From the gaudiest of over-sized steins, to the daintiest cocktail crystal, Bartenders are fascinated with drinking vessels. There is something special about matching glass to beverage that can truly refine drinking experiences. The best glass isn’t bigger or taller or fancier or pricier – it’s personal, and it just has to feel right. The romance and traditions of drinking culture dictate our emotional approach, but the modern world of glassware has seen an evolution towards the science of taste.
Despite my affinity for antique chalices from the golden age of cocktails, there seems to be no other name in glassware that quite inspires anticipation or satisfies the senses like Riedel. Simply hearing the name tends to implant a sudden desire to drink, but more specifically to taste. The first family of glassware has been redefining the way the world understands booze for eleven generations. They persist in fascinating us with the biology of our own palates, by honing the physics of perception.
Riedel rocked the world of wine thirty years ago when they introduced their Sommelier series: stemware designed to proclaim the individual characteristics of specific grape varietals. Any of us lucky enough to have attended Riedel’s comparative tasting seminars (where they confidently pit their finely-tuned stemware against nameless competitors) have smelled and tasted the difference. The Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts was proud to host such a tasting recently with Riedel embracing the chance to show off their range of Spirit specific stemware to a room of spirit-savvy Vancouver alcoholists. Presiding over the congregation was none other than Georg Riedel himself, to provide inimitable insight on his family’s creations.
Three noble Riedel stems were set before us – shapely designs crafted to showcase Tequila, Cognac and Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. A fourth, more familiar glass stood behind: the iconic Brandy snifter. Mouths watered as we waited for our esteemed guest speaker to arrive. The man is a rock star in the world of drinking and accordingly we greeted him like respectful and adoring groupies, with loud and sincere applause. He is a confident man, who speaks with precision as purposeful as the construction of his glassware. His products are simply good enough to warrant such immodesty. The virtues of the glasses speak for themselves irrespective of Georg’s guidance; though just like a passionate wine steward can elevate dining, so did our host enhance this sensory tour.
The word Tequila is often said with shame, as it can evoke memories of alcoholic self-abuse and resultant indiscretions. The fact is that a fine Tequila is as diverse, vibrant, complex and wonderfully contemplative as its more globally esteemed counterparts from France and Scotland. For this tasting, the good people of Brown Forman supplied palates with Herradura Reposado – an excellent and versatile Tequila that sees almost enough oak age (11 months) for it to be called an Anejo. The challenge with swaying scarred drinkers back to trying Tequila is that most of what we’ve been raised on is of low quality – consumed hastily and masked with salt & lime. Good Tequila can change minds; with Riedel glassware the positive effect is increased tenfold. This sprit is pure and clean, boasting notes of spice, herb, citrus, vanilla and the wonderful complexities of gentle oak ageing. Hasty nosing of any spirit tends to lead to the immediate burn of alcohol in the nostrils, and resultant frying of ones sense of smell.
Riedel’s Tequila glass is essentially a champagne flute – the lowered bowl height collecting aromatics above the vapour’s singe. Georg imparts that this glass has been created to specifically showcase Reposado Tequila – suggesting that un-oaked Blanco is too simple and that Anejo styles are simply too diverse to ensure predictable effects. We truly begin to understand the depth of philosophy and research that has gone into these vessels. The simple act of sipping Tequila from such an elegant stem sets an emotional tone for favourable impressions; belying the humble roots of the grand spirit of Mexico. The crowd quietly smiles and nods with the pleasure of deepened appreciation.
The Cognac glass is up next, and Hennessy VSOP is up to the task. I was trained as most Bartenders and drinkers are – sipping and serving Cognac in a customary snifter. The large surface area created by the iconic snifter bowl indeed allows the spirit within to breathe and the drinker’s hand to warm from below. The classic fishbowl of Cognac appeals to the bigger-is-better approach; some glasses taking on sarcastically large proportions. The consequence of tradition is quickened and unfocused evaporation, giving aromatics permission to escape too quickly thereby inviting scorching alcohol to run amuck.
If we shun tradition and talk perception, the Riedel Cognac glass is revolutionary – allowing otherwise unattainable cognizance. Designed with VSOP Cognac and higher (XO and prestige bottlings) in mind, the appearance is akin to a dessert wine or eau-de-vie stem; appropriate as Fine Cognac is indeed a blend of eau-de-vies. This subtly striking stem features a finely flared lip – seeking to support both form and function. The bowl is slightly broader, giving the Hennessy ample oppourtunity to percolate its attributes before they chimney towards our senses. Aromatics of caramel, clove and oak seem to dig deeper when unencumbered by boozy volatility – a far more seductive and satisfying nosing experience. The out-turned lip of the glass is cheeky; seemingly pursing itself to meet yours. The curl of the rim deposits Cognac on the tongue precisely where it means to – a little closer to the sweet-spot near the front; de-accentuating bitter and sharp perceptions in favour of bright citrus, rich berry, and dark sugars sensations. A proposed transition from established snifter to the Riedel Cognac stem may be cause for fear of change but the rewards of bravery are undeniable. More smiling and nodding ensues. As expected, Georg Riedel and his stemware are two-for-two.
I first encountered the Riedel Single Malt Whiskey glass over a decade ago during my time as Bar Manager at Araxi in Whistler. The design dates back to 1992 when Georg and his team were challenged by Campbell Distillers (of Aberlour fame) to develop a glass which would highlight the special characteristics of Single Malt Whisky. The result was the thistle-shaped beauty we’ve come to know and love drinking our Single Malt from for almost two decades. The glass dimensions are not dissimilar from a standard tumbler; consciously embracing the beloved and essential vessel of usquebaugh enthusiasts. This gorgeous goblet stands out in a crowd – perched on stem and foot and crowned by the curl of its lip, creating a timeless and unique look that is unmistakably Riedel. When nosed – vibrant toffee, soft smoke and robust peat float easily up the crystal walls to your lucky face. Like the Cognac glass, the design of the out-turned lip is aesthetic and scientific; directing the spirit even further toward the sweet-perceiving tip of the tongue and dramatically enhancing the elegance and creaminess of single malt. Even though I’ve sipped my scotch from this glass for years, it continues to be a special experience every single time.
If I’m at a Bar and lucky enough to have a drink in my hand, I’m not one to get particular about my stemware. Sometimes the emotional value of a swilling a dirty dram from a sketchy glass is just part of the tavern experience. The antithesis of such satisfying squalor, is to lose yourself in refined Riedel indulgence. Find them behind an ambitious Bar, kept by an impassioned Bartender, then lose yourself in geeky wonder. Better yet, score yourself a set of these crystal wonders and enjoy them at home. You’ll thank me. You’ll thank Georg.
Taste your favourite spirits again – as though it were the first time. The Bar is open
~ Jay Jones