Is it Time to Retire the Snifter?

The stalwart brandy snifter has long been considered the industry standard for tasting neat spirits. But what do the pros really think of it, and are there better options out there?
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What image conveys old-school class and luxury better than an aged spirit served in an elegant crystal snifter?

The vision of a snifter implies connoisseurship. But while the de facto brandy glass remains an icon of drinking culture, a new selection of increasingly technical glassware has become the to-go for neat drinks. With such a wide range of modern options to choose from, we need to ask: Is the snifter’s time up?

“The snifter is obviously a point of reference whenever we develop a new glass…it must never work as badly as a snifter.” —Maximilian Riedel

Let’s look at the design. Snifters have a wide base and narrow opening, which many believe overly-enhances alcohol on the nose. Even a quick sniff of the contents can cause your senses to instantly deteriorate—a common concern for not only professional tasters, whose job is to notice aromatic details, but also for the casual drinker.

“A snifter is definitely the worst vessel, not only for Cognac, but for all other beverages,” says Maximilian Riedel, president/CEO of Austrian glassware manufacturer Riedel Crystal.

Although the majority of Riedel’s glassware business is dedicated to wine, Maximilian is a big fan of barrel-aged Tequila and other spirits. It’s why Riedel’s range has expanded to include select glasses that enhance specific spirits, similar to style-specific wine glasses.

“The snifter is obviously a point of reference whenever we develop a new glass…it must never work as badly as a snifter,” says Riedel.

The single malt whisky specific glass from Riedel, designed to separate pungent fumes from the aroma of the whisky / Photo courtesy Riedel
The single malt whisky specific glass from Riedel, designed to separate pungent fumes from the aroma of the whisky / Photo courtesy Riedel

Riedel’s solution was to design glasses the company says allows for alcohol to dissipate more quickly. For brandy, they went with a fluted lip and slightly curved glass in an effort to enhance the fruitiness of the spirit. That detail is repeated on the more cylindrical single-malt glass, featuring a short stem and dainty foot, shaped to allow fumes to lift away from the spirit and reveal subtler aromas of peaty Islay whisky.

Keep in mind that professional tasters don’t always drink for analysis. At home, master distiller John Little reaches for a Port glass when he wants to dig into something serious.

Want to taste like a master distiller? John Little holds the title at West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler, in addition to being one of the founders. In the distillery and tasting room, you’ll find a Glencairn, a distinctive short glass composed of a spherical base and tapered cylindrical mouth. It is said to allow for the perception of both aroma and alcohol, the latter of which is important for assessments as a distiller.

The Glencairn glass's distinctive shape, said by some to be optimal for single-malt whiskies / Photo courtesy Glencairn
The Glencairn glass’s distinctive shape, said by some to be optimal for single-malt whiskies / Photo courtesy Glencairn

Little says they are easily covered by watch-glass, a concave piece of circular glass that can be used as a lid to concentrate aroma.

For deeper analysis, Glencairn also produces a copita, which resembles a smaller white wine glass and was developed for laboratory-level tasting. The stem makes it more fragile than the standard Glencairn glass, and you’re not likely to see it in many bars. However, many experts maintain it’s the best option to inspect color, and its elongated bowl is great to introduce air to your spirit.

Giving the Champagne Flute Some Well-Deserved Love and Support

Keep in mind that professional tasters don’t always drink for analysis. At home, Little reaches for a Port glass when he wants to dig into something serious. It has a shape similar to a copita.

And when he’s having a burger? “It’s usually just a rocks glass with Bourbon neat, or a Bourbon and ginger,” Little says.

Copita class, with watch-glass cover to concentrate aroma / Photo courtesy Glencairn
Copita class, with watch-glass cover to concentrate aroma / Photo courtesy Glencairn

Casual or upscale, the rocks glass (or tumbler) is the most used glass for spirits in bars and restaurants. The wide opening and sturdy base make it ideal for spirits on ice and cocktails. Its design won’t provide insight into a rare dram, but they’re solid and serviceable.

While it may be time to retire the snifter for neat spirits, they still have use for cocktails. Snifters are increasingly popular with the tiki set for elaborate drinks on pebble ice, and they remain the traditional choice for a Spanish-style gin and tonic.

As for whiskey, brandy and other aged spirits, consider your purposes. There are times when the assessment of aroma, color and alcohol are paramount, but for everyday drinking? Ease of use, style and personal preference should come first.

Published on January 25, 2018
Topics: Glass Half Full



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