How to Do a Whiskey Tasting (Or Making Friends Share)


Whiskey tastings are a great way of expanding your whiskey knowledge and experience, having fun with friends, showing off your expanding collection of whiskey in an attempt to create whiskey converts, (‘No I promise you’ll love it after you acquire the taste you don’t like at the moment’) and making whiskey-drinking friends share their stash. If you’re a little fuzzy on the details, don’t worry. This article will tell you exactly how to do a whiskey tasting.

This includes but is not limited to: factors to consider when deciding what kind of whiskey tasting to have, a list of everything you’ll need, how to prepare for a whiskey tasting and what you need to do during the event itself.

Of course, part of knowing how to do a whiskey tasting is knowing how to be a good general host in the first place. So no making people feel uncomfortable just because they rate the whiskeys wrongly … I mean differently. If we cut people out of our lives for every ridiculous belief they had, none of us would have any friends at all.

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A table set for a whiskey tasting

What Exactly Are Whiskey Tastings

When we talk about whiskey tastings, we’re not referring to what happens each time a person pours themself a glass of whiskey. We mean organized events where groups of whiskey drinkers, or people who want to know what all the damn fuss is about, get together to taste a variety of whiskeys.

Whiskey tastings are fantastic opportunities for people to formally learn about whiskey and how to properly nose, taste and appreciate it. If they already know about whiskey, they are great opportunities to improve their whiskey palate, sample whiskeys they may otherwise not have (there are a lot of different whiskeys and experimenting with new ones to find those you like can be very expensive), or do something fun with friends.

Enthusiasts, experts and brands may organize high-end professional whiskey tastings, although the later may have the more partisan goal of focusing on their own whiskeys for a reason that will have already become obvious. This may not matter but it’s always good to be aware of any limitations.

Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t host a whiskey tasting too. Except for the fact that you may not know how. But the point is, once you learn how to do a whiskey tasting, there’ll be no reason why you can’t host one too.

Deciding What Kind of Whiskey Tasting to Have

There are a few factors you’ll need to consider when deciding what kind of whiskey tasting to have.

The Atmosphere
Are you just going to get a few bottles together, let everyone help themselves and just sit around chatting or will you be pouring specific amounts of specific whiskeys for everyone to taste together and then comment on?

Who’s Providing the Whiskey
Some people are fine with asking each of their guests to bring a bottle to share, although you should probably all agree on a price range.

This will let you defray the cost of the event but on the other hand it means you lose control over which whiskeys you’ll be tasting so you may want to provide all the whiskeys yourself. This will depend on the state of your whiskey collection and the state of your bank account.

The Type of Guest
Are you going to be inviting people who appreciate (or want to appreciate) whiskey or people who just like drinking and want to do shots?

Are you going to be inviting beginners or whiskey experts?

The Whiskeys
Will the whiskeys you’ll be tasting be a random (yet decent quality) selection depending on your or your friends collection(s), or will there be a theme?

Now you can have any theme but to get you started with some ideas you could have a selection of whiskeys from around the world, or whiskeys from the same region or just one type of whiskey. You could have whiskeys with the same flavor profile, single malts or whiskeys of a given age.

Of course, your theme will need to cater to your guests. If they’re whiskey beginners, you may want to stay away from more complicated and rarer whiskeys whose taste they will not yet be able to appreciate and stick with standard more well-known whiskeys that should your guests find one they especially like, will be easier for them to buy later.

For example, you might want to show off the aroma and flavor range of whiskey by selecting one mild, one strong, one sherried and one peated whiskey. You could choose some cheaper but popular blended whiskeys to compare with more expensive, higher quality single malts, or you could go for the broadest range and serve Scotch, Irish Whiskey, American whiskey and Rye.

If you’re guests are more experienced whiskey drinkers, then you can pick almost any theme. You could also simply have rare or unknown whiskeys you think your guests have never tasted before.

What You’ll Need

In order to do a whiskey tasting you’ll need the following:

Guests
This is obvious but the number and type of guest will depend on the type of whiskey tasting you’re having and the number and type of friends you have.

If you’re having a more formal whiskey tasting where everyone’s tasting at the same time and then commenting, it’s usually best to keep the group to between five and seven people so it stays organized and allows the experience to be one collective conversation.

Whiskey
Also obvious (in fact I don’t know how to do a whiskey tasting without whiskey or people to do the tasting) but you’ll want to keep the number of whiskeys to about five.

