Handle The Proof: Riedel Spirits Glasses

Years ago I took a glass tasting course from Riedel--which I'm sure you understand means I sampled wine from Riedel stemware.

It's an extraordinary thing: wine poured into a normal red or white wine glass tastes very different when served in one designed for the specific grape. In fact, the change in perception is so dramatic, you can barely tell each pour shares the same lineage, much less the same bottle.

They achieve this by allowing aromas to either collect or dissipate, and by directing the flow of liquid to one part of your tongue or another. Or, as Georg Riedel explains, "the difference between the scent of a rose petal and chicken shit is the molecule."

The idea is to get the rose petal molecule to beat the other to the right spot, or something.

After finishing out their line of wine glasses--designing stems for everything from the Amarone blend to Zinfandel (they even produced separate lines for Bordeaux and mature Bordeaux)--the Austrian firm turned their attention to spirits.

Earlier this week I tried out their tequila, Cognac and single malt glasses.

Being Austrian, Riedel is a taskmaster. The tasting lasted for two hours and if you tried to, say, hurry things along by reaching for a glass before he gave the orders, you recieved a stern rebuke.

The glasses, however, perform with impressive subtlety. Cazadores reposado in its proper tequila glass is a rounded spirit flowing across the nose with hints of grass, caramel and vanilla, with a slight peppery sting--but no sign of alcohol. When sipped, you discover a fruity-sweet tequila with a long spicy finish. Served in the Cognac glass, this same brand smacks your palate with pepper. Poured into a single malt glass, the aroma vanishes completely yet the tequila tastes of fire and oak.

It's the same with Cognac and single malt. The former--Martel VSOP--in its proper stemware, blossoms in citrus, zest and caramel flavors that unfold one by one. Present Cognac in a tequila glass, though, and this is replaced by a harsh alcoholic burn.

"This is what you want to do--enhance," Riedel explains. "Why do we drink these spirits? Because we want to enjoy them."

Yes, but his work brings up several interesting questions, not the least of which is how they determine what one should smell and taste. Turns out they send a team to the region in which a particular liquor is produced. These designers gather feedback from a workshop and create a prototype glass, which is then put to the test and perfected.

But here's the problem: Sample Cognac in one glass and then another. The experience is quite different. So if, before the advent of spirit specific (or grape specific) stemware, no one tasted the proper flavors in a liqour or wine, how do really know Cognac should be one but not the other? Has Riedel just reengineered things to provide a profile pleasing to most?

Perhaps.

Just know the glass you use does affect the flavor of a drink. And there's something elegant in the way they manipulate the character of a spirit. Single malt can be warm and grassy in one glass, taste of dull brown sugar in another. In its "proper" vessel, however, you experience grain, followed by a sensation of caramelized alcohol then a smoky tint.

You can pick the one you like.


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