The Norlan Whisky Glass Comparative Tasting

Norlan Whisky GlassOne of whisky's biggest and most interesting Kickstarters was the Norlan Whisky Glass. The idea was to make the best possible glass to drink whisky from, which is a deceptively simple proposition.

The problem of a whisky glass is simple - it has to deliver the sensations of the whisky to two nearby but not immediately adjacent orifices. Specifically, it must deliver whisky to the mouth and also get vapour to the nose. A large tumbler is awful to drink whisky from because it allows the vapour to roam freely away, so you don't get enough delivered to the nose. A highly fluted glass with a narrow neck solves this, delivering an incredibly directed stream of vapour so that you get the best possible nosing experience. Unfortunately, when you drink, the restricted opening means you get a less of the vapour, perhaps impacting the flavours you detect on the body.

Also, the smaller the opening the more you end up having to tip your head back to get liquid out and get a good combination of vapour and liquid. Which, Norlan claim, is antisocial. (They've evidently not met my friends.)

It could also be argued that the good chaps at Norlan are trying to solve a problem that's already been solved. The Glencairn glass was launched in 2001, and seems to have won the industry over. It's obviously far better than a tumbler, which was what most people had available before it. Everyone that's ever owned more than 10 different whiskies probably has at least one or two tucked away in the cupboard at home, proudly bearing someone's logo.

So the Norlan glass has some competition. And that got me thinking - maybe I should do a comparative tasting - one whisky, multiple glasses?

Of course, the whisky would have to be suitable. It shouldn't be cask strength, as that would make the volatile vapours too easy to detect even from a bad glass. It shouldn't have big, pungent smells - which would create the same problem. Basically, it needs to be a superb, flavourful and light blend.

Those who know me know what words are coming next.

Compass Box Hedonism MaximusCompass Box Hedonism.

Sadly, I'm almost at the end of my current crate of Hedonism, and don't quite have enough left to manage a decent measure across a few glasses.

So, with great reluctance, I opted for my second choice - Hedonism Maximus.

At 46% abv and with a magnificent nose and body, it should suffice. Although how I'll get through so many glasses of it is anyone's guess...

For this test, I picked five glass styles:

The testing protocol was simple:

  1. I poured a dram into each, and then let them sit for three minutes
  2. I then nose and sip each one, and take a couple of minutes as a break
  3. I then swirl the glass a few times, nose and sip
  4. Another set of swirls, with more aggression then nose and sip

All tasting done at room temperature. No cupping or warming.

(I hear if you warm a glass three times, Richard Paterson jumps out of the nearest mirror and kills you.)

Norlan Whisky Glass Tasting Lineup - FilledThe order will be SMWS, tulip, Norlan, tumbler, Glencairn. Placing the Norlan in the middle was deliberate, to try to be fair - the others were placed randomly.

Immediately after pouring all five, the room is quite full of pungent PVA glue, balsa wood, vanilla sponge and other wonderful notes. I feel that this might be better done with two rooms, or perhaps with a fan behind me to move the vapour along. Ah well - too late to change the experimental protocols now!

In the first round, the SMWS copita-style glass definitely delivers the best nose. All the light, sweet and delicate notes are there. The tumbler is predictably the worst, but the big surprise for me was how different the nose is between the SMWS, tulip, copita-style and Norlan were. The tulip and copita-style glasses delivered the lighter, sweeter notes far more effectively, and the tumbler seemed to deliver only the heavier notes like liquorice, wood shavings and PVA glue. The Glencairn managed a better balance between those extremes, but was a little on the heavier side. I'd also like to note that the Norlan's very thick lip also made drinking a little hard to sip from. I think on this first round, the tulip glass did the best all round.

I leave the room for some water before the next round.

Now this is where I hope it will be interesting - let's see how swirling mixes things up. Just a few swirls around the glass, in smooth motions with no violence or changes of direction. Now the Norlan glass definitely delivers a better dram, with distinct balance of those heavier, woodier notes in the nose. The tulip glass and the copita-style glass show slight improvement in their nose, but interestingly there's a lot more in the body in the copita-style glass - maybe the movement gave the vapours enough of a boost to reach my nose? The tumbler had no improvement, and neither did the Glencairn. On this round, I'll say that the Glencairn glass has it, but I'm impressed by the improvement in the Norlan.

Now for the final round, with some more aggressive swirling. (This will necessitate some cupping, I have put bars over my mirror in case Richard Paterson appears...) The copita-style glass really delivers a superb nose now, and the body has risen up to join it. The tulip glass is showing me subtleties that I'd previously missed (brown sugar? Rice crackers?). The whisky in the Norlan made some noise as I swirled it, but in terms of experience it's now the equal of the tulip or copita-style glasses in the previous rounds. Which is great, but crucially it hasn't caught up to them in this round. The tumbler is marginally improved, but then there wasn't much to improve from - it's still the worst of the glasses. Finally, the Glencairn has a little more intensity. I repeat the nosing and tasting of the Glencairn, to see if there's any flavour changes - but to no avail.

I should state that these really have been sips - most of these glasses are still plenty full. So maybe it's time to fix that? A swirl and a gulp from each...

And the volume drunk didn't change much for any of these glasses except the tumbler, which was more intense. I suspect mostly because my nose was much further into the glass this time.

There was still quite a lot left in each glass, so I poured them all into the Norlan to give it a fair time with a decent charge of whisky. It suspect that this glass needs more than 25ml of liquid in it - probably 50ml to get the best effect. But as I completed the draft of this text, I was happily reaching for this glass and enjoying the whisky in it - at no point did I feel I was missing any flavours, provided I gave it a little swirl before nosing and sipping. And I also noticed that I didn't have to tip my head back as much to have a sip, which was handy whilst typing.

Norlan Whisky Glass IISo which was the best?

Well, as I've hinted at above, that depends on the purpose. Are you writing tasting notes, or are you drinking socially?

For tasting: The long-stemmed tulip glass.

For drinking socially: The Norlan.

I was very surprised at how the long-stemmed tulip glass gave me the whole whisky, in all its stages and subtleties. I'd say that the Glencairn comes second for tasting, and the copita-style glass comes third.

If you're drinking socially, the Glencairn or the long-stemmed tulip will also be fine, but the copita is a little too closed.

I'd forgotten how bad a tumbler was. I'm now going to drink the rest of the five drams, to try and forget again...

A lot of people have spoken about the weight of the Norlan glass, saying that it doesn't feel good in the hand. I agree that it's very light, but it's also warmer. The heavier glasses are colder to the touch, the Norlan glass feels odd at first but after a while it feels not only natural, but pleasant. Given the choice between this and the heavier, colder feel of the cut-glass tumbler I'd pick the Norlan every time.

Norlan Whisky Glass and PackagingBefore I go, a quick note on the packaging of the Norlan glass, which was simple yet very effective. Don't forget to rummage around at the bottom of the tube, for the cleaning cloth!

And there we have it. The Norlan whisky glass. We've learnt that it excels at what it was sold as - a social whisky drinking glass. It's not so good as a tasting glass, but then they never sold it as that. So that's fine.

(Some would say that we've also learnt that there are no excuses too contorted, and no lengths too absurd that I would not go to them in order to drink five drams of Hedonism Maximus. Many more would say that we already knew that!)