February 28 2013 issue
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The New Glassware for Spirits Kara Newman
During a recent evening at The Flatiron Room, a whiskey-and-jazz hangout in New York City, this order crossed the bar: "Three pours of Angel’s Envy, please." There was no question about what was going in the glass—a richly aromatic, copper-penny-colored bourbon shot through with caramel and spice—but the glassware itself was a matter of conjecture. At many bars, a similar call would have yielded three rocks glasses; at others, a trio of shot glasses. But at this temple of whiskey, the drinks arrived in curvy pear-shaped vessels known as glencairns, each with a jaunty "ginger-jar cap" topped by a small knob.
Although most sommeliers are familiar with the stemware options for wine service, far fewer understand how to select glasses for serving spirits—especially now that the old rules about using balloon snifters for brandy, highball glasses for Scotch, and so on have seemingly gone out the window. "As whiskey gets more popular, sommeliers will have to think more about presentation, especially if someone is spending $100 a dram," explains The Flatiron Room’s "whiskey sommelier," Heather Greene. "It’s about finding the right glass that fits with the vibe of the restaurant and makes the guest feel special."
NEW FRONTIERS IN GLASSWARE
Glassware designers are working overtime to develop new and improved vessels beyond the classic snifters, flutes, highballs, and lowballs for showcasing spirits (see box). Many of these are based on wine glasses; others have a tulip shape, which spirits experts believe can concentrate aromas while allowing alcohol to dissipate—a necessity for nosing liquor. As Greene points out, "sommeliers are used to sticking their noses all the way into the glass" to evaluate aromas, but "you’ll anesthetize your nose if you do that with whiskey" and other spirits, most of which are at least 40% alcohol by volume.
Consider, for example, Riedel’s spirits-focused Bar line, which includes a slim glass similar to a Champagne stem for tequila, a tulip-shaped flute on a long stem for Cognac, and a tulip glass with a wider mouth and almost no stem for single-malt whisky. A comparative tasting conducted last spring at Tocqueville restaurant in New York City demonstrated the effectiveness of these shapes. (The Bar line is part of the Riedel Restaurant series, available exclusively for on-premise use and not sold at retail; the company also makes a grappa glass, which resembles a Champagne flute with a wider mouth, though it has been discontinued in the U.S. market.)
The NEAT (Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology) spirits glass is an innovation from George F. Manska, a product-design engineer and wine enthusiast who has experimented with blowing his own glassware. Essentially a squat, rounded, stemless bowl with a flared lip, it is supposed to facilitate swirling, while its wide mouth encourages alcohol dissipation. The shape purportedly creates a "sweet spot" for nosing aromas without alcohol burn.
Intended for both wine and spirits, the Supertaster line from Roberts Taste Enhancing Wineware features half-inch incisions etched into the outer rim of each glass. Darrol Roberts, who designed the line, says the incisions "stimulate the palate and the nerve endings on the lips that drive salivary secretions," thus enhancing enjoyment of what’s in the glass. The concept is based on a University of California-Davis study that found people with higher salivary rates to be better tasters. "Wines with big tannins can use even more salivary support," says Roberts, which means that the glassware may be particularly useful for tannic barrel-aged spirits like whiskey, brandy, and aged rum as well as for red wines. Testing it against an identical glass without the incisions, I found perhaps a slight improvement. "I feel it creates more flavor," insists Jo-Ann Makovitzky, co-owner of Tocqueville, which provides the glassware for curious guests as an alternative to its conventional Schott Zwiesel crystal. "Not different flavors, but more flavor."
CONSIDER THE COCKTAIL
Although the designs described above all focus on single spirits, mixed drinks represent a strong (and growing) segment of liquor sales. For instance, in comparison to whiskey, which is often served neat or on the rocks, gin is rarely ordered straight up; cocktails are the preferred vehicle. Jon Christiansen, bar manager at Monsoon East and Ba Bar in Bellevue, Wash., credits the detail-obsessed craft-cocktail movement with pushing bartenders to consider innovative glassware in addition to their classic coupes and martini glasses. "At craft bars, people are being very selective with what they do," he says. "There was more of a one-size-fits-all esthetic in the past. Now, the bar and its glassware have evolved."
