior nosing properties. For instance, the Glencairn glass has a narrow opening that limits the amount of skin contact with the whiskey, thus preserving its strength over the course of the dram. What’s more is that it allows the whiskey’s aromas to accumulate in the air above, providing a richer scent and a fuller tasting experience. And because of the glass’s unobstructed body shape, experts can easily observe the color and behavior of their whiskey. All that is to say — it’s pretty much a choice-cut canvas for whiskey expression.

In 2001, the Glencairn glass finally made its production debut. With just 1,500 handmade glasses in tow, Raymond Davidson and his sons launched the design at the Whiskey Live convention. Following its incredibly positive reception, they made the jump to full-scale production.

Since that time, the Glencairn glass has racked up its fair share of accolades and honors. For instance, in 2006, it earned the Queen’s Award for Innovation, a distinction given to products having experienced significant commercial successes because of their experimental design. But even more impressive is the fact that it is the first and only scotch glassware to be recognized by the Scottish Whiskey Association.

So why did the Glencairn glass become the official whiskey glass? Well, for several reasons. Like its Gaelic forbearer, its purpose-built design demands a certain kind of ceremony — at least among whiskey experts. But at the same time, it’s robust enough to hold its own in pubs and other busy settings, making it accessible to everyone. So where glasses like the quaich and the tumbler were fit for use only on certain occasions, the Glencairn glass has proved its versatility in all manner of contexts. Ultimately, however, it comes down to a sense of pride. Without an official glass, whiskey fans were reliant on re-purposed glassware from any number of other applications. Designed by someone well-steeped in whiskey appreciation, the Glencairn glass offered an option suitable for dedicated tasting or for everyday use.

The Glencairn Whiskey Glass

No other glass holds a candle to the Glencairn when it comes to whiskey nosing performance. Designed by Raymond Davidson himself, each cup is specifically optimized to bring out the constituent parts in your whiskey’s flavor profile. Made from transparent, lustrous crystal, you can accurately observe how your whiskey behaves. And even if you don’t consider yourself a qualified taster, the elegant base and beautifully curved body make the Glencairn a handsome addition to any glassware collection. Sold in a set of four, there’s enough to hold a home tasting or to sit back and enjoy with some friends.

Purchase: $50

The 20 Best Whiskey Glasses

Although the Glencairn glass may hold the title of the official whiskey glass, it’s not the only one of note. We’ve already mentioned some here — the tumbler, for example — but there are tons of other great options out there. Whether you’re hoping to start a collection anew or building out your existing arsenal, our guide to the best whiskey glasses is worth a look.

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