How To Host A Whiskey Tasting
There are three ways to host a whiskey tasting.
- The first is a formal whiskey tasting with a presenter. This is generally more of an educational tasting that has a theme. Whatever whiskies you’re drinking the speaker educates the tasters while they sip and discuss. This type of tasting requires time and a good number of glasses for each taster so they can try things side by side.
- The second is a group affair where there isn’t really a presenter, but there is some rhyme and reason to the whiskey flights. Each taster waits for the rest of the group to get their pours lined up so that the group and nose/taste together so that they can discuss. Not as formal as an educational tasting, but still structured. This type of tasting still requires multiple glasses per taster.
- The third is where everyone throws their bottles on the table, everyone pours what they want, and there is really no group discussion at all. This is not so much a tasting as friends getting together to drink. Unless one taster wants to do side by sides there really is no need for more than one glass per taster.
The length of your whiskey tasting is totally up to you. I have seen some tastings that were scheduled for an hour. In my experience when friends get together and drink one hour is not enough. I do not think I have seen a tasting last less than 3 hours and I have seen some go late into the night. Just make sure you have the time to let the night take its course.
Who Provides The Whiskey
As the host you decide if the group is going to primarily bring their own bottles to share with the group or if you as the host will provide the whiskey being tasted. Just make sure you communicate with the guests. It is also a good idea to get some of your more generous attendees to share the bottles they anticipated bringing with the group so that other participants will feel comfortable bringing their big bottles. No one bottle is going to get hit hard so be willing to share your very best.
Seating can be an issue at these tastings. Unless it is an informal tasting everyone will need a chair at a table that they can set their glasses on. I used to use bar stools but I found older guests hated them because it hurt their back. Since most tastings require you to go back and forth between glasses, a spot with a chair that has a back on it is important.
You should limit your number of guests to the number of spots you have, or opt to do an informal tasting where guests do not necessarily have multiple glasses and are drinking random bottles without the other tasters doing the same thing.
At a tasting, you will generally try a large number of whiskies. At the beginning of my tastings, I pour a light pour and show the group how much would be reasonable for a pour. In general, it will be between 1/8 and 1/4 of an oz per whiskey. If it is a long tasting with just a few whiskies it will be closer to 1/4 of an oz. If there are a large number of whiskies then the pours will be on the lighter side. In short, you should be consuming around 2 oz of whiskey per hour. This will allow for as many as 50 whiskies in a 3-hour tasting without anyone drinking so much they can not drive. Remember that we are trying to taste whiskey not get drunk. Each person should monitor their own level of intoxication and make wise decisions about when to stop/slow down.
I let the participants pour their own whiskey. I have only ever had one person take advantage of this and he was promptly corrected by others in the group. Understanding how light the pours are will help the participants feel comfortable bringing their super bottles. If you have something special that you want to share just know that you are not likely to lose much of your liquid if the tasting is properly set up. When I do a tasting I get out so many super bottles that the participants quickly learn there is no reason to go hard on any one bottle because doing so may cause them to miss out on great bottles later in the night because they had to tap out before the tasting was over.
A Legal Note:
I am not an attorney and I am not offering legal advice. A few years ago I was coordinating a company event that would have an open bar. I contacted our legal counsel to determine what liability we had as a company. They told me that case law protects the person or entity that is offering open access to alcohol since individuals are meant to monitor their own intake. I understand that a licensed bartender has different obligations, but as a person hosting a tasting just keep an eye on your guest and recommend anyone who seems intoxicated stop or get a ride home.
The most educational way to taste whiskey is to try things side by side. This requires multiple glasses per taster, but it might be the only way to do it and really get useful information out of the tasting. I like to start off with lower-proof wheat bourbon, then work our way up through rye bourbons, and finish with finished bourbons. After bourbon, we will do rye whiskey, then finished rye whiskey, and at the end of the night, we might do anything with peat or some other flavor that sticks to the palate. Always try to be mindful of proof because some people's palates get burned out really easily on hot whiskey.
I generally have 2 or 3 whiskies in a flight. In a small group setting I might go up to as many as 5, but comparing more than 3 whiskies side by side is difficult and more than 5 might be impossible. Keep in mind that you can use the same whiskies twice so if there is something you want people to try and you can’t fit it into a flight just use that one twice to keep palate fatigue from ruining the experience of the flight.
