Glassware, Swirling Whisky, and Winning Whisky Competitions

In the San Francisco 2015 Spirit Competition, Knob Creek won best bourbon. Knob Creek is a fine bourbon (I often use it whisky tastings!). But is it the best bourbon? Fred Minnick, one of the judges at the competition, summarized the problem perfectly:

While I’ve always liked Knob Creek, I’ve never put it in the super elite, the Staggs and Pappys of the world. I’ve not even considered Knob Creek the best bourbon in the Jim Beam portfolio; Booker’s has held that crown. Has Knob Creek been hidden under my nose as the best bourbon this whole time?

The competition had judges using the Neat tasting glass. Neat glassware is broad on the bottom and top unlike the traditional tulip-shaped whisky tasting glass. The Neat Glass definitely changes the flavour and structure of the whisky. The fundamental flaw/feature in the design has to do with swirling the broad-bottomed glass. On the Neat Website:

When using NEAT, swirl, swirl, swirl … and when in doubt, swirl some more.  Swirling enhances evaporation.  Swirling the NEAT glass “powers” the evaporation engine that brings up all aromas … Convergent rim glasses (rim smaller than bowl diameter)  produce concentrated alcohol right at the nose when swirling, obscuring other aromas even more.  That is why other glassmakers tell you “Don’t swirl”

With whisky, in a narrow glass, swirling creates an excessive amount of alcohol vapour blowing out the senses. In wide-rimmed glassware (such as Neat glass), you’re better off swirling the whisky to further excite those molecules because of the broader opening. Neat's clever short design helps in this over the traditional rocks glass, as an example, despite the broad top. So far, so good.

Swirling the glass does, however, change the flavour of the whisky on the palate. Don’t believe me? Take two glasses with the same whisky. Swirl one for a few minutes, and don’t swirl the other. The swirled whisky will likely be sweeter, less textured, muted, and more even-flavoured. For me, in my tests, the essential character of the whisky starts to disappear the same way it would if the whisky was left overnight in the glass.

Excessively swirling a whisky accelerates the natural evaporation process, changing the dynamic of the whisky. This could be good for some whiskies, and bad for others. The same is true when you warm the glass, though at least this is a controlled gentler approach.

However, consider this. Most whiskies are nosed and tasted by whisky makers using tulip-shaped glass. Using broad glassware that requires swirling changes the whisky. To put differently, when reviewing whisky, if I swirl a whisky for four minutes, I’m no longer tasting the same whisky the reader is tasting.

Which brings me back to Knob Creek being picked as the winner in the best bourbon category, over better bourbons such as Booker’s and Stagg Jr. Both Booker’s and Stagg Jr have an incredible thick wonderful nose, that is beautifully balanced with flavour and alcohol on the palate. Knob Creek is a very good bourbon, but in a tulip shape glass, it doesn’t have enough on the nose to keep-up with these stars. In wider glassware, all the best features of Booker’s and Stagg Jr are muted. After excessive swirling, Knob Creek might even stand a chance.

Jamie Johnson and I did a blind tasting earlier in the week, and we recorded it for The Whisky Topic Podcast. While we didn’t use Neat Glass, we used the Canadian-style Glencairn glass. The results were fascinating! I won’t spoil the winners and losers, but this was a very small sampling.

The larger sampling happened in San Francisco, though, when a group of experts picked Knock Creek as the best bourbon in a blind tasting. Maybe for its price-point, but not in a category when  Booker’s and Stagg Jr are also included.