It isn’t a scam. Sure, hosting a whisky tasting is a great way to taste whiskies you’ve wanted to try. Yes, you end up with some extra whisky at the end of the night and it’s not like you are going to tip it into the sink the next morning. And it is only fair that everyone throws some money into the kitty to buy that whisky. But it’s not a scam. If anything, it’s a party with benefits.
We love hosting whisky nights, and they are best when you get a bunch of non- whisky drinkers and get them hooked on fruity Speyside malt. On second thought, the best is when you’ve got a group of whisky enthusiasts and they all agree the £25 bottle of Indian whisky is the best thing they’ve ever tasted. Actually, whisky tasting nights are just the best, fullstop. Here is our formula for a whisky tasting we recently hosted:
Step 1: the right people (trust us, this really is the first step)
It sounds really bad, but we’ve fallen at the first huddle before and didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We have one friend (who shall remain namless) who we love dearly, but won’t be invited back. The problem with some whisky aficionados is that they can have a narrow focus. After we tasted he kept saying ‘this is nice, but it just doesn’t have the smoke it needs.’ and ‘I think this whisky just needs more peat.’ After the third whisky, we said ‘okay, Derek, we get it. You like Lagavulin.’
Before you begin to think of the kinds of whiskies you’ll be pouring, make sure you have the right audience. They should be open-minded whisky drinkers, or people who aren’t whisky drinkers but are curious and interested in learning about whisky.
Step 2: the theme
Now, we like a lot of whiskies (we run a whisky website after all). Coming up with an interesting theme helped us provide some coherence to the night. It also sets you up for a follow-up tasting. Top Whiskies’ Tip: Always think one pour ahead. There are loads of different themes: Do you want to focus on different styles of whisky (this could be from different regions of Scotland or different whisky producing countries) or whiskies of same style (for example, all smoky/peaty whiskies). One idea that works well is to pick whiskies that demonstrate the different core characteristics and the cask types for example, choose 4 whiskies with one that has been matured in ex-bourbon casks, one in ex-sherry, one in a mixture of casks and then one smoky. This shows the typical flavour profiles of each style to your audience and works well with a group of ‘whisky beginners’.
We wanted to have a bind tasting, where no one knows what they are drinking and decided our theme would be ‘Mass Market’. We picked 5 whiskies that were on offer at Tesco. We didn’t tell anyone the theme ahead of time. We wanted it to be a surprise.
Step 3: the whisky
The first thing is not to choose too many whiskies - 5 or 6 is a good number, otherwise palates will start to struggle and the nuances of flavour will lay unappreciated. We won’t patronise you by warning you not to select too few. Because our theme was a bit quotidian, it was easy for us. We walked into the nearest Tesco and looked at what was on offer and picked 5: Cardhu Gold Reserve (£42 marked down to £30), Dalwhinnie Winter's Gold (was £40 marked down to £25), Chivas Regal 12yo (£28 marked down to £20), Aberlour 10yo (£30.00 marked down to £22), Balvenie 12yo (£37 marked down to £27).
You might have a bit more fun choosing if you pick a more exotic theme. It’s really fun to work to a budget and try to get the right combination of bottles. Top Whiskies’ Tip: Don’t go online, try to find a specialist whisky shop and tell them you’re planning a tasting. They will help you pick the right combination of flavours and will often give you a discount, you are buying 5 bottles in one go – you’ll be the kind of customer they want to see again!
Step 4: the facts
Once you have selected your whiskies, it’s a good idea to do some research. We are not just talking about a bit of history or information about the bottling (although this is useful), but titbits of interesting related information, the pub quiz facts. Who doesn’t love a pub quiz? When we had The Balvenie, for example, we said this whisky is distilled next to the golf course that has the highest hole of any golf course in the UK (1000ft/305m, if you were wondering). Go to the ‘facts’ section of the distiller’s website and you’re bound to find something interesting. It’s particularly important when you’re tasting blind because you want to be able to introduce the whisky without giving the game away.
Step 5: the glassware
Without a doubt, this was the hardest part for us. Glassware is very important because ideally you want a vessel to capture the aromas while allowing the gentle warming of the contents. You need the perfect glasses to optimise the experience but, as you’ll see below, everyone needs to have a set of glasses. We had 8 people at our tasting, that meant 40 glasses, and even we’re not made of Glencairn glasses. At £6 we’d be spending more on the glasses than what we put in them. So we had to compromise. We took out every glass in our flat and divided them out. We had 16 Glencairn glasses, 16 wine glasses and enough tumblers to open a boutique hotel. Rather that someone drawing the short straw and having to drunk from timbers all night, we decided to divide the different glasses between everyone. So everyone got their Balvenie in a Glencairn glass, their Cardhu in a tumbler and so on. This meant we had enough glasses for everyone and we could pretend we picked the glasses to go with the specific whisky, rather than saying we were too cheap to spend £150 to buy an extra 24 Glencairn glasses.
Step 6: the accompaniments
The tasting is not just about the whisky, we needed all of the following. First is water - this is for both cleansing the palate between drams and diluting the whiskies. Filtered tap water is perfectly fine, but bottled spring water is best. Because we were already running short on glasses, we got plastic bottles for everyone and picked up some eyedroppers from the pharmacy so people could dilute the whisky to their taste. Make sure that it is not carbonated and is at room temperature rather than chilled, which will inhibit the aromas and flavours of your whiskies. We also got oatcakes to cleanse the palate between whiskies. Because we were in Tesco already, we got some dark chocolate, beef jerky and almonds for to go with the whiskies.
Step 7: the set up
You’ll want everything set up in advance, which takes a bit more thought than organising a drinks round, but less planning than a full-scale military invasion. You’ll need a piece of paper with number on it, either do it by hand or download and use our template. You’ll just going to need each glass to have a corresponding number so you can talk about them, remember no one knows what they are drinking until the end. Technically you could all drink a whisky, then clean out the glass and pour a new one, but then you don’t have the fun of going back and comparing them. You might want to take a sip of number 2 and then a sip of number 4 and you can’t do that if you’ve already drunk all the number 2. At also saving you from having to fill everyone’s glasses between tastings and running around like a crocodile at a handbag sale. So have all the whiskies poured, water bottles out and snacks to the side before your guests arrive.
We put out nameplates and made people sit in specific places. There wasn’t any actual reason for this, we just wanted to say ‘this whisky is just for Jason, we poured it especially for Jason and no one should drink it but Jason.’ The only practical point of the nameplates was to make our friend think we’d planned to poison him. It wasn’t strictly necessary.
Step 8: the banter
Now all the planning and hard work pays off. You actually get to drink the stuff, but you don’t want to just drink it, you need some patter. This is where your pub facts come in. Give your facts and then start picking on people. You need to get everyone talking about what they’re tasting. It’s strange, but the more people drink the more comfortable they become describing it. We can’t imagine why. Top Whiskies Tip: Give a prize for whoever comes up with the best description. Our prize went to someone who described Cardhu as testing like ‘freshly cut garden hose.’
Our night was particularly good when we listened to some of our more snobbish friends gush over mass-market whisky. One of our friends couldn’t get over the delicious banana flavours in Chivas Regal, until we told him it was Chivas Regal and all of a sudden he thought it was banal. It was a great night and we ended it with some whisky-based cocktails. Although we had to leave and go to the pub before our neighbour called the police and says there are a lot of well-heeled people yelling about whether they can taste bananas in their drinks.
How to drink whisky
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy this video on how to taste whisky (and look like you know what you're doing).