Meet the brandy snifter, a sophisticated friend to booze.
The brandy snifter is a glass that takes itself very seriously.
The wide, curvy—almost Rubenesque—vessel for the consumption of such largely underutilized spirit has become a piece of imbibing culture more associated with glided wealth than any other type of drinkware. The brandy snifter reads Harper’s. The brandy snifter has strong opinions about boarding schools. The brandy snifter possibly owns a monocle.
With a plump body, ample pour-ready bosom and general heft that practically oozes old money, the snifter’s shape is largely reminiscent of the portly men who stereotypically enjoy its contents. (I haven often imagined them chortling by a roaring fire over robber baron-style schemes or swilling the liquor while counting their gold bars and puffing on Cuban cigars.)
Snifter enthusiasts count among their ranks some of the 20th Century’s most well-to-do-figures, both fictional and historical. Winston Churchill boasted an extensive snifter collection, while James Bond was known to partake in a brandy tipple when meeting with distinguished (yet evil) tuxedo-clad villains in a number of his films.
Through no real fault of its own, the snifter’s opulent air often feels foreign and—in many ways—inaccessible to the majority of us who dwell in the land of the hoi polloi.
Of course, there are other types of glassware that provide a sense of sophistication and a feeling of affluence for those of us not fortunate enough to be a descendant of the Vanderbilt clan. We clink together the lithe, flower-like flutes of Champagne glasses on special occasions, and might even dust off a set of pewter Julep cups for an annual Kentucky Derby party. At the end of the day, though, these drinking rituals are more ceremony than regular occurrence. The snifter stands alone in this regard.
While the snifter will never be able to shake the fact that it shares an alarmingly similar sound to snobby and snooty, it’s high time to bring it to the masses and allow brandy to shine as a drink planted in our regular drinking repertoire.
In keeping with its current "well-aged" target demographic, brandy (which is, at its heart, simply a distilled wine) has a centuries-old history dating back to the Romans.
"Some of the ancient wines seem to have been brandy," writes Classics scholar Paul Haupt. "Pliny [the Edler] says that the Falernian District produces a wine which could be ignited. Brady is inflammable, while wine will refuse to deflagrate."
The Ancient Egyptians likely made use of brandy in ritualistic practices, with embalmers reportedly washing the abdominal cavity of cadavers with a date version of the spirit.
When it wasn’t being used to help purify dead bodies, brandy was sipped from goblet-style glasses (often, made out of gold or bejeweled) during this era. It’s likely not a coincidence that the goblet’s shape—wide, balloon-like—is quite similar to modern day snifters.
For those among us who have never palmed a brandy snifter, the shape of the glass may seem to be the throwaway whim of a designer looking for flourished, Art Deco-style appeal. Au contraire. The snifter is specifically fashioned to enhance the sensory experience associated with sipping brandy, from first waft to final, warm sip.
Snifters are traditionally crafted from very thin, fine crystal, with a stoutly-set, bottom-heavy bell and stumpy stem made for holding in one’s palm between the fingers. The rounded shape of the glass is engineered to allow drinkers to inhale the brandy's aroma with each sip, letting the liquor's "bouquet" and its various notes unfold to tickle the nostrils. This olfactory sensation occurs while a person is warming the drink with his/her palm over the course of imbibing, making the snifter a vehicle for a completely engaged drinking practice—from touch to taste and beyond. When accurately poured (about six unces per glass), a proper snifter can also be turned over on its side without spilling a drop of liquid.
Snifters have an uncanny level of behind-the-scenes science at work. Deviations from the standard snifter also exist, most often in the form of a tiny, beak-like pour spout protruding from one edge. There’s even a comically elaborate version known as a "pipe snifter" with an elongated pour spout that looks like a hybrid of a tea kettle and an anteater’s tongue.
While some experts today claim that tulip glasses make for a better brandy experience, I say poppycock: It’s the snifter that still reigns supreme.
The drink’s unsung diversity (from Cognac, to Armenian pear brandy, to grappa) has also ensured that a slightly fussy, highly drink-specific rating system has been created as a way to judge the liquor’s quality. There are low-end "A.C." brandies that have been aged two years in wood, and fancy "Hors d'Age" brandies that have a vintage too old to officially determine their age.
When Beyonce sings that she loves like "X.O.," I’d like to think she’s referencing the brandy class that indicates it has been aged greater than six years.
Of course, there are brandy-based drinks—and their various glassware—that have staked their claim on other areas of the pop culture psyche. There’s the Brandy Alexander, a chocolate martini-precursor (usually served up in a cocktail glass) that notoriously led to a path of self-destruction for Lee Remick’s character in Days of Wine and Roses. There’s the New Orleans-classic Brandy Milk Punch, which has become a creamy, booze-heavy breakfast staple (served on the rocks, in a rocks glass) at the city’s grand dame restaurants.
Perhaps the most curious brandy iteration, though, is Wisconsin’s unofficial state (alcoholic) drink, the Brandy Old Fashioned. A beloved bastardization of the Old Fashioned, its brandy-based kissing cousin combines the spirit and "bug juice" (premixed sugar, water and Angostura bitters) with a splash of lemon-lime soda (Sprite or 7-Up) and any number of oddball garnishes (ranging from standard fruits, to pickled mushrooms, to Brussels sprouts). The concoction continues to baffle out-of-state travelers and serve as a source of immense pride for in-state imbibers.
"Wisconsin loves its brandy," writes native Wisconsinite Robert O. Simonson in his 2014 book, The Old Fashioned: The Story of The World’s First Classic Cocktail. "In the winter of 1967, a group of students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater pranked it up at the Ice-O-Rama by sculpting a giant Old Fashioned out of ice blocks, right down to the giant orange slice."
Brandy has proven it can play nice as a guest-of-honor in a slew of cocktail combinations, but in order to truly appreciate the drink, it has to first be embraced as a standalone spirit in its native glass.
This month, let’s make a pledge to crack open a (reasonably priced bottle) of brandy. We’ll pour it into snifters, swish it around with a gentle wrist-flick to catch the full-bodied aroma—maybe, for a second, pretend we’re British aristocrats—then raise the snifters in proud salute to a drink (and its glass) that is eager to climb down from its pedestal and into our hands.