For some time now the choice glass of whisky festivals the world over has been the Glencairn glass, and most often these are also the first places people have a chance to try a glass made for whisky. Typically emblazoned with the festival logo, or that of the distillery being visited, it has become a de facto festival requirement, and a staple of the whisky world.
Recently I was contacted by the purveyors of the NEAT glass to give it a trial run to see how it matched up to my normal glassware. Given that I am prone to trying just about anything at least once (line dancing and nefarious acts notwithstanding) I agreed to give it a go. So for a month now I have been working through various whiskies, comparing it to my everyday glass: The Glencairn.
Before we get to my findings though, let's get to know the contenders a bit better.
The Glencairn glass purports to have been developed over 20 years ago by Raymond Davidson specifically for whisky, then shelved until his sons resurrected it and took it to the master blenders for a test drive. Since then it has gone on to win the Queen's Award for Innovation in 2006, become the glass found at just about every distillery in Scotland, and claimed a place on the shelves of whisky lovers the world over. Designed explicitly to enhance the enjoyment of whisky, its bowl-shaped bottom fits easily in the hand to aid in gently warming the whisky (the way I personally enjoy it the most), while the tapering effect of the neck and mouth is designed to provide a concentration point to maximize the aromas.
The NEAT glass is an entirely different animal. Designed by Arsilica Inc. in Las Vegas, the NEAT (an acronym for Naturally Engineered Aroma Technology) glass employs a divergent rim as opposed to the
convergent style of most glasses. The goal of this being to diffuse the volatile alcohol vapours, thereby reducing the numbing effect on the nose and subsequently making it easier to pick out the other elements and aromas in the whisky or other such spirits. Short, squat, and reminiscent of a votive candle holder, it is also designed to maximize the surface area of the whisky to further accentuate the non-alcohol components of the nosing experience.
For the purposes of comparing the two glasses I decided to use a number of different styles and strengths of whisky, including Four Roses Small Batch, Booker's, and Rip Van Winkle 10 bourbons, Bowmore Tempest, Rosebank 17, Glenfiddich 15, a couple from Ardbeg, and a number of other Speyside and Highland whiskies. For each whisky tested, I measured out standard 1 ounce pours for each glass, using them in 2 simultaneous 10 minute intervals to ensure that influential factors such as hand-warming and time in the glass were both mitigated equally. Alright, enough rhetoric. On to the findings!
Right off the hop and for each and every whisky, the NEAT glass certainly delivered on its first promise. Head-to-head against the Glencairn it delivers a demonstrably diminished alcohol element. Gone is the blast of ethanol that singes nose hairs and sinuses, instead providing only the scents and sensations of the malt, spirit, and wood. For those who have issue getting past the alcohol vapours in a nosing, yet love their whisky, there is no question that the NEAT glass is the next item they should purchase.
But beyond the initial reduction in alcohol vapour, I found that the two glasses traded blows very evenly.
For the lighter, fruitier elements of whiskies I found that the Glencairn carried the day with ease. Its design served to deliver a much more concentrated assembly of the light apple, citrus, and floral elements. Yet, with the peated expressions the NEAT glass provided a more delicate handling of the powerful smoky scent. With a fruity peated whisky I found it to be a dead heat. In the Ardbeg 10 test for example, the lime-citrus and pepper notes are much more apparent in the Glencairn glass, while the NEAT glass dials up the vanilla and earthy elements of the peat to wonderful effect. For the toffees, oaky notes, and spice elements I found both the Glencairn and NEAT glasses to deliver equal performance.
When dealing with cask strength whiskies, one would expect that the diffusion of alcohol vapours would give the NEAT glass a walk-off home run. Without question it handles the task in a truly remarkable fashion. Yet, I found that with whiskies that were North of 57% ABV, the effect seemed to go slightly in the opposite direction of its intention. It was almost as though the diffusion of the alcohol vapours carried off some of the aromas as well; perhaps a case of the science behind the glass being too perfect. But above 46% and below 57% it delivered everything the Glencairn did, without the heat and almost all of the aromas, save some of the citrus elements in some whiskies which were there, yet slightly muted. All things considered, the NEAT glass is almost perfectly suited to cask strength whiskies, while the Glencairn glass benefits from the provision of a few drops of water to reduce the heat funneling out of it, after which it delivers an equally impressive performance.
In the arena of ergonomics however, the was considerable separation between the two. The circumference of the Glencairn glass at the widest part of the bulb is an even 21cm, fitting nicely in the plam of the hand. Conversely, since the NEAT glass is designed to maximize the surface area of its contents, its circumference is 25.5cm at its widest point. While this may serve it very well when it comes solely to the act of nosing the whisky, I found it to be a bit cumbersome in the hand. As for the actual act of drinking the dram, the Glencairn is a standard glass and as such offers no issue to me whatsoever. The NEAT on the other hand requires tilting of ever-increasing angles as the whisky level drops with each successive sip due to the sharp angles created by the divergent rim. Once past the 1/3 remaining point, I had my head tilted up, with my nose directly in the glass and over the contents, resulting in a blast of alcohol in the final sips. Therefore from a physical use standpoint, my preference remains strongly on the side of the Glencairn glass. For me it simply fits more easily in my hand and is easier for me to drink from at the end of the day.
In conclusion, both glasses present the consumer with unique advantages and drawbacks, and it is a matter of personal preference to determine which characteristics one prefers to accentuate or minimize. The NEAT glass will not be usurping the Glencairn's position as my every day glass as I prefer the concentrated nose that it provides along with the comfortable physical design of the glass. That said, I will be reaching for the NEAT glass when pouring cask strength whisky as it does serve that segment particularly well. All in all the Glencairn may have won the day, but the NEAT glass is certainly worth adding to your arsenal.