How to Give a Scotch Tasting

Scotch whisky is one of the blessings of the world. Thank whatever you hold dear that not only is it tasty, but it comes in a wild variety of flavors both subtle and brickbat. If you (and hopefully your friends) like whisky, or are even just curious about whisky, one of the best ways to figure out what sorts you like (and, therefore, what you might be interested in investing your hard-earned cash in when you finally get to the purveyor's) is to have a whisky tasting. This writeup offers a brief guide to holding your first (but hopefully not your last!) such event. We'll assume that you're organizing a trial tasting, not an educational tasting; this saves the trouble of finding someone suitably pedantic about the subject, determining if they have appropriate costume, and propping them up front to lecture.

Although it might not seem like it, these types of events are best if the organization is done carefully in advance - that way there is nothing to get between you and the enjoyment of the marvelous spirits during the event itself! Here are some things to keep in mind when setting up the gathering.

Venue. Find a likely spot! You'll need, ideally, enough room for all your attendees to circulate. In addition, you'll need at least two separate tables. One will hold booze, and the other sundries. This is a guide only; snacks and finger food and the like can be placed around as many tables as you like. It is recommended that the Scotch be placed on a large, stable table, however, in order to minimize the chances of spillage or breakage as well as to allow elbow room during the event. A typical 2m x 1m dining room table should be sufficient to hold perhaps ten to fifteen different whiskys. Make sure there is enough room around the edge for people to congregate around a bottle they are examining and present their tumblers for pouring while still allowing others to move past them! Conversation spots (armchairs, sofas, side benches, etc.) are not at all a bad plan, but should be suitably separated from the table of whisky.

Sundries. You'll need some basic supplies to make a whisky tasting a success. First of all, you'll need glasses! Listen carefully: whatever you do, do not ever use paper or plastic cups of any sort. These will dissolve components of themselves into the drink, or produce odors which befoul the taste. If you are discovered supplying this sort of container and a True Aficionado shows up, you might end up dodging a claymore. One simple method is to purchase a case or two of cheap glass tumblers and run them once through the wash before the party. By all means make sure you have a few extras! In addition, paper towels and other normal party supplies are helpful.

Once you've got glasses, you'll need to have water. This is critical. Whisky cannot be properly drunk without at least the availability of water for both adding to the liquor as well as cleansing the palate between tastes. Although it's traditional to have small pitchers set out with water for adding to the whisky, at room temperature or slightly cooler, one handy modern trick is to just buy a couple of cases of decent (non-sparkling) mineral water bottles such as Evian or Dannon in the 'sport bottle' or smaller size. That way each drinker can carry water with them as they circulate without having to manage more open-topped containers than necessary.

In addition to the water, providing some form of dry neutral cracker or flatbread is highly recommended to assist in cleansing the palate. Matzah or soda crackers make an ideal choice. Avoid flavored crackers, or those which are salted - simple flours are best. Place these around the room for easy availability.

One touch that can bring a tasting from 'fun' to 'really fun and useful' is the availability of tasting sheets. Before the event begins, be sure to find out which whiskys will be available and make up some simple sheets of paper with the name of each whisky and a section available for scribbling notes about it. Provide these sheets and pencils at the start. This way, should your guests find a whisky they like, they can keep track of which ones once they've gotten home and sobered up. Alternately, you can collect the sheets at the end of the evening and compile the tasting notes into a single volume to be distributed to your guests later. This can be useful for several reasons; first of all, if there are enough whiskys, some folks may not get to sample all of the varieties they'd wish and can therefore at least have a look at what others thought. Second, depending on how...um...relaxed everyone gets, the comment sheets might prove to have strong humor value. Third, they're always useful in figuring out what to get one of the other guests for a gift later!

Liquor. One of the best ways to handle this, if you have enough people, is to simply draw up a list of guests and ask every guest or couple attending to bring a bottle. Coordination during the invitation and RSVP phase is handy here; delegate the task of procuring the whisky to the guests in advance! Any whisky left over (and there should be quite a bit) can either be taken home by those who brought it, or for maximum fun swapped for other libations the bringer might have discovered that s/he likes better. If the gathering is to be a small one, the host may wish to procure a minimum of three or four different whiskys to be sure there is enough variety available in case some attendees fail in their appointed charge!

