Is there such a thing as the perfect whisky glass?

On Oct 27, 2015, an international company called Norlan launched a campaign on crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to gather funds for their project – a glass that claims to combine “design, science, and sociology for the perfect whisky drinking experience”.

The campaign reached its goal of US$75,000 (RM304,000) within three days, and eventually ended up with US$807,452 (RM3,270,140) from a total of 10,926 backers.

Norlan, which is Gaelic for “Northern” or the “Northern part of Scotland”, began shipping their glasses earlier this year, including to its Malaysian backers as well, one of whom was Lionel Lau, brand ambassador for The Glenlivet in Malaysia.

So it was that, armed with a bottle of Glenlivet 18 Years Old, Lau and I decided to do a comprehensive analysis of the Norlan glass by comparing it with the three most commonly used types of whisky glasses – the snifter, the tumbler, and the Glencairn.

The tumbler (or rock glass) is short and stumpy with a wide brim and probably the most commonly used whisky glass out there; the snifter is a tulip-shaped bowl with long, thin stem and is more commonly used for serious whisky tastings.

Last but not least, the Glencairn. Created in 2001 by Scottish company Glencairn Crystal, it is considered to be THE gold standard in whisky glasses. Technically, it can also be called a snifter glass, but we decided to set it apart because it is just so iconic amongst Scotch drinkers.

It has a similar tulip-shaped bowl but with a tapering mouth that is said to “ease the capturing of aromas on the nose”, and also eschews the long stem of the snifter in favour of a shorter, stumpier stem that still allows the drinker to hold the glass without obscuring the liquid inside.

For our little experiment, we decided to judge the glasses by how they looked with the whisky in it, what the nose was like, the experience of drinking from it, and how it fares with ice.

Visual

Tumbler: It’s not much to look at, to be honest. With the whisky distributed across a wide surface, you can hardly make out the colour of the whisky. Would probably look better with ice or an ice ball.

Snifter: Tall, slim, and elegant, the snifter’s long stem allows one to hold it without obscuring the bowl, so you can get a good look at the colour of the liquid.

Glencairn: Quite similar to the snifter, though the slight stumpier stem and more bolbous shape of the glass actually makes it look like there is a lot more whisky than there actually is.

Norlan: Although its overall shape leans towards the tumbler more, the double-wall feature and the tulip-shaped bowl inside of the glass makes it look as if the whisky is suspended in mid-air, a very striking and pretty sight indeed.

Which whisky glass is the best? (From left) The snifter glass, the Glencairn whisky glass, the Norlan glass, or the tumbler?

Which whisky glass is the best? (From left) The snifter glass, the Glencairn whisky glass, the Norlan glass, or the tumbler?

Nose

Tumbler: When nosing the Glenlivet 18YO in the glass, it was quite hard to get the more subtle aromas in the nose, as the wide brim meant that the aromas escaped from the glass a lot quicker. “The classic rock glass does nothing for the nose,” Lau scoffed.

Snifter: As the name suggests, the snifter glass is made with a focus on sniffing. The tulip shape keeps the aromas from escaping too quickly, and the narrow brim concentrates the nose to a single, intense point, which means if you’re not careful, you might get a lot of alcohol fumes with the intitial sniffs.

Glencairn: Like the snifter, the narrow brim helps focus the aromas of the whisky, but it is less intense than the snifter, so it is slightly easier to nose the whisky.

Norlan: The tulip inside the glass helps to retain and focus the nose like a snifter and Glencairn, but somehow it is a much softer nose than the other two glasses. The initial hit of alcohol that one gets from a snifter or Glencairn is not there, making for a much more pleasant nosing experience.

Tasting

Tumbler: If you’re drinking neat whisky out of it, this is just purely functional. It gets the job of delivering the whisky to your mouth, but beyond that, there’s really nothing special about the experience.

Snifter: To tell the truth, this is more of a nosing glass than a tasting glass for me. The long stem means that I had to tilt my head a lot higher to drink the whisky, which was annoying, and the thin, narrow brim meant that the whisky is too focused on one single point of my palate.

Glencairn: Delivers a better tasting experience than the snifter, that’s for sure. Also has a slightly wider lip than the snifter, so the flavours are not as focused on one point of the palate. Great for tasting neat whiskies.

Norlan: This is where the Norlan really excels. The fat brim of the glass works wonderfully to spread out the flavours of the whisky across your entire lip. From the honey, vanilla, sweetness to the more savoury biscuity notes, I got a full spectrum of these flavours from just one sip of the Glenlivet from the Norlan glass. It also made the whisky seem creamier somehow, with a rich, fuller burst of flavour.

“With the Glencairn and the snifter, you are expected to swirl the whisky in your mouth on your own to get all those flavours,” Lau pointed out. “But the Norlan does that part for you!”

With ice

Tumbler: When it comes to ice in your whisky, you can’t go wrong with a tumbler, since it is wide and big enough for you to put as much ice, water, or mixers as you want. After all, the tumbler is a social drinking glass that is purely functional, and is commonly used for cocktails as well. For this experiment, we also put one ice cube in each glass to see how fast it would melt. Of the three non-Norlan glasses, the ice in the tumbler melted the slowest.

Snifter: Obviously not meant for ice. the single ice cube we put in it melted the quickest amongst the glass, and the condensation completely obscured the whisky.

Glencairn: Same as the snifter, though the ice melted a little bit slower.

Norlan: Two magic words: Double-walled. The insulation provided by this feature meant that the ice in the whisky hardly melted at all (it was still there long after the ice in the other glasses had melted), and there was no condensation on the outside of the glass. so if you like your whisky with a bit of ice, but don’t like it when the ice dilutes the whisky too much, then this is the glass for you. As a plus point, when you swirl the glass, the noise the ice makes as it hits the glass sounds beautifullly like wind chimes!

So, does Norlan actually deliver the perfect whisky experience? For a social whisky drinking glass, it does. We won’t get into all the technical aspects of the glass (you can read about it on their website, www.norlanglass.com), but based on the experiment we conducted, the Norlan glass definitely delivers a whisky drinking experience that the other glasses could not.

It manages to combine the best aspects of the tumbler (holds ice, easy to drink) and the snifter/Glencairn (better nose, aesthetically pleasing) with a better tasting experience.

However, Lau had one complaint about the glass – the weight. “The main drawback for me was the weight. There’s just no heft to it, like the other glasses. The rock glass and the Glencairn both have a very satisfying heft to them, and even the snifter, although it is the thinnest and lightest, has a certain heft to it. The Norlan, however, is too light, almost like it was made out of plastic,” he said.

That aside, the final consensus we both reached was that for the most part, the Norlan glass delivers on its promise of providing the perfect whisky drinking experience. Now if only they would make it easier for us to get them here…


Michael Cheang also tried using a Norlan glass with vodka, and it actually made it taste better. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy).