How to host a whiskey tasting

When you think of whiskey, you might recall slamming back shots at the bar in your wild college years, or gulping it straight from the bottle with Tom Waits wailing in the background. Or maybe it’s Don Draper that comes to mind—in a dapper suit, brow furrowed—sipping on the amber-coloured potion. Most people have some sort of experience drinking whiskey, but few actually know how to properly taste it. Before you impress your friends by hosting your own tasting, there are a few things you should know about whiskey. 

Intro to whiskey

Whiskey is an umbrella term that includes bourbon, rye, and scotch. Bourbon is produced exclusively in the United States, while Scotch comes from Scotland. Rye, or Canadian Whiskey as it’s known elsewhere, is a multi-grain spirit containing a blend of rye, corn, or wheat. Despite these differences, all whiskey is made from fermented grain mash (such as barley, malted barley, rye, wheat and corn) that’s distilled then aged in wood and finally, cut with water.

What you’ll need

  • A group of five to seven friends
  • Whiskey, usually around four to five varieties
  • Tulip-shaped glasses
  • Room temperature bottled water for drinking and diluting the spirits
  • Nibbles to cleanse your palate between tastings, such as unsalted crackers or oatcakes
  • Pads of paper so your guests can take notes 

How to get started

Before you invite your friends over and start sipping, you need to carefully curate your selection of whiskey. It’s good to choose a theme and then stick with it. For instance, you can select whiskeys all from the same region (such as Scotland or the American south), from popular brands (like Canadian Club or Johnny Walker), or of the same flavour profile. This will take a bit of research, but the more assorted your selection, the better your tasting will be. For novice drinkers, a safe bet is to choose different types like bourbon, scotch, rye, and Irish whiskey.

Once you’ve made your selection, prepare some notes on each whiskey. At your tasting, you’ll want to act as a resource for your guests and field any of their questions. For starters, you should know about each distillery and the region it was produced, as well as the flavour and aroma profiles.

Now for the actual tasting: pour about 1.5 ounces of whiskey into a tulip-shaped glass. The tapered rim will give the whiskey a fuller taste and hold in the aroma. Just like wine tastings, you want to start off your tasting with the lightest whiskey and gradually move to the darkest. This way, the stronger flavours won’t overpower the palate.

Next up, it’s time to examine the whisky’s colour and clarity. Note the tones. Is it light like apple juice or a dark brown? Is it clear? If it’s murky, that’s usually a sign of a low-grade whiskey. Keep in mind that lighter-coloured whiskies tend to be lighter in flavour as well. A darker tone is usually an indication of a long aging period. The next step involves exercising your nose. Take a whiff of the whiskey and note the aromas: Is it fruity? Spicy? Smoky? The notes you smell will also be present in the flavour.

Now that you’ve fully scrutinized and studied the whiskey, it’s finally time to get sipping. Add a small amount of room-temperature water to your glass. It might seem blasphemous, but the water actually neutralizes the effect of the alcohol and releases more flavours. Take a sip of the whiskey and note the flavours you sensed when you nosed the glass. Be sure to swirl the whiskey in your mouth before you swallow to enjoy the flavours—this isn’t a bar shot. 

Before you move on to your next whiskey, cleanse your palate with water and an unsalted cracker or oatcake. If you want to get really fancy, you can serve matching snacks. 

You might want to finish off your tasting with a little game: blindfold each of your guests and have them identify each whiskey by aroma alone. Winner gets to keep a bottle! 

Hosting a whiskey tasting is not only very trendy at the moment; it’s a fantastic way to gain a greater appreciation for the spirit. And you’re one step closer to being as cool as Don Draper.