One of the most common questions is 'but which whisky should we buy?' This is a matter of taste, but of course you (and your guests) may simply not be sure of what you'd like to try! If you're going to have a large gathering, you might be sure to try to have samples of each of the various whisky-producing regions available:

  • Islay (strong, peaty flavors; iodine and charcoal extremely forward)
  • Highlands (drier, malty flavor, subtle differences with hints of spice)
  • Speyside (fruitier, more complex flavors)
  • Lowlands (very subtle, almost pale flavors, very light)
This will ensure a variety of different tastes can be accommodated. How you choose within them will depend on your goal. If you and your guests are seeking maximum exposure to whisky for future preference honing, it is usually a good idea to pick a standard age or quality range (say, 12-15 years) and purchase a range of whisky from different makers in a region which are of comparable age. This will give you experience with the varieties of whisky available and give each taster a better chance of finding a distillery or style of whisky they strongly prefer, which they can investigate in detail at their leisure.

If you are interested in the process of making whisky, and are curious as to how the aging process affects the whisky itself, it might be more fun to pick one or two distilleries from a region and purchase a range of whiskys from each. This will allow you to compare the wide spectrum of quality and types of whisky made available. Although more difficult to arrange due to the varying prices of the different ages and types, it can be quite rewarding! Comparing, for example, Bowmore's 12, 15, 17 and 'Darkest' labels produces the expected range of flavor strength in the charcoal and peat - but surprisingly, the 15 year old has a most noticeable fruit streak, almost a perfect cherry overtone, that the other bottlings lack entirely. This is presumably due to a peculiarity of the barrels and how the compounds mellow over time. It makes the 15 much more different from the 12 in some ways, however, than the 12 Bowmore is from, say, the 12 year old Bruichladdich.

Food. This is fairly important, since it's difficult to get through a Scotch tasting without being properly fed first or during! Make sure guests know if they should eat before arriving or if food will be offered. If food is offered, simple and filling dishes are best, which avoid strong flavors or odors which would stay with the eater and interfere with the whisky. Pastas are a good choice for a light meal; baked hors d'oeuvres for finger food. Avoid cheeses and fruit, as these may mask or conflict with the subtler flavors of the whisky. Excessive grease will coat the tongue and mouth, preventing some of the best parts of the whisky experience unless the mouth is washed thoroughly beforehand.

The Drinking! Ah, the good part! Well, there's no real rule here. Although you may have seen 'professional' tastings pre-pour the whisky, this is not recommended at private events. First of all, you'll likely not have enough glassware or table space. Second, whisky will change in flavor and odor as it breathes, with alcohol and water evaporating from the glass. Best to simply pour yourself a wee dram, have a taste, perhaps water to your liking, drink again...then maybe try with a bit more water to see how the taste changes...etc.

Unlike those effete wine drinkers, you should never, ever spit out any of this golden substance. Never. Ever. Really. it's meant to be drunk. It takes twelve to twenty-five or more years to make this stuff, you're not going to spit it out, are you?!?!

Of course, this means that the hosts and organizers should be extremely careful about transportation, sleeping arrangements if necessary, and general party management - since this is an event almost guaranteed to get nearly all of your guests at least happy and perhaps some plastered. That's the point.

Extra Points! There are a couple of things you can do to make tasting whisky even more special. For example, inevitably, people will have questions. Make sure to invite at least one whisky snob if possible; not only will that person thank you for making them the Star of the Party, your guests will thank you for having a resource who can answer the basic questions that always seem to come up no matter how experienced the drinkers are. Another good tactic is to have whisky books available for reference and perusal. Some good choices include The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch by Michael Jackson, or The Scotch Whisky Book by Bruce-Gardyne and Satterley.

For the drinking itself, the tastes of whisky are myriad, complex and wonderful. The experience, however, can sometimes be heightened with the availability of flavors used to enhance or bring out certain others in the liquor! Try having some or all of the following available:

  • Dark or unsweetened chocolate, finely shaven - try a pinch with a Speyside or Highland.
  • Cinnamon sticks - sniff or chew lightly before and after tasting.
  • Dried fruits such as apricots, cherries, pears, and apples - for comparison with hints in the liquor.
  • Basic dark flavor hard candy, the finer the better - caramel, toffee, vanilla. Try shaving these down and trying a pinch - like the chocolate - with the Highlands or the Islay whiskys.
  • Fresh aromatic flowers - violets, roses, etc. Breathe in the perfume and then try a sip of whisky.

Whatever you end up doing, the whisky itself is the focus - and as long as you go into the event truly wishing to learn more about the stuff, it won't disappoint you. Ever. I envy you your explorations.

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