I was quite confused about alcohol, growing up - the presence of a drinks cabinet full of strangely-shaped glasses that never seemed to get used, combined with early exposure to Jilly Goolden's alarmingly enthusiastic approach to wine tasting on the BBC's Food and Drink, gave me an odd picture of the adult world.
I've since learned, of course, that there are many types of alcoholic drinks around and they are often paired with a particular glass, said to enhance the drinking experience. But how much can a glass affect a drink?
To really bring out the full flavours of a red wine, it's essential to serve it at room temperature and to aerate the wine, or let it "breathe". The rounder, wide-mouthed bowl and shorter stem of a red wine glass facilitate swirling the wine, which aerates the liquid, releases bouquet and gives other clues to its character, all with minimal risk of spilling it everywhere. The shorter stem also allows the heat from your hand to bring the wine to ambient temperature (in fact it's absolutely fine to hold the glass by the bowl for just this reason).
The slight tapering towards the mouth of the glass is said to help direct aromas towards your nose and also to guide the wine to the optimum part of the mouth for full appreciation of its flavours. Austrian company Riedel has designed an impressive range of glasses that are shaped to bring out the character of each wine. While this may seem to be taking things a bit too far, many connoisseurs swear by these tailored receptacles, and I'm inclined to trust the experts.
White wine, rosé, amber and fruit wines
In contrast to red, white wine and other pale wines taste better when chilled and do not need swishing around to release flavours. They are therefore served in a longer-stemmed glass with a smaller, narrower bowl. The extended stem allows you to hold your drink without heating it up, while the reduced surface area at the mouth helps to keep the wine nice and cool.The flute
As anyone who has ever had to resort to drinking champagne out of a plastic mug will tell you, the thin glass of a champagne flute makes all the difference when drinking this famous fizzy white. Champagne's delicate flavours come into their own when kept cold in this tall, very narrow glass; additionally, the flute prevents the bubbles from escaping too quickly, which helps to maintain the light and airy experience of drinking Champagne.The pint
Contrary to the tacit assertion of your average pub, the ubiquitous pint glass is not always the best vessel to put your beer in. The fairly straight, wide glass lets the heat in and the gas out quite readily, often leaving you with a warm beer before you're quite finished. This type of glass is much better suited to serving ale, which is at its best when drunk at (or slightly below) ambient temperature. Get yourself one with a handle attached, however, and your hand will never get close enough to warm your drink up, making it good for lager and cider too.
This glass has a narrower mouth and is usually sharply tapered towards the bottom. Supposedly this slender lower half stops the bubbles in light lagers and wheat beers from departing too quickly, thus maintaining a good head of foam throughout the drinking experience. Personally, I don't like my final mouthful of beer to be all froth, but I guess it's all a matter of taste. The narrower glass again helps to keep the beer cold.
Of course, there is an argument that we have such a plethora of shapes for beer glasses because every manufacturer likes their product to stand out in a crowded bar, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's too cynical…
The whisk(e)y tumbler
The chunky, sturdy tumbler, rolled between warm palms, is perfect for heating, mixing and enticing the full gamut of flavours from Irish whiskey or Scotch, whether you've chosen to add water, ice, or drink it neat. It's also a glass that won't tip over too readily - reassuring when you're drinking spirits.
There really is only one way to comfortably hold this glass, and it provides plenty of contact for gently warming and swirling brandy. The wide mouth also allows the various aromas to rise, enhancing the drinking experience. Balloon glasses are equally well placed to aerate a full-bodied red wine, while the bulbous stumpy bowl is fine for nursing whisky too.… just a lot of fuss?
I'm fairly convinced that the shape of the glass does enhance the drinking experience, but obviously the quality of the alcohol, not to mention personal preference, also have their parts to play. So if you're looking to learn more about what your favourite drinks have to offer, by all means experiment - you'll be pleasantly surprised. But if you're happy with how your drink tastes already and you don't care what it comes in so long as it doesn't leak, that's fine too. Enjoy.