Let’s preface this argument by immediately making a somewhat contradictory, sit-on-the-fence statement: Something as non-consumable as glassware can’t affect the flavour of a drink, but can affect the way it is consumed. What does that mean? Well, you can’t taste the difference between the glasses themselves, but that the act of consuming the drink as a whole is changed drastically by what glassware it is served in. Here, we look at why that is, and whether the effects are purely psychological or somewhat more tangible.
First, we’ll discuss what glassware is and define some terms we’ll be using throughout. Glassware is simply the vessel (sometimes not made of glass) that a drink is served in. You all know a wine glass when you see one, but some popular examples of glassware are: The Old-Fashioned glass, the Martini glass, the flute, the Collins, and the coupe. Others include: The Nick & Nora, the Glencairn, the Tiki-mug, the mule cup, and the sour glass. There’s plenty there you might think look pretty similar, and you’d be right. The slight differences however can make a good drink a fantastic one, and are why bars the world over hunt around for the best supplier of glassware they can find.
Next, it’s important to say that consumption isn’t just putting a drink in your mouth. Looks, smell and touch are a huge part of the process. Can you get your nose right on top the drink as you take a sip? Does that glass look appealing? You’ll consume it with your eyes before anything else after all. You’ll also be picking that glass up before you taste it. How does that glass feel in your hand? Is it weighted evenly?
If you’ve ever worked at a bar that’s more of a spirit and mixer kind of establishment, you’ll know the rule that dark spirits go in shorts, and light spirits go in taller glasses. It’s why when you order a vodka soda and you grab your mate a CC and dry, they come in different glasses. Is there a reason for this? Probably not. But if you didn’t know, now you do.
When we’re talking cocktails though, there are all different types of glassware on the market. Largely, the glassware used is determined by whether the drink is being served up or on the rocks. If a drink is served on the rocks, then it usually goes into an Old-Fashioned glass. Simple and elegant, with enough space for plenty of cubes of ice, or one large rock. You can’t go far wrong with an Old-Fashioned glass.
When it comes to serving a drink up however, there are generally a few more options available. Here’s where the contents of a drink have more of a determining factor. A Martini obviously ALWAYS goes in a Martini glass, despite the physics of the glass being criminally flawed. Other stiff drinks served up, like a Manhattan, tend to go in coupes or Nick & Nora’s, while sours will either go in coupes or, if they’re available, traditional sour glasses, which are a bit like a big Nick & Nora.
The big question is, does all of this make a difference? And if it does, is it a tangible difference, or is it merely psychological?
Before you taste a drink, or meal, or anything for that matter, you make an assumption about its quality based solely on its appearance. Someone could sell the most award-winning wine in the world, but if they serve it to you in a plastic cup, you’re going to be hit by immediate red flags. Having a flaw so early on in the experience of consuming the wine means you begin to subconsciously de-value it. In your mind, it can’t be that good - it already looks bad - so your tastebuds aren’t as receptive to it, and you’re looking for flaws in the flavour of the wine itself.
Alternatively, if you get a decent, but not world-class wine in a thin-rimmed, sleek, heavy-based wine glass, your eyes are telling you from the off that this is a good thing. Whatever the opposite of an alarm bell is, it’s ringing. Visualising something in a positive way before it happens contributes towards a positive experience. It’s like an athlete. A sprinter will be on the start line visualising themselves bursting out the blocks, getting up-right quickly, breezing into their stride, and crossing the line first. If they didn’t, and started their race with a negative mindset, you know they wouldn’t win. This applies to drinks. If you’re ready to embrace a mouthful of a high-quality liquid, your brain is telling you that that’s what’s happening, before it’s even begun.
All of that is relatively obvious. Positive leads to positive. Negative to negative. But there’s lots of iterations of glassware for a cocktail to go in, plenty of which look fantastic. The options really are morefold than positive or negative, good or bad. This is where the consumers own opinions matter. If that consumer is a pretty hardened cocktail drinker, maybe a standard coupe will feel a bit generic to them. Maybe they’ll see their drink as it’s served to them, and think about all the average drinks they’ve had that have been served in run-of-the-mill coupes. That’s not going to get them as excited as a less-frequently used, more occasional glass. Their experience of consuming the drink has begun, and it’s not off to best-possible start it could be. That same person sees an usual glass, maybe a one-off from an op-shop that they’ve not seen in any other bar, and they will be thinking that this drink is different. It’s different to any other drink from any other bar. It’s different from any drink in this bar – this bar serves loads of drinks, but only this one comes in this glass. The experience has started positively. Less-averagely at least. Prepare for something unique, receive something unique, anti-average, special.
