How to Host an Awesome Whisk(e)y Tasting

There is more to life than technology.  When I’m not working with the best team of Alfresco technologists and managers on the planet, hacking around on IoT and AI projects or exploring what’s next in tech I like to geek out on my other hobby, whiskey!  There are few things as fun (in my opinion) as getting a bunch of friends, colleagues, or both together for a little camaraderie and education.

Over the last few years my wife and I have had the immeasurable pleasure of hosting the Whiskies of the World events at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  Part education, part whiskeyfest, this class covers the history, botany, production and characteristics of whiskeys spanning the globe from Scotland and Ireland to America, Canada and Japan.  The best part of the class is the people that show up to learn a few things and share a taste or two.  After the class we almost always have a few people that come up to ask about hosting a tasting themselves, and they bring up a lot of great questions.  So many, in fact, that it seems worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts and best practices from our most popular and successful events.

No event goes off well without a good plan, right?  A whiskey tasting is no different.  We usually start planning our events by answering a few questions:

Who is the audience?

If you are inviting a group of people that don’t know the difference between a rye, a bourbon and a scotch, then perhaps it is best to start with good representative examples of several styles.  For a tasting like this we like to select a good base expression from distilleries around the world, specifically something that is representative of its style and region.  If your group consists of more experienced palates, then it might be best to drill down into a single style and explore it in depth or even focus on a single distillery.  If you are planning a little whiskey tasting as a part of something bigger, then maybe you can tailor your tasting to align with the main reason people are there.

What are we going to taste?

The intended audience sets the theme, but from there you still have a lot of choices to make.  Is the intent to focus on things that are readily available and can be purchased easily after the tasting by the people that attended?  It can be pretty frustrating to try something you love only to find out it is rare, allocated or otherwise unavailable.  That said, there is a place for a tasting of some true gems and rarities with the right group!  There are many ways to set a theme for your tasting.  You can just pick a few things, but I find that a theme makes it more interesting.

  • Single distillery vertical.  Find a distillery and sample their core expressions in age order.  This is a great chance to see how age affects whiskey, as you work your way from younger to older products made from the same base spirit.
  • Cask finish range.  Find a single distillery that offers expressions aged in various types of cooperage, such as ex-bourbon casks, sherry butts, port pipes, etc.  This can be a challenge as some of these can be hard to find, but the end result is a lot of fun.
  • Tasting within a single country.  If you want to go deep into what sets one country’s whiskey industry apart from the rest, find whiskies that are all from the same place across a range of distilleries.  Setting up a tasting of American whiskies or a tasting of scotch from a range of regions within Scotland provides a chance to explore the breadth of a region.
  • Tasting across countries.  What makes Scottish, American, Canadian, Irish, Japanese or Indian products distinct?
  • Blends vs. Singles.  Some blenders are fairly transparent about what goes into their blends.  Find a blend and some of the components, and see if you can pick out the component characteristics in the married product.
  • Proof.  Many distilleries offer their products in an uncut, barrel proof or cask strength expression.  Pick a couple and serve them straight and at various levels of dilution to see how water affects the nose and palate.
  • Mash bill.  Whiskeys around the world can be made from just about any kind of grain, within the confines of the laws that may or may not govern style in the country of origin.  How does a grain whiskey stack up to a malt whiskey from Scotland?  Perhaps compare a bourbon with a rye with an American wheat whiskey.
  • Discontinued products.  Due to supply problems, many still extant distilleries are dropping age statements from their products or discontinuing parts of their range.  If you are lucky enough to find or have a discontinued bottling or two, try a side by side with its replacement and see if you can pick out a difference.  Bonus points if you do it blind!
  • Silent stills.  Distilleries come and go, just like any other business.  Tasting products from now silent distilleries might shed light on why they didn’t make it, or show you some amazing products that never should have been lost.
  • “Craft” distilleries.  Whiskey is on everybody’s radar right now, and that means new distilleries are popping up all the time.  While everybody knows the stalwarts of the whiskey world, some of these newer producers have some interesting products hitting the market.

How many things are we going to taste, and in what order?

In general, I think it is best to limit the number of products in a single tasting to five or six, at the most.  Past that, your palate is fatigued and it all starts to run together.  There is also a danger of over indulging.  I like to keep the tasters fairly small, 0.5 to 0.75 oz (15-25ml) of each product.  The tasting order also matters.  High proof whiskey or heavily peated products will overwhelm other things in your lineup.  Start with more delicate, lower proof samples and work your way up to the heavy hitters like barrel proof offerings or richer heavily sherried, cask strength or peated malts.

What else do we need?

First up, glassware or another way to serve it.  When we host a large public tasting we use small disposable shot glasses and pour everything ahead of time.  When we host at home I prefer something more purpose built like a Copita or the classic Glencairn glass.  If you don’t have those, a snifter will work.  There are dozens of styles of whiskey glasses out there, which one to use is very much a matter of personal preference.  Just be sure to rinse and dry it between pours so you don’t get cross contamination or unwanted dilution.

Second, make sure you provide water, for several reasons.  Its good to have a bit between tastes or pours.  Water can help “open up” a whiskey, so it is good to have on hand so you can add a few drops and see how it affects a sample.  Finally, some people aren’t used to drinking whiskey straight and a glass can help put down the burn.  If you plan to add a little to your tasters, having small spoons or droppers on hand is a good idea.

We also like to provide some snacks or palate cleansers for the space between different pours.  Ask a dozen different professional tasters what they use and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.  I like unsalted (or lightly salted) pretzels, crackers, etc and a little carbonated water.  Some people use white bread, or another bland baked good.  Whatever works for you.

Finally, there can be other things to add to your setup to make the tasting more interesting.  For our Whiskies of the World class we use a world map to point out the origin of each pour (roughly).  We use these as placemats and place each sample at the corresponding number of the map.

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Another idea is to provide some small tasting notebooks for making notes on what your attendees think of each pour, or perhaps to write down a ranked order of what they liked best for comparison at the end.  If you really want to get fancy you can put together a sheet that describes what you are tasting and why as a handout, perhaps including some history of each product or region.  For our public guided tastings we use a powerpoint presentation, but that might be a bit much for something at home.  No matter how you do it, it does help to convey some information about what you are trying.  It’s a learning experience.

Now that you have a plan, you know who is coming, what you are serving and have your setup ready, you can host an awesome tasting!  The most important thing to remember is that good whiskey is best when shared with good people, so have fun with it.


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