Hosting a Whisky Tasting

tastingIn my experience, most people have had little formal introduction to whisky flavour and whisky styles – but enjoy it when they get the chance.

My own interest in whisky only developed after a business trip to Edinburgh, where I was treated to catered dinner and structured tasting session at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s offices in Leith.

So what better way to share your interest in whisky – and put to good use the wealth of information synthesized and presented here – than to host your party with family or friends?

Getting Started

GlencairnThere are a few good starting points to keep in mind. First is glassware. Like many enthusiasts, I recommend the Glencairn whisky glass, shown on the left. The shape is designed to help concentrate aromas for nosing, which is ideal for tasting sessions. The small size of the glass is also helpful, as you will be doing small pours in a structured tasting.

“Nosing” is an important part of the tasting experience. Encourage your guests to spend some time simply smelling the whiskies. Have them start with a light sniff around the outside of the still glass. Then get them to progressively stick their noses deeper into the glass, eventually while gently swirling the contents.

Of course, you don’t need to buy special glasses for this – white wine glasses will work just fine. Basically, anything with a bit of tulip shape is ideal. Having a good number of clean glasses will be helpful, but you can always rinse out and reuse between samplings.

On that point, you will also need to have two other sources of water on hand – one for drinking, and one for adding to the whiskies. The water for dilution must be non-carbonated, and ideally at room temperature. I tend to use filtered water, or bottled spring water (still). Having water available for your guest to drink is necessary too, given how concentrated whisky is.

Water Enhances the Experience

I always encourage people to try adding a little water to their whiskies during tastings, to experience how flavours change with water. The key here is “little”. Don’t ever try to pour water into a whisky directly from a pitcher or jug – no how steady you think your hands are, you will flood and drown the whisky. A teaspoon can work well, to spoon a bit of water in. I favour using a straw – dip it into a shallow glass of water, place your finger over the top, and then carry the straw over to your whisky and release. This will let you add water to your whisky a few drops at a time.

GlencairnCanadianSimply put, whisky flavours are easier to identify as you lower the relative alcohol content. Sequentially diluting your whisky (a few drops at a time), helps open up new flavours to experience.

As an aside, it is good to have a container available for people to pour out whiskies they don’t care for. The goal here is to experience a range of whiskies, not polish everything off. 😉

By the way, Glencairn has developed a glass specifically for Canadian whiskies, as shown on the right. You will notice these are much wider, although they share the same general shape. The reason for this is the presumption that most people drink Canadian whisky on the rocks (i.e., with ice), or as part of mixed drinks that have a large volume. The glasses still work for drinking neat, though.

Both types of Glencairn glasses are widely available at affordable prices at the Home Outfitters big box stores in Canada.

Of course, all tastings are to be done with the whisky “neat” to start (i.e., undiluted, and served at room temperature with no ice or frozen whisky “rocks”). You then move along with serial dilutions, using small amounts of water at a time. It can also be fun to experiment with various types of mixed drinks on ice. But that’s a different kind of evening, and I’m focusing on an exploration of underlying whisky flavour here.

Preparation

I generally like doing tastings after dinner – giving the food a chance to settle first. It’s very true that what you serve for dinner can have an influence on how the whiskies will taste. I recommend against serving spicy food, or ones with a lot of garlic, before a tasting. Serving black coffee ahead of time can be useful to help cleanse the palate. I don’t like serving any food with the whiskies, as this can be distracting and distorting (although plain bread or crackers may work).

A key point is to make sure you have something to serve your guests who are NOT planning to sample whiskies. It goes without saying, make sure you have always have designated drivers for all your guests, or other plans to get them home safely (or have them stay over). Don’t let anyone drink and drive!

Number and Styles of Whiskies

How many whiskies should you try in a tasting?  I think the five Super Clusters described here are a great way to start for Scottish single malt style whiskies. You could supplement that with one or two extra whskies – either from some of the individual clusters, or an American or Canadian blended whisky style. But you don’t typically want to go beyond half a dozen whiskies (especially if you are swallowing). Your palate will become fatigued with too many samples by that point. Oh, you will probably want to start with half-ounce pours. 😉

One key to a successful evening is to pay close attention to the order of whiskies you sample. I strongly recommend you review the single malt flavour map presented here, and start with the most delicate whiskies. You should also save the smokey/peaty whiskies for the end, as not everyone will like these. The recommended order for single malt tastings is as follows:

  • G-H
  • E-F
  • A-B-C
  • I
  • J

If you plan to try another class of whisky – like an American bourbon or Canadian rye, I would suggest inserting it after the winey ABC group and before the smoky I, J group. But the principle is the same for whatever class you are looking at – go from delicate to complex to start.

How to Taste

After a significant nosing period, as explained earlier in the glassware section, it is time to move on to actual sampling of the whiskies

When tasting each whisky, on the first sip I typically ask everyone to hold it in their mouth for several seconds before swallowing. I also encourage them not to even bother trying to assess flavour at this point. It’s important to cleanse the palate – and get past the initial burn. On subsequent sips, there will be time to explore flavours and aromas. The serial dilution (again, with drops of water at a time) is also a fun chance to explore flavours in more detail.

With all the discussions, nosings, water additions and subsequent re-tastings, etc., expect to spend a good hour going through 5-6 whiskies (maybe longer, depending on the crowd). Encourage an open discussion with all participants. This can sometimes require keeping a smarty-pants, know-it-all in check, to give everyone a chance to comment. 😉

I’ve done a number of these events with people who had little experience or interest in whiskies, and all have reported thoroughly enjoying the experience.

The Whisky Database here will give you plenty of ideas of high quality whiskies to choose from. But if you want some personal recommendations for good value options in each category – broken down by Super Cluster – please see my Beginner’s Guide to Selecting a Single Malt Whisky post.

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