The idea of holding your own whisky tasting is en vogue at the moment, but can be a daunting one. However there are a few basic tips that can make your event successful and enjoyable for both yourself and the people you invite. A bit of research and attention to detail goes a long way to getting you started on the right footing. We believe that anyone can host a whisky tasting by considering a few simple steps. So, where do you start?
1 - Selecting the whiskies
This is the most important aspect of your tasting - the whiskies are the stars of the show! The correct selection of whiskies can 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 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/peaty whiskies). Do you want all well-known brands or lesser known ones? Or a mix?
One idea that works well for us is to pick whiskies that demonstrate the different core characteristics of whisky and the cask types used to mature it - 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 shows the typical flavour profiles of each style to your audience and works well with a group of 'whisky beginners'.
2 - Get interesting facts
Once you have selected your whiskies, a good idea is to do some distillery research on those 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), but titbits of interesting related information. We call them '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 these related facts led to us developing the 'Did you know?' section on each distillery profile page on www.whiskyforeveryone.com. It may help to prepare bullet pointed notes of these.
3 - Consider other accompaniments
Your 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, but bottled water is best. 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 is good to cleanse the palate between samples are oatcakes.
You may wish to include other food snacks and discuss food and whisky matching. This is a hot topic currently 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.
4 - Tasting the whiskies correctly
The physical process of tasting whisky is simple and is about preparing your senses properly to get the most out of each whisky (ie - the aromas on nose and the flavours on the 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.
When sampling your selection of whiskies start with the lightest, freshest one and move through to the heaviest, sweetest, strongest or smokiest 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 any subtleties in the lighter whiskies will be lost.
The most important step is to get to the whisky! It is easy to kick off with lots of chat and facts, but most of your crowd will just want to try the stuff. Just remember that the alcohol levels of what is in the glass are much stronger than some may be used to. To help with this, get your tasters to prepare their senses properly and smell the whisky two or three times. As their noses get more used to it, then they will begin to pick up more characteristics. The same will happen on the palate - the more they hold the whisky in their mouths, the more flavours they will find.
5 - 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 good to get people to come up with own tasting notes, rather than telling 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 what they are trying. If it is a bit slow to get going then don't worry - after a couple of drams everyone will start to loosen up. Most importantly, is that you and your guests enjoy the event and the whiskies.