The issue with this example is that it’s subjective. Most people's only preference for glassware may be whether a drink is served up or down. Where the argument becomes more inclusive is when talking about the science behind different types of glasses.
Alright enough about hypothetical pretentious people (that definitely aren’t me). Let’s talk science. Straight off the bat, the reason that a cocktail ever gets served up is so that the consumer can hold the glass by the stem, avoiding wrapping their hands around the glass and inadvertently warming the drink.
Moving up to the business end of the glassware, and it’s here that size and circumference matter. The volume of a cocktail immediately dictates which glass it can or can’t go in. Clearly, if it’s too much liquid to fit, then that’s not the right glass. The reverse is also relevant. In most cocktails, and there are exceptions, you don’t want a half full glass. The wash line of a drink is how far off the rim the top of the drink is. Some research suggests that as much as 80% of flavour comes from our sense of smell. That can mean that simply how close a drink can get to your nostrils as you sip it can make a huge difference to how the drink is received.
We looked into different types of stemmed cocktail glasses, and found tangible reasons both for and against each.
Coupes – Great for both sours and stiffer sippers. Designed for smaller sips. Put a sour with egg white in a coupe, and it will have a very high wash line. The foam on top and the curved shape of the glass will mean that the drink is less likely to spill. The shape also allows both a mouthful of just foam, and enough tilt to get some liquid from underneath. The circumference of a coupe opens up the drink to both your nose and mouth as you tilt it for a sip.
Martini glass – Wide rimmed and flat, smooth sides allow the contents to shoot out of them at a rate of knots. Martinis are designed to be drunk quickly, before they get even a little bit warmer. Remember, they’re glasses of pure booze for people who can handle their piss. The consumer wants it gone quickly and they don’t care about the ramifications. The shape of the glass also calls for a Martini to have a lower wash line. If it was fuller, they’d be much more susceptible to spillage.
Nick and Nora – Generally for drinks to be drunk at some speed, hence the flatter sides, but they are quite stiff, so the glasses narrower circumference means it isn’t designed for huge mouthfuls. You’ll find you might get the nose of the garnish more prominently than you will the drink itself. Generally these are small glasses, so are almost exclusively for very short, stiff drinks.
Collins glass – A very versatile glass that’s designed for long, topped drinks. Either highballs or Collins’ that share their glass with solid cubes of ice, or fizzes, served without ice but that space is needed for the foam.
Then there are specific glasses that were designed purely for one particular spirit or type of drink. A Glencairn, which needs tipping basically upright to polish off, was designed to be sipped from and every last drop to be mulled over. It’s almost column-like neck provides a great hole to stick your nose in while you huff away and recite as many buzzwords as you can remember from that video you watched about whiskey that time.
Flutes are for bubbles. Prosecco or champagne. But they were originally served in coupes, and some places will still hold to that tradition. While it does open the drink up and give a fuller flavour, the flute was introduced to maintain the drinks fizz for longer. If though, you want to drink it how they did 80-odd years ago, and feel like an absolute baller like Gatsby, stick it in a coupe and drink it before it can lose any carbonation.
Was Any Of This Worth While?
Essentially, yes. Hopefully. There are observable reasons for choosing one glass over another. Be they scientific, psychological, or historical, conscious or not, your experience drinking a cocktail is absolutely affected by which glass that drink comes in. Realistically, any cocktail you like that’s served in a good-quality, cold glass that suits your preference of up or on the rocks, should be well received. Should you kick off if someone serves you a Boulevardier in a coupe rather than a decent sized Nick & Nora? Absolutely not. If you sit there and are fretting over the fact that you might not get quite as much expressed orange zest on the nose, chill out mate. You’re doing alcohol wrong, and you’ve got a cocktail on the way. Sit back and enjoy yourself. Fair play, if you get served a glass of wine in one of those awful chunky wine glasses some bars seem to cling to for some reason, you might be forgiven for not ordering another; but if you’re in a good bar, you know the person behind that bar is solid, and the ingredients they’re using are high-quality, what could go wrong? We can talk about the tangible science of certain glasses allowing more of the drink to come through on the nose, or the psychological science that consumption begins with your eyes, or even just your imagination. In the end though, if the drink you like is in a nice cold glass, you’re in good company and there’s a toast to be made, you really should be one happy customer.