While Christiansen’s go-to stemware is made of Kwarx—a virtually unbreakable material that offers "a nice fusion of durability and looks," as he puts it—his supply also includes shiny copper mugs for Moscow Mules, "old-timey" miniature coupes for Manhattans, punch bowls and cups sourced from thrift stores, and even graceful bud vases from Cost Plus World Market in place of shot glasses. "Sometimes I look at people to decide what glass they’ll get," he notes. For example, if a couple orders gin and tonics, he may deliberately serve the man a heavier-bottomed square glass, while the lady receives a glass with a softer, more feminine curve at the bottom. "People comment on it, but it’s subtle," he says.
Thanks in part to the resurgence of classic cocktails, glassware companies are reviving models with an old-school look and feel. The 4- to 6-oz. Nick & Nora glass—something of a cross between the coupe and the wine goblet—is just the right size for a proper martini, and its reduced surface area keeps drinks cold longer. At New York City’s famed PDT bar, managing partner (and Sommelier Journal Contributing Editor) Jim Meehan put the Nick & Nora coupette into his rotation a few years back, drawing media attention to the shape. Similarly, Riedel has partnered with cocktail impresario Julie Reiner of Brooklyn’s Clover Club to roll out a line of impressively antique-looking cut-glass cocktail vessels, which debuted in late 2012.
ENGAGING ALL THE SENSES
The right glassware doesn’t merely make a beverage taste better, experts say; it heightens all of the senses. Roger Dagorn, MS, Tocqueville’s beverage director, believes glassware is really about "ritual and presentation." He favors crystal over ordinary glass for myriad reasons, including the "richness of sound" when it clinks and the fact that, for sparkling wines, "the crystal level makes the bubbles seem smaller, more elegant. The palate," he summarizes, "is about sight, smell, and taste."
At The Flatiron Room, Greene (like many beverage professionals) shuns colored glassware because of the importance of visual cues. "Clear glassware is best," she states firmly. "Part of the evaluation is the beautiful color of the drink." Visual appeal also depends on how much liquid appears in the glass, she adds; a standard 1.5-oz. pour "can get lost in some glasses, and the guest thinks they’re not getting a lot." She demonstrates by pouring a jigger first into a curved glencairn, which fills halfway; then into a wine glass, which appears to be a quarter full; and finally into a broad-bottomed rocks glass, where the liquid doesn’t rise even a full inch. This brings up a particularly important point for the bottom line: the potential for overpouring into tall or wide glasses. "That leads to a lot of product loss," says Greene. "If you’re overpouring by a half ounce, after three pours, that’s a dram right there." In the case of rare and expensive spirits, such waste can be disastrous.
For her part, Makovitzky hopes to see a cutback in today’s ballooning glassware sizes: "The trend toward hugeness got too huge. It would be good to see the ounces reined back a bit, good for portion control." She points to the oversize Bordeaux glasses that are also used to hold Barolos or super-Tuscans, noting how easy they can be to overfill. "You could throw goldfish in there," she jokes.
In addition to sight, smell, sound, and taste, there’s a tactile element involved; don’t discount the impact of how a glass feels in the hand. For whiskey served on the rocks (or, as is increasingly the case at many bars, a single large cube or sphere of ice), Greene says there’s nothing quite like the heft of a traditional rocks glass.
What if your bar or restaurant doesn’t have the budget to acquire a wide range of fancy glassware? In a pinch, most experts recommend pouring straight spirits into small wine glasses, such as those used for white wine, and serving cocktails in water tumblers.
Peering into the future of glassware, Greene sees formal whiskey service on the horizon. "Sommeliers will be ordering pitchers and tongs, appropriate vessels—a full suite of options for the whiskey drinker," she believes. "They should bring the bottle to the table, show it to you, and pour there." In addition to the glencairn, she favors the copita—a small wine glass often used for Sherry—for formal whiskey service. Both lend themselves to coverage with glass lids that maximize aromas, she explains, and both make a visual impression.
Given the growing range of available glassware, sommeliers and bartenders may wish to rethink the options offered at their establishments, from glencairns to copitas to the venerable Old Fashioned glasses. With a well-considered array of appropriate vessels in place, they can feel confident that every guest will fully appreciate that ambrosial bourbon or ingenious cocktail.
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