Examples of lights I do are OWA, OWA SP, ORVW. This gives people a chance to see that there isn’t much of a difference between OWA and VanWinkle products…at least not enough to justify the hype. Another flight I will do is JR, EHT BP, GTS. You get the point. Just looking at all the bottles and figuring out which combinations would teach the tasters something is fun in and of itself.
Glasses are important because they will determine how much whiskey each taste requires. If you use rocks glasses people are going to drink a lot faster. It is also hard to really nose a whiskey in rocks glass. I recommend Glencairn.
The average Glencairn is 6 1/8th-6 7/8th of an oz. I have purchased mini Glencairns also called a distiller’s tasting glass which are closer to 3 1/4th of an oz. You would not believe how big of an impact the glass size will have on the volume of each pour. The regular size Glencairns can be bought for next to nothing on Amazon. The mini’s I have only seen at Iron Root Republic Distilling and at https://someonesaywhiskey.com/products/3oz-wee-tasting-glass.
We have also released a new glass of our own that helps to dissipate the ethanol burn of higher-proof whiskeys. The fluted rim of the glass allows a reduction in ethanol so that you can better experience the nuances of flavors in the whiskey you're tasting. You can find our 6oz. glasses here, and our 3oz glasses here.
It can be quite expensive for the host to buy all those glasses. I have bought 30 minis but feel free to do whatever fits your budget or fits your bourbon lifestyle. Most people do not want to store 30 whiskey glasses. If you are in that camp but want to host an event then just tell your guests to bring 3 of their own glasses.
Lint free rags
When you are tasting a very small amount of whiskey at a time, the few drops that are left in the glass after you consume the whiskey are enough to affect the flavor of the next round of whiskies. For this reason, your tasters will need to be instructed to rinse their glasses after each round and to drink the water in the glass. This will serve two purposes. It will keep them hydrated, but it will also clean the glasses.
The water droplets in the glass will also affect the flavor of the next round of whiskey so I give each taster a lint-free rag to dry their glasses with after they rinse. Lint-free rags are very inexpensive and can be bought in large quantities on Amazon. I recommend you have enough for the size of your party even if they bring their own glasses. You can purchase microfiber Bourbon Real Talk branded lint-free cloths here!
You would not believe how much water some people consume when they are attending a whiskey tasting. I recommend you have 2-3 bottles of room-temperature water on hand for each person you expect. Room temp is important because cold water will cause condensation on the glass and affect the temperature and therefore the flavor of the whiskey.
You do not have to feed your guests. Planning and hosting a whiskey tasting party can be challenging enough, and adding a menu can add unnecessary stress. For this reason, I usually start tasting late enough that people can eat their meal before they come to the tasting. I do however provide snacks at all my tastings. I like to have popcorn, beef jerky, chocolate, nuts, cured meats, hard cheese, etc. Nothing spicy! Spicy will ruin your palate. Nothing too sweet or too bitter. This knocks out most chocolate options. Keep in mind that the darker the chocolate the more it will clash with oak, so the higher the age the lighter the chocolate should be. Salty is OK. I love salted popcorn or beef jerky with whiskey so long as it isn’t peppered or spicy in some way.
Who Brings What
If you are the host of the whiskey tasting, you can have your guests bring anything you want. Just ask and people will comply. Guest will need 3 glasses, a lint-free rag, a room-temperature bottle of water, and anything else you see fit. They can bring all they need or you can instruct them to bring nothing. I like to have the guests bring snacks and I provide the glasses, rags, and water…but you do what you want.
If you are a guest to a whiskey tasting party do not come empty-handed. Bring your best bottles to share, bring samples, bring a gift bottle, bring snacks, just bring something. That way you won’t be the only one that showed up empty-handed. Good etiquette suggests that you stay engaged with the group. This means staying on task and not getting off on side conversations if it is a structured tasting. If you do then other tasters will have to wait for your private conversation to end before the next flight can begin. If you hate a whiskey be honest but polite. Never condemn another taster for their opinion. It’s not that hard, just be nice and honest and everyone will have a good time.
In conclusion, hosting a whiskey-tasting event is a delightful journey through various flavors and stories, whether it's a formal educational tasting, a structured group affair, or a casual gathering of friends. The choice of format and duration is entirely up to you but be prepared for a few hours of whiskey exploration and camaraderie. When it comes to providing whiskey, communication is key, and the generosity of some attendees can set the tone for others to share their prized bottles. Seating arrangements matter, as comfort allows for focused tasting. Remember that responsible pours ensure everyone can appreciate a wide range of whiskeys without overindulging.