I think the key here is that these were novices. To them, a drink in a snifter is a brandy. You could probably give them a Coke...well, maybe not. But they simply haven't learned enough about the various aromas of distillates to differentiate, so the glass-shape association takes precedence.
That they cannot differentiate a Lagavulin from a cognac marks them as uneducated, indeed--you have your work cut out for you, C_I! I'd call that a tabula rasa. (Hey, there's a name for a pub.) Mold their palates as you will!