That’s because whiskey has an ABV of about 40% so more than five glasses will make everyone tipsy.

It also causes palate fatigue which means that it becomes difficult to detect all the nuances. You may want to explain this to your guests so that they don’t interpret your serving only a few glasses as stinginess. Although if they’ve still got their wits about them, they could argue that even if their palates are fatigued and they can’t detect every last nuance, something is better than nothing so pour them another glass already.

You probably won’t need more than one bottle of each of the different whiskeys, unless you’re having a large party, or you know your friends will bravely battle through any palate fatigue and drink a lot anyway.

Whiskey Glasses
If you’re planning on making your whiskey tasting a more formal event, then you’ll never get away with using plastic or paper cups. You’ll need whiskey glasses which apart from being appropriate to the occasion (formal type whiskey tastings are not quite posh events, but they do get dangerously close) bring out the flavors of the whiskey.

You’ll need nosing glasses which are tall-ish, have a wide bowl, long narrow neck, thin stem and broad pedestal. This means there’s room in the bowl for air to get to the whiskey so it can breathe, and the ethanol can evaporate. The bowl shape concentrates the whiskeys aromas towards the narrow rim and allows them to accumulate. With less alcohol in the way, you’ll be able to pick up more of the whiskey’s aromas and flavors.

You can even use the Glencairn whisky glass.

Glencairn Whisky Glass



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But wine glasses with smaller to medium bowls will work just as well.

Since any leftovers will distort the taste of the next whiskey, you must make sure to either provide everyone with a new glass for each whiskey or enough water to rinse the glass after tasting each one.

Water
This is for two reasons:

First, because with all that alcohol being served, you’re going to want everyone to drink lots of water to keep hydrated. Give everyone a glass for this. It can be any shape you want as long as its large.

Second, adding water to whiskey dilutes it helping you reduce the alcohol content and taste the flavors. It also opens up new and more subtle flavors which may otherwise be missed.

Since even one drop of water can change the taste of whiskey some like to add one drop at a time so they can taste all the changes. It’s a good idea therefore, to provide liquid droppers (you should be able to find some at a pharmacy) or straws for that purpose. You may also want to provide small water jugs for those that like to pour more water in one go.

Yes, part of how to do a whiskey tasting is catering for everyone’s whiskey tasting needs.

The water for should be neutral and slightly cool, so it won’t affect your palate when drinking it or the flavors when adding it to the whiskey. Be careful if your tap water is hard or contains fluoride. You may want to filter your water or buy spring water specifically for your whiskey tasting.

Snacks
Snacks are a basic constituent of most social gatherings but more so in whiskey tastings. They will help yours guests stay hydrated and alert, will coat the stomach to help prevent acid reflux and will slow down the processing of alcohol. It will also cleanse the palate between whiskeys.

However, since many foods and drinks can greatly impact the taste of whiskey it’s best to minimize them until the tasting is over. You certainly should not serve any food and drink that distorts the taste of whiskey. This means no food or drink with strong (for example coffee or mint) or intense flavors or anything spicy.

Things you can serve at the whiskey tasting are unsalted crackers or oatcakes which are a great neutral food that cleanse the palate, cheese and charcuterie platters which go well with whiskey, as well as dips, fruit, chocolate and nuts.

Of course, if part of the whiskey tasting is to show foods that enhance certain whiskeys or distort their taste, you should probably serve them when needed.

Pen and Paper
For taking notes on the whiskey.

Spittoon
Or in plain English some sort of pitcher or container into which your guests (if you haven’t provided one glass per whiskey) can pour out whiskeys they don’t like. People have different tastes and with seven guests and five whiskeys that’s 35 tastings, making it quite likely that someone’s not going to like something.

Ice Cubes and Coke
Yes, it’s not that kind of party so there’s no need to have them on the table at the beginning of the whiskey tasting but as a gracious host if someone asks it’s only proper to have some available.

Yes, another part of how to do a whiskey tasting is being aware that not everyone will get the point.

Breathalyzer
You can actually buy a breathalyser and test your friends before they leave.

Rofeer Digital Breathalyzer



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Though they can be quite expensive. Either way there should be a plan that ensures everyone can get home or to your couch safely.

Preparing for Your Whiskey Tasting

Apart from deciding what kind of whiskey tasting to have and procuring the things you’ll need, there are some more preparations you’ll need to make:

A Tasting Guide
This is the person who will guide the whiskey tasting. They will have researched the whiskeys prior to the event and will be able to explain a few details about each of them before they’re tasted. The tasting guide will be a resource for your guests and answer any of their questions.

