confused man holding whisky glasses

It wasn’t all that long ago that drinking whisky was a simple thing to do. You bellied up to the bar and asked for a whisky. If you were picky, you asked for a Scotch or maybe a Bourban, never rye. In return, you received an ice-filled tumbler with Johnny Walker or maybe Jack Daniels.

But times have changed, and so have our expectations. We now sit in a pub and ask for a whisky, neat with water back. If we’re on top of our game, we’ll call out a specific brand. And if our selection comes in a tumbler, we may wince and cast the barkeep a disparaging eye.

Nowadays we are a bit more discriminate against in what we drink and how we drink it.  You don’t ask for a “shot” of Aberlour A’ Bundah. That would be blasphemous! Nor would you expect to be served an “Old Grand-Dad” in a stylish Glencairn glass.

So, what’s a person to expect? Here are my guidelines concerning glassware when ordering a whisky.

Shot Glass & Shooter

A shot glass holds approximately 1.5 ounces of whisky and stands about 2 3/8” high. Whisky consumed in shot glasses is meant to be downed in a single stroke. No attempt to appreciate the subtleties a whisky may offer. It’s a classic case of “I’ve had a tough day and want to put it all behind me!”

However, pairing shots with beer is a classic combination and common practice around the world. In America, the mixture, known as a boilermaker, has made a comeback in recent years.

Most often, the whisky is downed in one gulp and then washed down with a sip of beer. However, some folks prefer to drink a bit of beer and then add the whisky directly to the pint glass. And then, of course, there is always the character who gets a kick out of dropping the shot, glass and all, directly into the beer. They call that a depth-charge.

Traditionally, not much thought went into pairing a particular whisky with a specific beer. In fact, it was usually cheap whisky and an ordinary beer. Surprisingly though, a spicy bourbon or smoky Scotch often pairs well with a dark roasted ale. A shot of Bulleit bourbon with Guinness is also a popular pairing.

A shooter, on the other hand, is a mixed drink or cocktail served in a similar glass.  However, glassware used for shooters tends to be taller, slimmer, and more stylish. They are also a little larger and hold 2 – 3 ounces.

And lastly, do not confuse a shot glasses or shooters with a jigger. A jigger is a tool used to measure pours for mixed drinks. They are hour-shaped and usually made of stainless steel. One side measures 1 oz while the other end measures 1.5 oz or various other combinations.


Up until recently, the tumbler was the classic whisky glass, at least in America. Supposedly, the name dates back to the 17th century when glasses had rounded bottoms and were not meant to be set down. The idea was that a customer would drink more over the course of the night if they didn’t put their glass down.

Ironically, modern tumblers have wide, thick bases and are very stable. There are no set dimensions for a tumbler, and stylistically they vary a great deal. In general, a tumbler is about 3 ½” to 4” tall and about 3” wide at the base. The top of the glass measures the same or slightly wider than the bottom. Tumblers hold between 4 – 10 ozs., depending on their design.

Many people refer to a tumbler as a “rocks glass,” filling them with ice before pouring a serving of whisky over the top. Think of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin swaggering onto the stage, a cigarette in one hand, a Jack Daniels “on the rocks” in the other.  The Japanese, in particular, are fond of drinking their whisky over ice and in true Japanese style opt for beautiful spheres of ice rather than cubes.

The tumbler is the serving choice for “lowball” cocktails; a mixed drink with a limited number of ingredients. Classic lowball cocktails include scotch and soda, Mint Julip, or a Manhatten. In fact, many people refer to tumblers as Old Fashioned glasses named after the famous cocktail.

Glencairn Glass

The Glencairn glass is a relative newcomer but has taken center stage in the whisky world. Developed in association with a group of master blenders, Glencairn Crystal Ltd, Scotland, designed explicitly for drinking whisky. The company introduced the glass in 2001 and soon thereafter the Scotch Whisky Association endorsed it as their official whisky glass. It is also the official whisky glass for all Scottish distilleries.

The glass is modeled after the copita glass (see below) used in blending labs. It has a tulip-like shape and measures approximately 4 1/2 “ high. Designed to hold 1.5 ounces of whisky, it has an overall volume of 6 fluid ounces.  The glass has a bulbous form that channels the subtle aromas up the neck and over the lip, enhancing the nosing experience.

In 2006 the glass received the highest official UK awards for British businesses, the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. The award targets innovations and business practices that excel at international trade, innovation, or sustainable development.

The success of the Glencairn glass spawned the development of several other “whisky glasses,” including the  Riedel and Norlan Glass. A recent introduction to the whisky glass scene is the Tuath (tu – ah) Irish whiskey glass. It is similar in proportion to the Riedel glass but has a unique stem and base. Inspired by the rugged Irish coastline, the base is asymmetrical allowing for a firm grip. The glass stands 5.12″H x 2.75″W x 2.75″ D  and has a capacity of 7.1 oz. Like the Glencairn glass, the Tuath glass holds 1.5 oz.

reidel tuath glasses 1In recent years merchants have introduced many unique and stylish whisky glasses to the market. Some are elegant and enhance the ambiance of the drinking experience, while others are gimmicky and do little for the tasting experience.

Copita Glass

The last glass I want to discuss is the copita glass; a stemmed tulip-shaped glass used widely throughout the whisky blending industry. It is also the official nosing glass of the Upper Valley Whisky Society.

Also referred to as a “dock glass,” its design is based on the traditional Spanish glass used to sample sherry and wines. The term “dock glass” relates to the fact that merchants once used a similar shaped glass when nosing shipments of wine or spirits before offloading or accepting delivery.

The bulb allows aromas to collect while the volatile alcohols rapidly escape. The stemmed glass enables the taster to tip and swirls the glass so that the color and viscosity of the whisky can be perceived. The bowl shape also allows a taster to cup the glass, warming it slightly and thus to release additional vapors.

Copita glasses come with lids to help contain and concentrate the aromas. Caps or covers are especially useful when nosing several whiskies at a time. Not only do the tops concentrate the aromas, but they also prevent the aromas from dissipating before a whisky can be sampled.

Artisan Glasses

In addition to the glasses noted above, there have been many other entries to the whisky glass market. Many are stylish variations of the classic tumbler. However, some manufacturers tout glasses such as the Norlan Whisky Glass as the ultimate whisky glass in design and function. Fluid dynamics, ergonomics, and aesthetics drives its modern design. Its makers tout it as a “perfect synthesis of a tumbler form, with an exceptionally improved nosing glass performance.”

artisan glassesIn the final analysis, the whisky glass you choose depends a great deal on how you want to experience your whisky. The copita glass is hard to beat when it comes to carefully judge whiskey’s subtle attributes. But a tumbler filled with ice makes a classic statement.