Crystal Whiskey Glasses: More Glass Than Crystal

There are ordinary glass whiskey glasses and then there are the more delicate, clear, sparkling crystal whiskey glasses, which are often preferred for those very reasons. But the truth is (and you might want to hold onto something for this) that crystal whiskey glasses are not made out of crystal. They’re made out of glass.

I know. Shocking!

This immediately raises a lot of questions, including but not limited to, why are we calling something crystal when it’s glass, if both crystal and glass are made out of the same thing what’s the difference between the two and should I really care about any of this? I shall answer these questions and more.

A whiskey glass containing and surrounded by crystals

There’s Crystal, There’s Glass & There’s Glass That Can Be Called Crystal

Let’s start at the beginning.

Simply speaking, real crystal is formed in a process that it will not shock you to learn, is called crystallization. Take a liquid, say magma, allow it to cool, add time and pressure, and you’ll end up with a material whose atoms are arranged – here’s another non-shock – in a crystalline structure.

Glass, on the other hand, lacks this crystalline structure and is actually an amorphous solid. It’s made from sand with some soda-ash and limestone for reasons not that important to go into here and heated until it melts. And not just heated but 1700°C or 3080°F heated. This causes the sand undergo a complete chemical transformation so that when the liquid sand is cooled, you end up with glass.

Now no one is taking crystals and making whiskey glasses out of them. All whiskey glasses are actually made out of glass. But if you add anywhere from 1% – 35% lead oxide to the glass making process, you may be able to call the resultant product, crystal.

When Can Lead Glass Be Called Crystal?

It’s important to note, that the amount of lead oxide content for glass to be called crystal can vary. For example, the European Union requires a lead content of at least 24% for glass to be considered crystal, whereas in the US any glass with a lead content of more than 1% can be termed crystal.

This means that anyone who emigrates to the US from the EU with their 23.99%-lead-and-therefore-glass whiskey glasses will suddenly find that they’re drinking whiskey from crystal glasses.

But it can be useful to know the percentage of lead oxide or how crystal your crystal whiskey glasses are for reasons that will become clear in the next few sections.

Why Is Lead Glass Called Crystal?

Good question.

If, as noted above, crystal is not glass and glass is not crystal, why is it that adding a specific amount of lead oxide should suddenly mean we can call glass, crystal. They’re still two different things. It would be like adding a delicious dressing to your salad and calling it a steak! Ok, it wouldn’t be quite like that because a steak looks completely different to a salad, but you get the point. Yes, lead glass sounds rather ominous and crystal sounds high-class but why call something crystal when it’s not.

The answer is that lead glass looks like crystal. The lead raises the glass’s index of refraction – a measure of the amount something bends a ray of light. The more lead the more the light is bent and the better the glass will look. Glass with a lead content of 24% has a bright, reflective quality and glass with a lead content of over 35% will actually sparkle.

One of the materials with the highest index of refraction is diamonds which is why they sparkle a lot. Adding lead to glass makes it sparkle and look like diamonds, and diamonds are crystals. Lead glass therefore became known as crystal-looking glass and eventually – presumably because no one likes to say, “I have a Lamborghini-looking car” – that became crystal.

The Advantages of Crystal Whiskey Glasses

There are several advantages that crystal whiskey glasses have over glass whiskey glasses, which along with the disadvantages and its solution are the reasons why you should care about all of this.

The first has already been mentioned. Since they bend light more they look brighter and more reflective and can sparkle extravagantly in your hand. It also means they’re clearer, so the liquid they hold will look better. And who doesn’t like to spend a few moments admiring their whiskey when it’s on the outside before admiring it when it’s on the inside.

In terms of manufacturing the advantage of using lead is that it makes the material softer and easier to cut – although on the flip side that’s a disadvantage as it also means it’s more difficult (but not impossible) to engrave very fine and detailed patterns on crystal. It’s also easier for blowers to manipulate crystal, and it’s better suited for molds which leads to more dynamic glass (as in the container not the material) designs.

Additionally, crystal can be spun thin while maintaining its strength. This is what gives crystal whiskey glasses their delicate and refined look. It’s especially important for the rim of the glass, because the thinner it is the more you’ll taste the whiskey and not the glass – which is the whole point of this exercise.

But the real benefit of crystal whiskey glasses is that no one likes to say, “Let’s have some whiskey in my glass whiskey glasses”. It’s a phrase that doesn’t roll off the tongue before or after you’ve made use of said whiskey glasses and it makes you sound cheap. Now it’s true that no one says, “Let’s have some whiskey in my crystal whiskey glasses,” either, but the point is, once you’re pouring someone a whiskey and your companion asks you about the receptacle they’re using, you won’t have to focus only on how it’s shape enhances the flavor of the whiskey.

