Why It's Important to Serve a Cocktail in the Right Glass

It's not just about looks—the size, shape, thickness, and curve of the glass all impact your drink's flavor.

glass glossary group of different types with drinks
Photo: Bryan Gardner

When it comes to getting the most out of your cocktails, the glass you use can actually make a big difference. Think about it—would you drink a cold, clear martini out of a thick ceramic coffee mug? Unlikely. The reason, though, is as much about aromatics, alcohol content, presence of ice, or other accoutrements as it is about aesthetics. A lot more goes into it than you may know. To learn more, we checked in with Zane Harris, the skilled bartender and spirits specialist who designed Riedel's Drink Specific Glassware.

The initial idea for the project formed decades ago, when Harris was a young bartender and classic cocktails were becoming more popular. "The available glassware never evolved with the industry. We were forced to scour estate sales and eBay for vintage glassware that could accommodate the renaissance of the cocktail," Harris says. "I started taking mental notes. It wasn't until I found myself in a room with George Riedel, where he was presenting wine varietal-specific glassware, that that it clicked. If he cared this much about wine glasses, maybe he would be interested in fixing this giant gap in the cocktail world with me."

That experience has made Harris the ranking cocktail glass expert in the world. Here's what he has to say about choosing the right glass for every drink—and what should be on your home bar.

Elements of a Cocktail Glass That Change a Drink's Flavor

It's well-accepted that, at the very least, wine glasses can and should be separated into red and white specific shapes in order to get the most from the experience of smelling and sipping. Cocktails (and spirits on their own) are no different. "The ingredients in a cocktail can be just as intricate and nuanced as any wine—sometimes more so. Aroma, flavor and, of course, appearance all factor into the experience," says Harris.


The shape (and size—but more on that later!) of a glass not only controls the way you perceive alcohol, but it also directs the liquid into different parts of your mouth, affecting the way you taste it. For example, if you drink a high-proof spirit like whiskey or vodka out of a glass with a narrow opening, the first thing you will smell is the ethanol fumes from the spirit going directly into your nose.

"Alternatively, if you widen the top of the glass, the fumes dissipate and you start to sense other aromas hidden behind the ethanol—making your perception and experience of the same exact spirit much more enjoyable," says Harris.


With cocktails, there's always a focus on functionality. One thing that's especially important is the volume of the glass, says Harris: You wouldn't use a tall Collins glass for a demure straight-up Manhattan. It would only fill a third of that vessel, and all the aromatics would be lost. You want to use the right glass to ensure that the recipe for a drink fills it proportionately. "The displacement of ice needs to be accounted for, so we maintain the right ratio of ice to liquid," adds Harris.

Thick vs. Thin Glass

The thickness of your cocktail glass is something to pay attention to, as well. "A thin lip with no roll is always a better experience than a thick rolled lip when drinking," says Harris, adding that a rocks glass with a bit of weight to it is also nicer to hold in the hand. "Think about it like a business card. If it's flimsy and cheap, people think that same about you," he says. "On the flipside, if it's too thick and clunky, they will think you're overcompensating for something. You can have the best cocktail in the world, but if it's served in a solo cup, you will think it's cheap."


The curve of the glass matters; it also directs the cocktail to specific parts of your mouth. "If you put a high-proof cocktail, like a Manhattan or a martini, into a glass that is too wide—like a modern 'V' shaped martini glass—the strong drink hits the very sensitive tip of your tongue, making you perceive the drink as too strong and unbalanced," says Harris.

Look for something with a smaller, rounded shape, like the Nick and Nora glass; its slightly inward-turned lip makes you tip your head slightly, delivering the drink toward the mid-palate of your mouth, which is much less sensitive to the flavor of alcohol, says Harris.

The Best Cocktail Glasses to Have on Hand

For the average home bar, Harris recommends having a set of rocks and highball glasses as a baseline. "They can serve as entertaining glassware, as well cocktail glassware," he says. "But I would also recommend having a glass that caters to your favorite cocktail, in addition to the basics."

If you love a martini, for instance, keep a Nick and Nora set on hand. If whiskey sours are your go-to, keep a sour glass on hand. "Build out a bar cart based on what you love to make and enjoy, as those will always be the glasses you gravitate towards first," Harris says.


As for what glasses work best with which drinks? Harris has a few thoughts on that, too. Rocks and double rocks glasses are best for shaken and stirred drinks that go on ice—like an old-fashioned or margarita.


For tall, ice-filled drinks that have a carbonated mixer, highball glasses cover a lot of territory (including mules).

Neat or Nick and Nora

"The neat glass is best for straight spirits and boozy drinks you don't want on the rocks, like the Sazerac or maybe a martini if you don't want stemmed glasses," says Harris. He suggests the martini glass or a Nick and Nora for anything that is stirred and served up, like a martini or Manhattan. In other words, drinks served in these cups are boozy without juices.

Sour Glass or Coupe

A sour glass or a large coupe is the best choice for shaken drinks that are served up without ice. Think a whiskey sour with egg whites or a cosmopolitan—that is, drinks with juices and other modifiers, such as egg white or cream, that are shaken.


Harris also designed a fizz glass, similar to your work-a-day juice glass. It's tall enough for effervescent drinks like a gin fizz or a spritz.

Stick to Classic Cocktail Glasses

Classic drinks endure for a reason, as do the shape of classic glass designs. "Form and function are the hallmark of timeless design. You should never have one without the other in my opinion," says Harris. "I find that chasing trends is such a self-fulfilling prophesy of obsolescence. If you design classics, then you never go out of style, like the tuxedo or a little black dress."

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