A group of 27 glasses, arranged in three rows of nine, sits before each of 15 panelists in a hotel dining room in the Austrian Alps. Broad-bellied snifters, slender flutes, dainty tulips with flared lips, and stemless glasses with straight bowls, all containing precisely one ounce of 23-year-old rum, collectively emit a sweet, alcoholic aroma that hovers in the air as Georg Riedel raises the first specimen. “We are going to identify the affinity of rum to determine the best shape, size, and rim diameter,” says Riedel, clutching the bulbous, Cognac-style vessel at its base between his thumb and index finger. “There are no compromises. I believe there is one glass that is the best for the beverage.”
Riedel, president of Riedel Crystal in nearby Kufstein, has invited the panelists to the Panorama Royal hotel to select the design for his company’s first rum glass. The committee includes the president and master distiller of Industries Licoreras de Guatemala—makers of the Zacapa Centenario 23 Años rum in the test glasses—as well as the managing director of a French design firm, the CEO of a Tokyo marketing company, and the president of the Mexican Association of Sommeliers. The panelists were instructed beforehand not to wear any perfumes or scented deodorants, and windows and doors remain sealed to prevent outside odors from entering the room.
In briefing the participants on his agenda, Riedel suggests that they test the designs by “nosing” each specimen in a flight and then working their way through the nine glasses again, this time swirling, sniffing, and tasting the rum. “Look for your very best friend,” he advises, “something that all of a sudden rings a bell in your head that says, ‘This tastes great.’ ” Riedel makes it clear that the panelists, most of whom are no strangers to wine and spirits tastings, may proceed in any manner they choose, although his authoritative grasp of the subject matter—and the intensity in his brilliant blue eyes—discourages anyone from straying far from his technique.
Riedel’s penchant and passion for glass design are family traits that date to at least the 18th century, when Johann Riedel founded a glassworks in what is now Josefuv Dul in the Czech Republic. Georg, 57, is the eighth Riedel to lead the business during its 250-year history, which, like that of Bohemia, has been one of war and renaissance.
Johann Riedel opened his glassworks in 1756, just months before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. The conflict, however, proved to be a boon for his business: In Zittau, a village close to Riedel’s glassworks, a bombardment by the Austrian army shattered nearly every window pane in town. Riedel, who specialized in bowls and drinking vessels, was the only glassmaker in the region capable of producing large, clear panes, and for the next two decades, demand for his windows helped the factory flourish.
As were Bohemia’s many other glassworks at the time, Riedel’s operation was located in a remote forest setting that provided easy access to wood, the era’s only source for fuel and potash (a potassium salt used as a raw material in production). A century after its founding, under the guidance of Johann’s great-grandson Josef, the company moved to the town of Unter-Polaun, where it began utilizing gas furnaces and eventually opened four factories. By the late 1800s, Riedel was one of the largest glass manufacturers in Europe, employing some 1,300 workers and selling its stemware, beads, buttons, and flagons as far away as Asia, Africa, and North America.
Riedel continued to thrive through the early 20th century, but the prosperous times—and the company itself—came to an end under Josef’s grandson Walter. Following his service as an artilleryman in World War I, Walter led the glassworks through the Great Depression. But at the end of World War II, during which Riedel created lenses and prisms for German tanks and protective goggles for the Wehrmacht, Northern Bohemia became part of Czechoslovakia, and the new government nationalized the family business.
Walter spent the next decade in labor camps and prisons in Russia, and his son Clause, who served in the German army, was captured by the Americans in Italy. But while being transferred with other prisoners to Upper Bavaria in 1946, Clause leaped from a train between Brenner Pass and Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. He walked 10 miles to the village of Wattens, which happened to be the home of the Swarovski crystal company. Daniel Swarovski, who had been trained by Clause’ great-grandfather Josef, took the young Riedel into his home and paid for his education in chemistry at the University of Innsbruck. After Swarovski’s death, his family loaned Clause 4.5 million shillings (the equivalent of about $400,000) to purchase a stemware factory in Kufstein, where he reestablished the Riedel business in 1957.
