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.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monthly Bourbon Recommendation – Pappy Van Winkle 15 year

As I've stated on many occasion, I'm somewhat partial to wheated bourbons. While I enjoy many types of whiskeys, wheated bourbons are some of my favorite. In fact, my bunker has a large number of bottles dedicated to this type. Back in February I blogged about Stitzel Weller and briefly discussed Pappy Van Winkle and his imprint on Stitzel Weller. Today, Pappy's grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, heads up the Van Winkle line from the confines of Buffalo Trace Distillery.

There are three expressions of the Pappy line; 15, 20 and 23 year old offerings. I've had all three and do prefer the 15 year. The 20 year expression is more subtle than the 15 year, has a softness to it that's very nice. It is pricey and typically goes for over $100 a bottle. The 23 year, to me, displays some astringency and wood notes that are somewhat overstated. When drinking bourbon neat the goal of course is to find one that has nice balance; the 23 year leans heavily toward barrel notes due to its longevity in wood. So that brings me to the 15 year which is the one I wanted to talk about anyway.

I discussed the 20 year Pappy back in December 2009 in an Exam-O-Dram blog and I mentioned the color being a soft golden hue that wasn't very eye catching. I can't say the same for the 15 year which comes in a 107 proof vice 90.4 proof of the 20 year. I really like the color of the 15 year as it invites you to come over and take a closer look. Doing so yields a bourbon that is a glowing red amber and begins to whet the appetite for what's in the bottle. I would say the two dominant flavors on tasting is caramel and moderate spice. The spice is noteworthy as this is typically a characteristic of rye bourbons, not wheat. The presence of spice (not peppery but baking spice) demonstrates a deeper complexity due to the marriage of the mashbill, wood, storage and age. I mentioned balance earlier and this is one bourbon that has a pleasant balance of sweet, spice, leather and wood notes.

This bottle is difficult to find in some markets and typically goes for somewhere north of $50. If you appreciate finer bourbons, this is one for the bar but please, whatever you do, don't mix it with Diet Coke or if you do, don't tell me about it.