How good is your glass?
I’m usually not one to obsess over glassware. This is a relatively recent complacency I have developed; I used to be way more uptight about the subject, especially when it came to wine. I’d feel grumpy if I didn’t have something close to the precisely shaped Riedel glass for my chosen varietal, certain that entire aromatic and flavor dimensions were being lost due to whatever thick, misshapen vessel I found at hand.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: I always prefer a nicer glass to a rougher one. I wouldn’t ever review a whisky that I was only able to sample from a rocks glass/lowball/tumbler, as they’re notorious for deadening the whisky’s nose. Apart from that stipulation, I don’t have much of a preference for the size or shape of a glass.
My go-to for neat tasting is a Glencairn glass. This is more about conformity than conviction; I get the sense that this is a standard among people who consider whisky with some degree of seriousness. In a pinch (at a bar, say) I have been known to ask for whisky to be served neat in a white wine glass, with the tulip-shaped bowl making a very vague approximation of the shape of the Glencairn.
I was intrigued, however, when I read Bryan’s description of his development of the Bennuiane glass. I chipped in to support his kickstarted, and ended up with a Bennuaine of my own some time later. I recalled John’s experience tasting Glenfiddich 12 in different glasses, and thought a similar experiment comparing my trusty Glencairn with Bryan’s invention might be of interest.
I mulled for a while over what whisky to use for evaluation. I thought I would start with a malt whisky, given Bryan’s proclivity for that style. I wanted it to be something that had both a forceful character as well as plenty of subtlety, to see whether the Bennuiane could allow for exploration on many planes of intensity.
I settled on the Single Cask Nation Laughing Frog. It ticks all the boxes above; I also had but an ounce or so left in the bottle, allowing me to send it to the graveyard for replacement on my bar shelf with another. I knew the whisky well and liked it even better, thus I dutifully poured a splash into each of the two glasses and bid adieu to the empty bottle.
I won’t be providing a full review of this whisky again; consult my earlier review if you’re interested in my critical appraisal. Rather, I’ll be focusing on the nose and the flavors, and particularly on any differences in the impressions from each of the glasses.
As for methodology: I nosed and tasted these side by side, with a bag of coffee grounds handy to occasionally refresh my olfactory organs.
Single Cask Nation Laughing Frog 28 Years Old (Glencairn Glass)
On the nose: Immediately wafts upward with a rounded cloud of fruit-accented vanilla. Focusing my attention, I get ripe honeydew melon as well as ripe orchard fruits (pears, apples). Allowing this to sit in the glass a few minutes reveals a salinity that increases with intensity over time, but never overwhelms those elemental notes from the distillate. Curiously, I get very little peat smoke from this.
In the mouth: Baked goodness upfront, with a sweet and buttery note of pie crust. This takes on a leaner and more elegant feel in the middle of the mouth, with the saline note becoming more taut. There’s a slight sourness to this right before the finish, which is momentary and yields quickly to a buttery flavor and texture that nods at the oak from the bourbon cask.
Single Cask Nation Laughing Frog 28 Years Old (Bennuaine Glass)
On the nose: The nose on this seems flatter and less three dimensional than from the Glencairn at first. The aromas are also less distinct; they meld together in a way that makes them hard to pick out. Whether I hold the glass a few inches from my nose or insert my nose into the glass, there’s no real difference I my ability to pick up aromatic notes. With a lot of patience, I start to sense a spicy note of lemongrass as well as some more smoke-inflected rocky elements. Another novel nuance is a faint sweet baked note of graham cracker, though this is very subtle. With yet more time, a green spiciness reminiscent of mezcal emerges.
This seemed to be improving with time, so I stepped outside for a few minutes, at a piece of mild cheese, and then returned. Taking a more gradual approach, I start to get fruit and saline notes with my nose about an inch and a half away from the glass. Moving closer amps up the fruity aspects of this, with perhaps a more richly citric bent (Meyer lemon and key lime spring to mind).
In the mouth: Also more sedate and flatter to begin, this feels softer and more subtle as it approaches the midpalate with a gradually increasing saltiness that makes the tongue crave a drop of water. There, the warmth gradually builds with a sweet and burnt scent of marshmallows roasted over the campfire. I’m not getting as much of the buttery flavor or body on this one; rather, there’s more of a tannic woody astringency (again, sotto voce) and an emphasis on the peat smoke, especially through the finish. The overall impression is of a lighter, leaner whisky with less of the plump fruit and more of the sharper flavors of salt and smoke.
This is just one experience with one whisky on one day, so I’m hesitant to jump to generalizations about the superiority of one glass shape versus the other. That said: I felt like I got more from the Glencairn, in terms of the density of aromas and flavors. As mentioned, the whisky seemed a bit more flat out of the Bennuiane.
I was surprised that the notes I picked up were different depending on the shape of glass. This wasn’t just a question of varying intensity, but rather of the actual aromas and flavors I was sensing. I found it especially noteworthy that the wood influence seemed to have a completely different character depending on whether the whisky was tasted from the Glencairn (creamier and sweeter oak) or the Bennuiane (sharper and more tannic). Again, I preferred the former, but am grateful that more dimensions of the whisky were opened up to me as a consequence of trying it from the Bennuaine.
This got me curious… how would an entirely different type of whisky taste from this same glass? Bryan mentioned that part of the design was intended to give the nostrils a break from the fiery blast of an elevated ABV. In the future, I’ll be trying this experiment again with higher proof Scotch whisky and Bourbon whiskey, in the hopes that Bennuaine’s unique attributes might tone down the alcohol and reveal some heretofore hidden flavors.
In the meantime, I’d encourage you to experiment yourself with glassware of varying shapes and figure out what delivers the best experience. The debate is far from settled and, as with all things in whisky, it’s one’s own personal perceptions that matter most.
I wrote this piece without consulting Bryan, as he’s a friend and I didn’t want to compromise my objectivity. He saw the version above prior to publication (it remains unchanged) and added some explanatory commentary, which I am happy to share with you here:
What’s happening is that my glass is not designed for a half ounce pour. A Glencairn has less surface area, less volume, and less taper. The lower surface area means the harder alcohol notes will be more impactful with nosing, and that’s fine when the pour is so low. Less air volume and less taper means – like you experienced – there is no evolution/development of the aroma. It’s purely an in and out experience. So basically for a splash, you get a fine two or three sip experience with the Glencairn depending on how thirsty you are.
The Bennuaine on the other hand has significantly larger surface area. So the alcohol punch is going to be all but gone with that small of a sample. Then, because the glass has a lot of volume and a strong taper, the aromas collect in it. If you don’t cap it though it’s obviously not full containment, and what’s happening is that the glass is struggling to contain the limited aromas from a small pour because they leave in near equal measure. A surplus of oxygen and a liquid deficit. Nonetheless, you still have development. Additionally the whisky was quite old and literally the last drop from the bottle, so regardless of the glass, it’s going to be a softer experience; one that only compounds in this example.
My thanks to Bryan for clarifying, and I believe these points are worth considering. As noted in my conclusion: this is just a first impression of a single whisky, and doesn’t represent a definitive statement on the worth (or lack thereof) of the Bennuaine. I respect the care and consideration that went into its development, and I am excited to try it again with other whiskies, as I said. Keep your eyes peeled for part two, and – in the meantime – let me know if you’ve been doing any glassware experimentation of your own!