The Ultimate Whisky Glass Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary

The Ultimate Whisky Glass Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of the Glencairn glass. The glass has become indelibly linked with Scotch whisky. The tulip shaped glass has become ubiquitous at tastings and whisky festivals and is considered mandatory in a whisky enthusiast’s bar. Recently I sat down with Martin C. Duffy, North American Brand Representative for Glencairn Crystal, to discuss the history of the Glencairn glass.

Martin C. Duffy is an internationally known spirits educator, drinks industry influencer and Scotch whisky enthusiast. His career spans a range of roles, from his early years as a bartender, to being one of the original Johnnie Walker Scotch Brand Ambassadors, and finally achieving the title of Sr. Master of Whisky for the entire Diageo whisky portfolio. 

Since 2011, Martin has co-produced the Annual Chicago Independent Spirits Expo, the world’s largest exhibition of independently owned spirit brands from around the world, with over 155 exhibitors. He has also been called upon to be a spirits judge for the American Craft Spirits Association’s spirits competition, as well as for the Beverage Testing Institute.

Starting in 2014, he has also been the sole U.S. Brand Representative of the iconic Glencairn whisky tasting glass.

JM: The Glencairn glass is 20 years old this year, but the actual design is far older. What’s the story behind that, and why did it take so long for the design to be put into production? 

MD: Glencairn’s owner, Raymond Davidson, first came up with the idea and design of the now iconic Glencairn tasting glass soon after he opened his crystal studio in 1981. He noticed that there wasn’t a glass that was used specifically for appraising & enjoy whisky. He created a prototype, but then doubted if the industry would actually embrace such a glass, plus at the time, how would such a glass be promoted. 

Fast forward 19 years later when Paul Davidson, Raymond’s oldest son, spotted the prototype collecting dust on a shelf in his father’s office. He asked his father what it was, Once he was told, he loved the idea. He first wanted to pass the idea by some industry insiders and get their professional input on the final design and whether such a glass would be accepted among whisky makers, much less whisky drinkers. Five different whisky blenders from some of the key producers in Scotland made their suggestions on tweaks to the size and shape of the glass. 

Once the final design was decided upon, the glass was ready to be revealed to the world. Perhaps the biggest early showcases for the Glencairn tasting glass was the popular Whiskyfest in the U.S. and Whisky Live in the UK. The birth of the large whisky tasting events was the perfect exposure to both consumers as well as the trade to the now very familiar Glencairn Glass.

JM: What does the Glencairn Crystal company actually do?

MD: As of 2019, the Glencairn glass makes up 40% of our sales. Another 40% is represented by the custom decanters for special distillery bottlings. The remaining revenues are corporate and retail sales. We provide many of the crystal gift items in shops throughout Scotland, Ireland and the UK.

We produce around 3 million glasses per year. Roughly 28 million over the last 20 years. We sell directly to over 70 countries, and including our distribution partners, to over 130.

The Glencairn Studios started out creating the classic crystal decanter sets for whisky lovers, and we still do. We make everything from the Pot Still decanter for $70.00 (branded with the owner’s name) to $4000.00 gold inlay decanters with matching cut crystal tumblers in a velvet lined redwood box. 

In addition, we create custom decanters/bottlings for such well known whisky brands as Johnnie Walker, Teeling Irish whiskey, Glenfarclas single malt Scotch, Sazerac, Four Roses and many more. We also produce the leather travel case for 2 Glencairn Glasses, along with Glencairn cufflinks, earrings, charm bracelets, lapel pins and keychains. And for the bartender, we recently released a cut crystal cocktail mixing glass.

JM: There must be over 100 different designs for whisky glasses from shot glasses to rocks glasses to the tulip or copita shaped. What makes the tulip shaped glass superior to other designs? 

MD: Unlike most glasses, there was much thought and work put into making the glass’s clarity perfect for appraising the color and body of the spirit. This is why we use lead-free crystal glass. (Though we also offer 24% leaded cut crystal Glencairn Glass as well.) The curvature of the bowl allows just the right space for swirling the liquid and driving the characteristics of the aroma up the neck of the glass to an opening that gives the drinker room to nose all 4 points of the compass (up-down, side to side) while still corralling the spirit in a small area and allowing it to mingle with the surrounding air. The base provides perfect balance, plus gives you an opportunity to lay the glass on its side to roll the glass without spilling a drop. Many bars are also amazed at how durable the glass is, even bouncing off some floors when accidently dropped.

JM: There are many variations of the tulip shaped/copita glass. What makes one superior to the other?

MD: Much like the Glencairn tasting glass, you need perfect clarity of the glass, width of the bowl of the glass and distance from the liquid to the mouth of the glass. Another key aspect of the copita glass is a good stem that allows a good hold and durable usability. Many similar glasses have weak stems that break either in one’s hand or after a few washings. You will find that Master Blender Richard Paterson of The Dalmore single malt Scotch is often seen using our stemmed copita glass. He prefers to keep his hands from warming the bottom of the bowl with the heat of his hand, so the stem is quite important to him.

JM: What sort of legal protection can a glass design get? Is it patentable?

MD: The Glencairn Glass did have a patent, but as any inventor can tell you, such patents can expire. However, Glencairn Crystal owns the 3-D Trademark on the glass, which never expires. This is a global protection of both the shape and use of the image of the glass. The company is in a constant state of litigation battling to protect the image and design, especially from cheap knockoffs being produced around the world. If the glass does not say “Glencairn” on the bottom of the base, you know that it is an illegal cheap imitation. To legally use the image of the Glencairn Glass in logos (drink clubs, events, menus, pos, etc.) one needs to register for permission with the company.

JM: Wine glasses come in a range of styles tailored to the type of wine being served. Do you ever see Glencairn glasses specialized for different types of whiskies? 

MD: This has already started to happen. A number of years ago, Glencairn was approached to make a glass that was specific for Canadian whisky, so we created the Canadian Mixer Glass. The glass has a wider mouth and bowl, which allows easier nosing on higher strength whiskies, plus it gives one the opportunity to drop a large ice cube in the glass, and even add a mixer (ginger ale, soda, juice, etc.).

This glass is now generally referred to simply as The Mixer Glass. It has taken on a life of its own in Kentucky and Tennessee for whiskey, plus it has been adopted by gin lovers as a Spanish-style goblet for cocktails. We have also played with the idea of dark colored Glencairn Glasses for blind tastings. We already have a cobalt blue glass and the limited release, last fall, of the black version as well.

JM: What comes next for Glencairn? 

MD: We actually have a number of interesting surprises for the whisky lover coming out in the fall, just in time for the holidays, but I cannot reveal them. One item I can mention is our new stemmed Gin Goblet that is designed to enhance the aromatics of the spirit and allow one to enjoy a Spanish-style service with ice and sliced citrus. Should be quite nice for any gin lover.

Thank you.



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