From the outset, Clause focused his glassworks on the production of clear, unadorned stemware designed to enhance the enjoyment of wine. He based his shapes on factors such as where a glass delivered wine to the tongue and how it affected a beverage’s aromas. In 1973, he introduced his Sommeliers series, a collection of 10 glasses that—reflecting a philosophy that many considered complete nonsense at the time—were designed to complement the characteristics of specific wines. Georg, who took over the business in 1987, has furthered his father’s vision of the functional glass, and Riedel now produces more than 130 designs for beverages from Pinot Noir and Kalterer See Auslese (a red wine made from the Vernatsch grape) to tequila and Scotch. To celebrate its 250-year anniversary, Riedel introduced a new lead-crystal decanter named after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who would have celebrated his 250th birthday this year). Riedel produces the Amadeo decanter in the traditional glass-blowing style, which, apart from the fuel source (the company now uses electric furnaces), remains much the same as it was in the 18th century. Teams of five men bustle between furnaces and workstations on a scorching factory floor, blowing fluorescent orange gobs of liquid into artful configurations—including the shape that proves to be the perfect complement to Zacapa Centenario rum.
Each of the glasses tested by the panel at the Panorama Royal is an existing design from the lines of Riedel and Spiegelau, a German glassmaker Riedel acquired in 2004. “First we use existing glasses,” explains Georg. “If the panel does not come to a conclusion, we go back to the drawing board and produce prototypes that we then taste against the best-performing ones.”
For the rum workshop, Riedel selected 27 models that he believed would highlight a variety of tastes and aromas in the beverage. As he walks the participants through the three flights, he explains the different sensations they might be experiencing. “A slender glass gives more floral notes,” he says of the smell. “A wider glass gives more earthy ones.” Glass number 8, he adds, “offers no aromas because the rim has so much air intake that it goes beyond the spectrum of our sense of smell.”
Riedel’s philosophy on flavor relates to the four tasting zones of the tongue: Humans taste sweetness at the tip of their tongues, bitterness at the back, and sourness and saltiness on the sides. “Glasses with a lip deliver to the tip of the tongue; those with a narrow mouth send the liquid directly to the back,” says Riedel. A lip also delivers a narrow stream of liquid, whereas fuller, closed glasses offer a rounded sip that makes more contact with the sides of the tongue. The objective, he says, is to position the liquid so that it hits the part of the tongue that will deemphasize the beverage’s overt characteristics and harmonize the “interplay of fruit and acid.”
Riedel included specimen number 1, the closed-lip snifter that is often used for brandy, simply to demonstrate how poorly designed the vessel is for consuming brandy-style spirits. The glass emphasizes alcohol scents to the point where other aromas are undetectable. “You have to hold your nose to drink,” he says. The third and fifth vessels, however, show the rum beautifully. Similarly delicate in style, the glasses differ in that number 3 has a slightly bulging bowl that leads to a straight lip, while number 5 has a narrow bowl and a flared lip.
After each flight, Riedel polls the panelists and eliminates five of the nine glasses based on their votes. Riedel’s input weighs heavily on the selections, but by the time the committee has narrowed the field to 12 glasses, the tasting proceeds in virtual silence.
The next round of voting eliminates half of the remaining glasses, leaving in the competition numbers 3 and 5, as well as a tall, Chardonnay-style glass; a stemless design with a narrow neck; a short, straight glass with a closed lip; and a long-stemmed glass with a narrow bowl that flares at the top. In the end, glass number 3 defeats number 5 by a single vote, 8 to 7.
The panel’s final selection is identical in shape to the Sommeliers glass Riedel offers for Hennessy X.O. Cognac. Unlike the handmade Cognac glass, however, the rum glass will be machine-made with nonlead crystal. (Of the 50 million glasses Riedel sold worldwide in 2005, only 200,000 were produced by hand.) And because Zacapa Centenario and Hennessy X.O. have much in common—both are aged in oak, have a 40 percent alcohol content, and have a sweet, caramel character—the duplication in design appears to be appropriate.
“It is absolutely perfect for Zacapa Centenario because of its style, weight, aroma, taste, and complexity,” says Luis Ayala, a panelist and author whose self-published books include The Rum Experience and The Encyclopedia of Rum Drinks (2001). Ayala, however, is not among the majority in the final vote. “I liked [number 5] because it was friendlier for neophytes to use,” he explains. “The glass I liked had a wider sweet spot, but it was not as intense as [number 3].”
Also among the minority is Georg Riedel, who does not believe the committee’s decision negates his principle that only one glass best suits a beverage. “I am just one of the panelists,” he says. “My personal preference can differ from the final choice. This is the reason why we invite a panel, to help select the most suitable glass.”