Those of you who follow me either on Facebook or Twitter, or even in the real world (there’s one or two…) will know that I get invited to and attend a fair amount of whisky tasting events and from time to time host my own whisky tastings so it felt fitting to write The Great Drams guide to hosting the perfect whisky tasting experience.
First off, why do people enjoy whisky tasting events?
Simple, there are so many diverse flavours, characters and conversation to be had by taking part in an organised group whisky tasting experience. I have always found that I learn something new, be it from those around me or the master of ceremonies for the afternoon or evening including such gems as Korean whisky drinking rituals and about Andrew Usher, the first blender of whisky. So what makes the perfect whisky tasting experience?
2. Setting the theme
3. Using the best glass wear
4. Portioning & using water
5. Serving food
6. Conversation drivers
What do you think matters most at a whisky tasting? The whisky? The food? The location? They all play a huge role but what makes all the difference is having the right people in the room.
Whilst this cannot always be controlled, be up front with information about the night before hand, charge a nominal fee so that people have to make a commitment and are in the right frame of mind as soon as they turn up and try holding different tastings for different levels of whisky drinker from the new drams on the block to the enthusiasts to the connoisseurs, collectors and even the non-whisky set.
Be inclusive, be honest, and be definitive in who should be attending.
You would not spend a night drinking lager, rose wine, port, cider and vermouth (or maybe you would, in which case; best of luck to you) but you would actively trade up down or sideways through one or maybe two of those drinks.
The extreme differences pulled out in the above example is roughly the same for whisky; create a Japanese flight or an Islay flight, or an Anti-Prohibition Flight (a flight being a set of around 4-6 whiskies that together tell a story).
Have you thought about doing a blind taste test? I attended one recently at SMWS and it was brilliant, proved I know nothing about what I’m tasting but the experience, the camaraderie and the conversation was second to none.
This one should be relatively obvious but if you’re looking to be hosting the perfect whisky tasting experience then everyone needs to be drinking out of the same style of glass, preferably Glencairn, that have been thoroughly washed and, for ease of distribution, pre-poured.
If you don’t have enough for everyone to have a fresh glass for each whisky they’re sampling then consider having a pitstop half way through the session to discreetly, yet thoroughly, wash and dry the glasses before going again.
Golden rule: Don’t allow attendees to free pour (unless you are at the end of the night) and don’t serve them more than around six to eight whiskies, after this the taste buds give up a little and cannot pull apart all the flavours accurately.
Pour roughly a 15-25ml measure for each sample, this will be enough to taste and comment but not enough to knock anyone sideways.
Some people may want to spit theirs out, that’s ok, provide spittoons that they can use but, for their dignity as much as anything else, make place them discreetly around the room.
People will also want to add a wee bit of water to their dram after the first sip, again don’t get precious about this as it is their consumption ritual and their night so provide water to add to their whisky as well as jugs of water (with glasses) to allow them to rehydrate through the evening.
Food and whisky pairings are a great way to go about hosting the perfect whisky tasting experience. This links directly back to theming and can add real story telling ability to the night.
If the night is not centred around the food and whisky pairing then still provide finger food for people to snack on and keep themselves amused between drams, they’ll thank you for it.
You may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned the host, and you’d be raising a very valid question. The host makes or breaks the experience (yes, I know the attendees do to but without the host then who is their guiding light?).
Make sure the person guiding the group through each whisky knows about the distilleries, the blends, the process, the nuances and is armed with as much factual knowledge and nuggets of interest that whisky people often desire. Oh and make sure they know the tasting notes inside out and are able to answer questions and offer comparable whiskies for the attendees to try out too.
Encourage conversation and probe knowledge and thoughts out of those in attendance, make it an immersive experience and they will go away happy, will tell their friends and will come back again and again.
Best of luck with any and all the tastings you host and I hope that The Great Drams guide to hosting the perfect whisky tasting experience has helped you focus your night and to create a truly memorable event for all who attend.