Monday, May 10, 2010

Explain about ... Hosting your own whisky tasting

The idea of holding your own whisky tasting can be a daunting one. Here, we aim to show that with a few basic tips your event can be a successful and enjoyable for both you and the people you have invited. From our experience, a bit of research and attention to detail goes a long way to getting you off on the right footing. We believe that anyone can host their own whisky tasting event by considering a few simple steps. So, where do you start?

whisky bottles1 - Selecting the whiskies
This is the most important aspect of your tasting, as the whiskies are the stars of the show! This may seem obvious but the correct selection of whiskies can instantly make your tasting more interesting and diverse. The first thing is not to choose too many whiskies – 4 or 5 is a good number, otherwise everyone’s palates will start to struggle. But how do you choose correctly? The important questions are whether you want a theme and what do you want to portray within the tasting? Do you want different styles of whisky (this could be from different regions of Scotland or different whisky producing countries) or whiskies of same style (for example, all smoky whiskies). Do you want all well-known brands or lesser known ones?

One idea that works well for us is to pick whiskies that demonstrate the different core characteristics and barrel types of whisky – for example, choose 4 whiskies with one that has been matured in ex-bourbon casks, one in ex-sherry, one in a mixture of casks and then one smoky –this will show the typical flavour profiles of each style to your audience. If you are not sure or feel that you lack the knowledge to make the choices, then visit a specialist retailers either online or in a shop.

2 - Get interesting facts
Once you have selected your 4-5 whiskies, a good idea is to do some distillery research on those that you have chosen. This adds a further level of interest to your tasting. We are not just talking about a bit of history or information about the bottling (although this is useful especially with limited or single cask releases) but titbits of interesting related information. We call them the ‘pub quiz facts’ and your guests will leave knowing about other things than just whisky. One such example is that the golf course next to the Balvenie distillery has the highest hole of any golf course in the UK at 1000ft/305m!

There are many whisky blogs and websites where you can find such information and our interest in related facts led to us developing the ‘Did you know?’ section on each distillery profile page in our website It may help to prepare bullet pointed notes of these.

3 - Consider other accompaniments
The tasting is not just about the whisky. You will need some or all of the following items to help aid your tasting smoothly. The first is water – this is for both cleansing the palate between drams and diluting the whiskies if and when required. Filtered tap water is perfectly fine, although some insist you must have bottled water. Make sure that it is not carbonated and is at room temperature rather than chilled, which will inhibit the aromas and flavours of your whiskies. Another thing that helps to cleanse the palate between samples are oatcakes.

You may wish to include other food snacks during the tasting and discuss food and whisky matching. This is a current hot topic in the whisky world and information can be found on numerous websites. A spittoon or similar vessel is also a good idea, as some of your guests may not wish to swallow all of their whisky. Having said that, we have never seen anyone ever use one at any of the tastings that we have taken!

whisky glasses4 - Tasting the whiskies correctly
The physical process of tasting whisky is simple and is about preparing your senses properly in order to get the most out of each whisky (ie - the aromas on nose and the flavours on palate and finish). The first consideration is the type of glassware that you use. Ideally, you need a tulip shaped glass with a tapered rim. These are similar to a wine tasting glass and do the same job – they hold in the aromas and maximise the effects of the nose. A wider rimmed tumbler style of glass allows a lot of the aroma to dissipate away from your nostrils. When sampling your selection of whiskies, then start with the lightest, freshest one and move through to the heaviest, sweetest or strongest one. This is the same as in a wine tasting, where you start with the whites before moving to the reds and then dessert wines. If you do it the other way around, the stronger flavours will taint the palate and the subtleties of the lighter whiskies are in danger of being lost.

The most important step is to get to the whisky! It is easy to procrastinate about this or that or the other, but most of your crowd will just want to try the stuff and see what it is like. Whisky tasting is different from a wine tasting as the alcohol levels of what is in the glass are much stronger. To help with this, it is an idea to get your tasters to prepare their senses properly for what they are about to do to them, especially if they are not used to spirits. Get them to smell the whisky two or three times and as their noses get more used to it, then they should start to pick up more and more characteristics. The same will happen on the palate – the more they hold the whisky in their mouths, the more flavours they will find. You should also talk about the effects of adding water and ice, as someone WILL always ask about it!

whisky tasting5 - Make it interactive
The whisky tasting must be a combination of fun, informative and interactive. Encourage your guests to ask questions, make comments and discuss the whiskies between themselves. It is also good to get people to come up with own tasting notes and think about what they are tasting, rather than you telling and dictating to them what aromas or flavours that they should be finding. This will make it more interesting for you and your tasters and get them thinking more about the whiskies. If it is a bit slow to get going then don’t worry - after a couple of drams they will start to loosen up! Most importantly, is that you and your guests enjoy the event and the whiskies. Good luck!

We thank Stephen Smith from Minneapolis, USA for the idea for this post. Steve won our recent 2nd birthday competition, where we asked for ideas for interesting articles that people would like to see.

If you are holding your own whisky tasting event, then we would love to hear how it went – just add your comment in the section below.


David McCowan said...

A few friends and I have started doing monthly or bi-monthly tastings. A couple of us are pretty well versed in whisky and a couple of us are total novices, so it's a challenge to keep it both new and exciting for the veterans, but digestible for the newbies. Early on we did a broad tasting - a bourbon, a Scotch, a rye, a Canadian and an Irish - which really helped everyone get on the same page. With a base built, we've now been able to do a blended Scotch, an Irish and a Bourbon tasting with more in the works. We pick solid and well regarded bottlings that are more expensive than what we'd normally pick up, but still at a price where if we absolutely love it, we can justify splurging a bit to get another bottle later. We keep things under control by having a theme, but we add a bit of variety within each category. For example, for the Irish, we made sure to do a pure pot still and and peat single malt in addition to two of the more standard blended versions. One thing that has really helped us was to print off big lists of flavors and adjectives. Often someone will call out a flavor that strikes them and that gets the creative ideas flowing. It's great to hear people saying that "this" is like something we had last month or "that" has contrasting characteristics compared to something else. Everyone is learning (the new and the old) and we're developing our palettes.

steveo said...


I would say one of the key things to get correct is the order of whiskies. having a heavily sherried dram before a heavily smoked dram will screw up your tasting of the second dram.

I would also suggest, and this could just be a Scottish thing, try Oakcakes and chocolate to cleanse the palate.

I have a site with a free tasting guide