Whatever your poison of choice may be, you’ve probably spent a lot of time sliding your chilled fingertips across the smooth surface of many types of glassware and thought to yourself “How do bartenders choose the right glassware?” Whether you’re enjoying a red wine, Tom Collins, Old Fashioned, Trappist ale, or just a light pilsner it’s a mystery to most just why we drink each of these from different vessels. The truth is rather simple in most cases.
Starting with how you order a drink is a big part of it. Have you ever ordered a whiskey and asked for it straight up? A common mistake is that this means it should be served neat, or as a shot in a rocks glass (the small, squat, thick-walled glasses we’re accustomed to doing shots out of). Technically asking a bartender for something straight up means it’s going to be chilled and served to you in a martini glass (or more broadly known as a cocktail glass). But why?
Stemmed glassware such as a martini glass, flute (tall and thin and what sparkling wine is served in), or wine glasses has a very specific purpose: temperature control. Anything typically served with a stem is meant to be imbibed at a specific enough temperature that your own body heat can warm it up faster than you can drink it under the best conditions to do so. If you grip the glass by the stem when sipping, it will slow down the processes of your ice cold drink equalizing with the room temperature and will facilitate the first sip being just as delicious as the last. In the case of red wine, which is often served already at room temperature, this keeps the beverage from going beyond that and equalizing with your much higher body temperature as you sip it.
Beyond the stem there is the matter of why we have different shaped vessel for the actual spirit(s). Many of the reasons are entirely superficial, aside from assisting the aroma of certain drinks that are known for theirs. As an example, the flute is designed specifically to be long and skinny to show off the bubbles as they cascade from the bottom to the top of the drink. This is the same reasoning behind a tall and skinny pilsner beer glass, or the Collins glass that fizzy cocktails are often served in. Wine glasses are designed (wide and bulbous with a large opening to drink from) to force you to dip your nose below the rim of the glass so that you’re smelling the drink as you drink it. Since your sense of smell is tied directly to your taste buds this enhances the flavor of a wine exponentially.
The heavy thick-walled beer steins you see German beers typically served in have their own purpose as well. The handle and density of the glass, just like the more elegant wine glass, is used to keep your beer nice and chilled for as long as possible. Other beer glasses such as the goblet or chalice (wide and bowl-like) are used because the heavier bodied Belgian ales and German bocks are aromatic enough that all you need is a wide surface for your nose to hang above while you sip, most are also etched at the bottom to create a constant flow of bubbles that assist with creating a healthy head, or foamy topping that traps the flavor into the beer itself for a torrent of flavors on each sip.
Other beer glasses, such as the tulip (a bulbous bottom that tappers inward and eventually back out at the rim) or snifter (bulbous bottom that simply tapers inward) is used, again, for the aromatics and to focus both the smell and the taste with each gulp. They help create a healthy head that acts as a natural “cork” for the aromas and the small opening assists in swirling the beverage (similar to what you see in wine tastings) to help shake it up and release those wonderful smells just before tasting.
So whether the tasting world is something that tickles your palate or you’re more interested in slamming as many brews as possible at least you know why when you order a bottle the bartender asks you if you want a glass with that. No matter if you’re an aficionado of alcohol or a blue-ribbon lover living the high life there is still one very good reason to always drink from a glass: You have no idea where that bottle or can has been. Between the bottling process, storage, transportation, more storage, delivery, and even more storage in a bars’ basement you have no idea what has settled or touched what you’re putting your lips on.
So the wide spectrum of vessels hanging, or sitting upturned, behind the bar you’re at has their purposes, and despite how different they all look their justifications ferment down to a few simple motivations: To show off the best qualities of your particular drink of choice and using science to combine as many of your senses as possible to create the best possible experience in every glass to get your money’s worth.