Some of the details they may present could include things like the background, history and origin of the whiskeys, information about the distilleries and regions they’re produced in, as well as the aroma and flavor profiles. The tasters will then have a much better appreciation of the whiskeys and it will make identifying their aromas and flavors much easier.

You could ask someone else to be the tasting guide and if they’re a whiskey expert that may be the best idea, but as you’re the host you’ll probably want to do it yourself. Don’t worry if you’re not a super whiskey expert. You can research all you need to know, using whiskey guidebooks and online resources.

You never knew that homework is the answer to how to do a whiskey tasting.

Location
You should hold your whiskey tasting somewhere everyone can relax, take their time tasting the whiskeys thoroughly and be comfortable, with a place to set their glass down and enough room to take notes.

A loud bar is therefore not a good idea. At home around a large table is probably the best location.

The Pours
The pours should be about ½ an ounce each, or roughly one finger. Remember, this is how to do a whiskey tasting.

You can pour each whiskey just before you taste them or have everything ready in advance. Just be careful you don’t pour the whiskeys too early as the aromas may evaporate before you even start the tasting. Pour the samples as close to tasting them as possible and cover the glasses.

The Order of the Whiskeys
Just like food and drink can greatly impact the taste of whiskey, so can other whiskeys. That’s why the order of whiskeys at tastings is crucial.

Start with whiskeys that are light, floral, sweet and fruity – because the nose and palate are fresh and unaffected by previous whiskeys, so tasters can better detect more subtle aromas and flavors at this point – and continue with stronger, richer and more heavily flavored whiskeys, with the progression from lighter to stronger because if the  stronger flavored whiskeys were first they would overpower any following lighter flavored whiskeys.

Whiskeys with an ABV of 46% or higher or cask strength (up to 60% ABV) whiskey should be tasted next.

Finally end with peated whiskeys with the peatiest last, as the taste of peated whiskeys lingers in the mouth for a long time and affects everything you taste afterwards.

How to Do a Whiskey Tasting

The tasting guide should take charge and … guide everyone through the … tasting. We’ll assume it’s you because otherwise you wouldn’t need to know how to do a whiskey tasting. You could just listen to the tasting guide.

Start by reminding the tasters to take note of everything: The name of the whiskey, its age, the type of whiskey it is, its color, appearance, aromas, flavors, finishes and all their impressions. The tasters should be encouraged to record as much as they can.

Next it’s time to present some of the information you spent hours researching and give over some details about the first whiskey. This shouldn’t be too long as there’s still a lot to do and if people seem bored at this point, you’ll know for sure it’s not the whiskey dulling their senses.

Plenty of time should be spent nosing the whiskey and then tasting it. For more details see here, where I discuss the five ways to drink whiskey, the last of which is with all the aromas and flavors.

While the tasting guide should be leading the process, they should also be encouraged to cease their lecturing so that everyone else can discuss the aromas and flavors that they detect.

Once a whiskey has been tasted neat, experimenting with adding water can begin and comparisons to neat and between different levels of dilution can be made.

Before moving on to the second whiskey, allow everyone enough time to cleanse their palate, have a drink of water and enjoy some of the snacks.

When you’ve finished tasting all the whiskeys, swap notes and see what other people thought of the whiskeys. You may be surprised at what other people could detect and what they missed and how differently they describe the same aromas and tastes.

End off With a Blind Tasting or a Surprise Bonus Whiskey

A blind tasting is a great way to see if your guests can now identify the whiskeys they spent the evening tasting or if they still need more practice. You could make it as competitive as you like, even offering a presumably whiskey-based prize.

Another way to end on a high note is by bring out a surprise bonus bottle of whiskey. It may be an exceptional whiskey within the theme of the evening, a whiskey that’s special by contrast or a unique whiskey unconnected with the theme. Just make sure it’s better than all the others, because if it’s worse it’ll be a different kind of surprise ending to the one you wanted.

Conclusion

By now you should know how to do a whiskey tasting. You’ll know the kind of whiskey tastings that you can have, what you’ll need, how to prepare and what to do at the tasting itself.

Whiskey tasting is a great way to learn about whiskey, improve your palate and try new whiskeys. And if you want to ensure that it’s not always you who’s sharing your whiskeys with friends teach your friends how to do a whiskey tasting so that they can share their whiskeys with you.

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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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