For those new to the glamorous life, the high-end dinner table or cocktail party may seem impossibly complex. However, not every elegant diner who seems preternaturally at ease with fancy dining paraphernalia learned her skills at finishing school. In fact, most fanciness newbies learn the difference between a grapefruit spoon and a caviar spoon, or between a tumbler and a highball glass, by experience and study.
We’ll leave it to you and your companion to decide where best to practice, but below is a primer on the many different kinds of glassware designed to bring out the best in your wine. Keep those pinky fingers extended, ladies!
Every element of a wine glass is there for a particular reason.
Just about every glass meant to hold wine has a stem. These may be tall stems in relation to the bowl, as in sherry glasses and champagne flutes; or they may be stubby, as in port and madeira glasses. Most glasses for standard red and white wines, however, have a stem length roughly equal to the height of their bowls.
Cocktail glasses sporting stems include those for martinis, with their signature cone shape. Another spirits glass is just for grappa and has a unique and charming bubble shape at the bottom of its bowl for this strong brandy that must be kept cool to remain palatable.
Actually, keeping wine and spirits cool is the reason for stems in glassware. You don’t put ice in wine or in a martini, for example, but these drinks must remain at a relatively low temperature to provide their ideal taste. The stem allows an imbiber to hold on to the glass and sip at her drink while not making it undrinkably warm from the heat of her hand.
If a glass has a wide mouth and a 1-to-1 bowl-to-stem length, it is probably for wine. The larger of such glasses usually hold red wine, and the smaller white wine.
Very small stemware is for dessert wines such as port, “standard” sweet, and sauternes as well as the aforementioned madeira and sherry.
Narrow stemware such as tulips and flutes are intended for sparkling wines, since not as much of the liquid is exposed to the air. This helps keep bubbly … well, bubbly longer. The best sparkling wine glasses incorporate a single notch near the bottom to create a steady stream of intoxicating bubbles.
Alsace and hock glasses have very long stems when compared to their small bowls. It would be best practice to just ask your sommelier or a bartender to demonstrate use of these specialized pieces of glassware. (Remember that cocktail creation specialists grow tired of the making the same old thing and may jump at the chance to show off some little-used but impressive part of their mixological repertoire!)
While you are likely to see wine glasses in a fine dining situation, at a cocktail party any kind of glassware may be used, depending on what the guest is drinking.
Glasses for spirits
Naturally, cocktail parties will offer wine from red to white to dessert to sparkling, so all of the stemware covered last time will be on display. Now, however, many other fun variations may be seen. Each different cocktail glass not only provides the ideal taste experience for its matching drink, but also embodies a signature “look” for the lady or gentleman holding that cocktail.
The Rocks Glass
A “rocks” or “old fashioned” glass is perfect for aromatic spirits and liquors which you keep cool with ice. This is the classic cocktail glass. This is the glass you’d see in the hand of Don Draper as he unwinds at home after a day at Sterling Cooper. (The other hand would be holding a cigarette, of course.) A man or woman holding a rocks glass gives off an air of old school charm, a bit of throwback bite with his or her practiced savoir faire.
The Collins Glass
Thin like a champagne flute but the same diameter at the top as at the bottom, the Collins glass is perfect for drinks utilizing soda water for bubbles and ice to keep the drink cool as it’s held in one’s hand. The narrowness of this glass serves the same purpose as a flute for bubbly, as it minimizes the liquid’s exposure to air and thus keeps the drink fizzy for a longer period of time.
The Highball Glass
Highball glasses are similar to Collins glasses in height, but the former is used for more aromatic drinks than bubbly ones, and drinks in highball glasses usually incorporate a lot of ice compared even to a Tom Collins. This is the glass universally preferred for Bloody Marys and Zombies. (Why does a highball glass hold such “horror”? Discuss.)
Glencairn Whisky Glass
If a lady wants to impress her man of her alcohol bona fides, she can do no better than request that her whisky drink be served in a Glencairn whisky glass. Also known as a “dram glass,” the Glencairn was introduced in 2001 by a cabal of five master distilleries searching for the perfect glass from which one could enjoy whisky. Its unique design is reminiscent of a grappa glass, with a bulge at the bottom, but much wider are larger to accommodate the aroma of fine whisky. There are other glasses specifically designed for drinking whisky, but the Glencairn is the only glass used by every distillery in Scotland.
Mixologists and Pretty Ladies
Those new to the more rarefied air of cocktail parties and exclusive pubs shouldn’t hesitate to ask their bartender or other mixing professional to demonstrate what glasses are used for what alcohol. Believe me, an attractive woman seeking some esoteric knowledge from her male barkeep makes a welcome addition during a shift that often seems repetitive and unglamorous. Requests (during slower periods) from an elegant lady for him to demonstrate some underappreciated area of his expertise will rarely be refused.
Once you develop an understanding of the different glasses used for cocktails, you can impress a date by asking for a custom drink and then telling your server or bartender what glass you’d like it in. Sophistication in drinking is like sophistication in wardrobe: It’s not strictly necessary, but it will be noticed—and much appreciated—by those with taste and class.