Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to conduct a tasting and look cool at the same time

If you've ever hosted a tasting, read on for amusement sake, if not sit down, pour a small dram of something tasty and take notes. First, I'm going to state for the record, I'm no expert and pretty much go with having fun rather than conducting a formal exercise in whiskey snobbery. The whole idea behind a bourbon tasting is to get together with other enthusiasts and enjoy bourbon together focusing on a specific bourbon or theme. Over the last couple of years I've either hosted or attended about 7 tastings and the themes included the following:

  1. Blind line-up of various bottles
  2. As Time Goes By: A selection of bourbons covering 5 decades from the same distillery
  3. Old Forester both past and present
  4. Wild Turkey 101 proof both past and present
  5. Bottled in Bond
  6. Four Roses single barrel covering 4 different recipes
  7. Bourbon Heritage Collection and precursors (more on this in a follow on blog)

If you haven't conducted a tasting and want to, I understand the thought of it might be slightly intimidating and this may stem from not quite knowing where to start or what to do. There are some internet sites that provide some guidance on holding a tasting and generally give good advice. The goal here is to have fun and make it what you want. In my opinion, the execution of the tasting is what you make it for the most part but there are some basic guidelines you should follow.

  1. Keep the whiskey offering to no more than 5 or 6
  2. Good hygiene is important for all guests but please refrain from adding a splash or dab of cologne or perfume. Smelling like a French whore will only screw with your neighbors olfactory abilities.
  3. Do not eat food that is spicy or contains things like garlic
  4. Use the same style glassware while tasting
  5. Put down a white tablecloth
  6. Make sure the room is well lighted
  7. If anyone overindulges, don't invite them back for the next tasting

Let me discuss each of the above in more detail. I typically offer 4-6 whiskeys. Remember that as folks begin tasting, the alcohol effects on the palate will begin immediately. If you do have more than say 6, encourage the tasters go slow and keep the sampling more moderate. Discussing what each is experiencing as they taste will keep the pace moving at a slower rate. Smelling pretty is nice when you're on a date but smelling like Chanel No. 5 while attending a tasting will only annoy your sippin neighbors and will probably get you removed from the invite list. If you eat food that is spicy or contains a moderate amount of garlic, you won't be able to taste the bourbon in an pure manner as these will affect your taste buds. What you drink out of is important as the shape and size make a difference. I tend to use the Glencairn since the shape concentrates the nose and the size makes viewing and tasting the whiskey simple. A white tablecloth provides a neutral backdrop when viewing the whiskey. This is very important especially if you are scoring the bourbons (more on that later) and having a well lighted room makes viewing the whiskey easy. Finally, as sad as it is, some folks attending a tasting can't help themselves and overindulge. I find this type of behavior to be boorish and doesn't promote the intent or spirit of the event. If invited to a tasting, have the class to exhibit some self control.

For the most part, I like to provide scoring sheets for my guests that cover 4 basic areas; appearance, aroma, entry and finish with scoring typically covering 1 for poor to 5 for best. If you don't plan on serving dinner, make sure to tell your guests to eat beforehand. This is important as you don't want your guests tasting on an empty stomach. At the very least you should provide a platter of snacks that includes things like peanuts, cheese, crackers, etc. I always serve a meal afterward that includes some form of protein which counters the effects of alcohol.

As for a theme, well, that's really up to you. You can choose to do the tasting blind (which can make it difficult for some) or open which provides for a more relaxed event. I would encourage you to have a theme as that concentrates the discussion on things like proof, distillery, age, etc. Do some research on your theme (say a specific distillery) so you can provide some background info or history on the subject matter.

As I said, there are really no explicit rules so feel free to modify and make it work for your guests and environment. The nice byproduct of hosting a tasting event is the friends you will make over time, I certainly have. Oh, and the other outcome of holding a tasting…..you're coolness just went up another notch.


  1. Nice post Greg, and this is good advice as I was going to hold my own tasting on a guys weekend I will have coming up in a month or so. I think I will do wheat bourbons on night one and something different for night 2, haven't decided. Might do lower shelf bourbons for night 2. Good points all. Thanks

  2. hello just like to say if you liked the bushmills you wanna try the redbreast 12 year old pure pot still.

  3. I actually have the Redbreast 12 year and like it very much. I'm working a contact right now trying to get the Redbreast 15 year. I hear that's even better.

  4. the only reason i won't i have not bought the 15 year old, here in the uk its double the price. that seems a lot for three extra years in the barrel.and just found a local merchant who sells green spot pure pot still,and heard its better than both redbreasts.