How to Tell the Difference Between Crystal and Glass

The best way to find out whether something is crystal or glass is to ask an expert or do a scientific lead test. But if these options are not on the table, there are some informal ways to test your glasses which will conclusively indicate that they’re possibly crystal.

The first few tests are based on the differences between crystal and glass that we’ve explained. As mentioned, lead raises a glass’s index of refraction so the more a glass bends the light the more the lead content. Therefore, if the glass is clear or if there’s a rainbow prism effect when you hold the glass up to the light, then they’re likely to be crystal.

As also mentioned, crystal can be spun thin, so if your glass is thinner and more delicate looking it may be crystal.

Lead will also make the glass heavier, so if you have two glasses of the same size where one has more heft, it maybe because it’s crystal.

You can also tell whether something is crystal by the sound made when you gently tap it. Crystal will ring – the greater the lead content the longer the tone – whereas glass will thud. Also, if you rub a wet finger around the rim of a glass you will produce a musical note if it’s made of crystal.

Finally, the most obvious indicator of crystal is its price. Glass is quite cheap, but crystal can be very expensive.

Which bring us nicely to the next section.

The Disadvantages of Crystal Whiskey Glasses

The most obvious disadvantage is that being crystal increases their cost. Nevertheless, while it’s true that some crystal whiskey glasses can be super expensive there are still plenty that are reasonably priced.

Another disadvantage to crystal whiskey glasses is that they are porous which means they have minute spaces through which liquid or air may pass. This means that if you put them in a dishwasher, they may absorb the chemical aromas or corrode, so you have no choice but to handwash them.

In addition, there are concerns about lead from crystal leaching into the whiskey. Some say that there’s no health risk as whiskey is generally not in a glass long enough for lead to leach. If it is (and we’re talking a few hours), the quantity of lead leached is much smaller than the quantity of lead consumed daily in an ordinary diet. On the other hand, others argue that no amount of lead is safe for consumption and that lead crystal should not be used under any circumstances.

Either way it does mean that everyone agrees storing whiskey in a lead crystal decanter for longer periods of time is dangerous.

Some Lead Crystal Whiskey Glasses

Reed & Barton Whiskey Glasses

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Waterford Lismore Whiskey Glasses

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Godinger Dublin Whiskey Glasses

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Nachtmann Imperial Whiskey Glasses

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Marquis By Waterford Lacey Whiskey Glasses

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Waterford Huntley Whiskey Glasses

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Waterford Fine Whiskey Glasses

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Lead-Free Crystal Whiskey Glasses

There’s a solution to the above concern regarding the dangers of lead poisoning from lead crystal, and I think you’ve probably worked it out by the time you started reading this sentence.

Lead-free crystal whiskey glasses are made by adding another material instead of lead oxide to the glass making process, for example, barium oxide, potassium oxide or zinc oxide.

Lead-free crystal whiskey glasses have the same clarity and brilliance as lead crystal whiskey glasses that glass whiskey glasses don’t have, if not the weight, the sparkle or the ping.

It’s also easier to engrave on lead-free crystal whiskey glasses. Being lead-free makes the glasses harder and heavier than their lead counterparts, which in mechanical engraving prevents the wheel from slipping and making it easier to engrave extremely fine detail.

If the engraving is done by laser, it’s easier because even though the surface heats up as the laser blasts away the glass particles, there will be less heat than with lead crystal (as lead retains heat) so there’s less risk of the crystal chipping, flaking or breaking. It also means the glasses can cool down adequately after being heated so the markings are less likely to expand and produce a distorted look.

More excitingly – and please remember that the word exciting is a relative term – some lead-free crystal whiskey glasses are dishwasher safe, (you’ll need to check this with each manufacturer). However, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. There are those who despite having dishwasher safe whiskey glasses, wouldn’t dream of anything less than handwashing such precious items.

Some Lead-Free Crystal Whiskey Glasses

Marquis by Waterford Markham Whiskey Glasses

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Mofado Premium Whiskey Glasses

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KANARS Whiskey Glasses

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Glencairn Whisky Glasses

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Le’raze Whiskey Glasses

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Venero Whiskey Glasses

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Szmmg (not a spelling mistake) Whiskey Glasses

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Le’raze Posh Whiskey Glasses

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Lead-Free Crystal Is Not Real Not Real Crystal

This does get a bit complicated, but it’s not my fault.

Now some have said that lead-free crystal is not real crystal, it’s merely brilliant glass.

But as explained above, even real crystal is not real crystal, unless of course you’re referring to … well real crystal.

Since lead-free crystal is not real crystal because it doesn’t contain lead and since lead crystal is not real crystal because it lacks a crystalline structure, we will have to conclude that lead-free crystal is not real not real crystal.

If you see what I mean.

Josh Mitchell

I'm Josh Mitchell. I love whiskey and am working on increasing my whiskey tasting abilities and my collection.

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