I ordered a shot of George T. Stagg’s fiery Hazmat III in Shot Bar Bourbon, a tiny subterranean bourbon paradise in Ginza, and the bartender served it in a wine glass. I asked why. “For the flavor,” he said, and to demonstrate, he tipped my drink into a shot glass. The bourbon lost its aroma and half of its taste. It wasn’t a subtle change; it was a character-killing transformation.
That’s how I became obsessed with glass shapes. I began asking bartenders to explain their choice of vessel, and found that many could. When I drank at home, I’d pour from shot glass to snifter to old-fashioned to Burgundy, then bore people stiff with my findings.
I went to Riedel, the 250-year-old Austrian glassmaker that pioneered grape-varietal specific glassware, and asked whether their 140-strong suite of stemware was grounded in science or a desire to sell us 20 glasses when we really only need two.
“When you drink, you never think about how it goes in, how much goes in and where it goes in your mouth,” says Wolfgang Angyal, president and CEO of Riedel Japan. “We know where to put the tastes. A glass delivers the drink to our senses, and its shape determines the bouquet, taste, balance and finish.”
So far, so much corporate spiel, so I asked Angyal to prove it. I understood that tulip glasses release flavors, bulbous glasses keep them in, and I wouldn’t want to drink a Bordeaux from a sake chokko, but when your catalog lists a piece of glassware specifically for Gruner Veltliner or nebbiolo wines, haven’t you gone too far?
Angyal poured me a pair of chardonnays, one in a sauvignon blanc glass, the other in its namesake glass. It wouldn’t take wine critic Robert Parker to tell the difference. In the wide-mouthed chardonnay glass, the drink was fruity and well balanced, with a center palate. In the sauvignon blanc glass it was all oak, with a bitter finish.
We used the same glasses with a sauvignon blanc, and this time the chardonnay glass delivered a puckering, acidic drink, like sucking a lemon.
A pinot noir in a chardonnay glass also tasted acidic, washing across the tongue and losing the velvety jam flavor that has made everyone so fond of pinots ever since they saw “Sideways.”
So Angyal proved his point. If you’re forking out for wine, storing it well, perhaps decanting it, why not use a glass that highlights all the right bits?
The Riedel man is biased, of course, and so am I — “any glass will do” isn’t much of a story — so I roped in a pair of impartial controls. Tei and Milton both have long resumes in the food and drink industry, and both know a pinot from a merlot. I told them they would be tasting pairs of beers and trying to identify the “premium” brands. In reality they would be drinking identical beers from different glasses.
The tasting took place in Popeye, the Japanese craft-beer bar in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. Owner Tatsu Aoki assured me the experiment would work. Each day before opening, he and his staff taste five beers in each of five glasses and record the results in the bar’s log book. He says the variation is astounding.
“They say there are 230 flavors in a beer, everything we smell in everyday life,” says Aoki. “From iron to medical ointments, human odors and the smell of a morning, it’s all in beer and we have to manipulate it with temperature and glass shape.”
He gave my test subjects a pair of Hakusekikan Hurricanes, barley wines from Gifu Prefecture boasting a thundering 15 percent alcohol.
“Very soft and flowery. The front of the mouth tingles,” said Milton of Hurricane 1. “Smells like porter, goes right to the back of the throat, but it’s smoother than the other one,” he said of Hurricane 2.
Tei described Hurricane 1 as “sweet, no aroma, almost like a dessert wine.” Of Hurricane 2 he said, “I’m getting a lot more from this. Lots of aroma, cinnamon, a better, longer finish.”
Both agreed that the latter was likely the premium brand.
Round two. Hakusekikan’s even more powerful Super Vintage Ale. Aoki served one in a chardonnay glass, the other in a flute.
“Why is it in a flute?” asked Tei. “Can we have it in the same glass for a proper comparison?
“No,” I said. “Drink up.”
Both boys preferred the drink in the flute. Super Vintage is an old, rich beer, and the flute sends it straight down the center of the tongue, reining in what can be an overbearing sweetness. At Popeye, Super Vintage is always served in a flute.
For his final trick, Aoki offered Fukushima’s August pilsner in both a tall pilsner glass and a chardonnay glass. He had told me that “a pilsner in a chardonnay glass is a flavor that no human being could enjoy” — which sounded ideal for this trial.
Just as he’d promised, the wine glass accentuated all the wrong notes for a violent, nauseating nose, like rancid milk and soap. My subjects recoiled. Neither wanted to drink it. They turned instead to the August in the pilsner glass. Both agreed this was a fine brew, and clearly the premium brand.
Before telling the guinea pigs what we’d really been doing, there was time for one last flourish.
By chance, craft-beer importer Phred Kaufman was sitting nearby, so I invited him to compare our two pilsners. He seemed happy with the brew in its proper glass, then buried his nose in the chardonnay glass. His eyes bulged, his head flew back and he put the drink down.
“Would you believe they are the same beers?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“I’m blown away,” said Tei. “I knew glass shape mattered, but it makes all the difference in the world.”