whisky tasting guide

Whiskey Tasting Guide & How To Taste Whisky

In this guide, we’re going to delve into the etiquette of tasting Scotch whisky and other whiskies from around the world, as well as how to host a whiskey tasting for your friends and family.

Hosting Your Own Whiskey Tasting

Around the world, organized whisky tastings are becoming incredibly popular. Like a gentleman’s game of cards, an organized event that lets a group of like-minded individuals enjoy a variety of single malts has proven to be a great way to enjoy the fellowship of friends.

If you’ve never attended a whisky tasting, you may worry that you’re at a loss and some men might even find the idea of organizing their own tasting intimidating. We’ll make it simple to plan a great event with this step-by-step guide.

Is It Whisky or Whiskey?

The Scots call it whisky. The Irish thought of their spirit more highly and wanted to be clear that their stuff was different, so they called it whiskey, with an extra ‘e’. In America, whiskey always has an ‘e’.

For a tasting, you can just offer Scottish, Irish and American varieties, or just one of them – but it’ll reflect well on you as the host if you can explain the difference. We will use both terms throughout the article.

Determine What Whiskeys to Taste

The first step is the whiskey! Whisky can be expensive and if you don’t have a liquor cabinet full of it, you might be concerned that hosting an event is a quick way to empty your wallet. Rest assured there are ways to ensure that each guest leaves happy and has had the chance to sample a variety of whiskies without breaking the bank. Choose a budget and

  • For a small tasting, offer 3-5 whiskies. Budget friendly option that is ideal for a large group or those new to whiskey. Drams can be offered one by one with tasting notes or all together for comparison.
  • For a mid-sized tasting, offer 5-6 whiskies. Better for a mid-size group that will require more time & focus from guests. Go through each whiskey individually with tasting notes.
  • For a connoisseurs tasting, offer 7-8 whiskies. Works best with a small group at a set time. Pours should be small so flavors can be enjoyed without overdoing it. Go through each whiskey individually with tasting notes or offer 2 panels with 3-4 whiskies each.

Choose a budget that’s comfortable for you and consider your audience before stocking up. New whisky tasters might not want to try 8 varieties, and party guests often come and go. Consider purchasing a few lower-priced bottles of whiskey from regions outside of Scotland. The whiskies from Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia and Ireland are usually far less expensive than the single malts from Scotland. Often you can find two or three bottles for the same price as a single malt. Look for sales at your local liquor store or order online. If the selection is small, instead of allowing free pouring, offer each person a set dram of 1/8th of an ounce. You can supplement the whisky after the tasting is finished with cocktails. There is no rule that you have to offer expensive whiskies, just a variety for comparison.

Gentlemen attending a whisky tasting

Attending a whisky tasting

Sending Out the Invitations

Like any event, you need to invite people to come. Sending an invitation through email or Facebook is fine, but a handwritten one adds a personal touch of elegance to the event. Aside from the standard information such as when the event will take place and where it will be, you may want to also include the following:

  • The number of whiskies being tasted, the tasting format, and the time of tasting
  • If any food, wine or cocktails will be served for non-whisky drinkers
  • The dress code or theme; use the term “encouraged” if you think some might be put off by it

Often, the most difficult part of organizing a tasting because some members of your social circle inevitably won’t be fans of single malt whisky. To make sure you get a great turnout, consider the following:

  1. Welcome guests to invite friends who they think will enjoy the tasting. By doing this, not only are you increasing the attendance, but you’ll be introduced to other people who have similar interests.
  2. Open the invitation to people at your office or even your clients if they share this interest with you
  3. Once you have confirmed that guests will attend, send a reminder a few days before to ensure no one has forgotten the date.
Glencairn glasses set out for a tasting

Glencairn glasses set out for a tasting

What You’ll Need For The Tasting

A Tasting Host

If you are interested in hosting a tasting but don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to lead the tasting itself, call on a knowledgeable friend to lead the tasting. Alternatively, for an exceptionally elegant tasting, find a local professional from a well-regarded bar, restaurant or liquor store to lead the tasting for you. If you plan to lead the tasting yourself, make sure to research the selected whiskies before hand and have a list of notes to share with each dram.

Glassware

A traditional whisky tasting would strictly utilize the Copita nosing glass as the glassware of choice, since it is the whisky glass recommended by most master distillers and critics. The tulip shape ensures the best nosing of the whisky. While we can taste only a few flavors, we can detect more than thirty other flavors using our sense of smell and the Copita offers us the best chance of noting each of the whisky’s flavors. There are even some whisky tastings that prohibit the use of the Glencairn glass or the rocks glass because they are not as good at this task as the Copita.

If this is the first tasting you’re hosting and you don’t have enough Copita nosing glasses, you’ll simply have to choose another glass. Ideally, you want to stick with crystal glasses and avoid plastic or other glassware since they can introduce foreign scents and flavors into the whisky. Your best bet will be choosing the Glencairn or snifters over wine glasses or shot glasses. However, don’t be concerned if you have to resort to other glassware as long as you’re not serving it with ice, you should still be able to taste the different flavors successfully.

Skip the Ice

Ice has a negative impact on the flavor of whiskey, so we don’t recommend offering it at your tasting. However, as the host, you should honor the requests of your guests who like to drink their Scotch with ice.

To connoisseurs, adding ice to Scotch whisky is like putting fine art in a closet. To them, it’s an insult to the whisky and therefore it can actually cause some pretty heated arguments. In Scotland, some pubs will actually kick you out if you ask for ice. At the end of the day, it’s each to his own because just because someone else doesn’t like it doesn’t mean you can.

A well described bottle of Highland Park 18

A well-described bottle of Highland Park 18

A Water Carafe

Make sure to offer water at room temperature in a glass carafeHowever, encourage your guests to sample the whiskey at full strength first before adding water. However, if you’re not a connoisseur and won’t be leading a tasting or offering a lecture, having a carafe of water to add to the whisky is never a bad idea. It is also a very good plan to offer water between whiskies to help cleanse the palate.

Coffee Grounds

Just like water is a great way to cleanse the palate, so is sniffing fresh coffee grounds between drams. This is a sure-fire way to really taste each whisky and differentiate the flavor profiles and aromas.

Spittoons

You don’t need an actual whisky spittoon, as only the most dedicated tasters will not find this to be a) a waste, and b) gross. If intoxication is a concern, control the pouring yourself or offer fewer whiskies.

Consider bottles without labels for a blind tasting

Consider bottles without labels for a blind tasting

How to Host the Tasting

Once your guests arrive, it becomes your job to play host. Explain to them how the whisky tasting will go and what whiskies will be sampled. It is a wise idea to start with the least potent whiskies and move into the stronger whiskies as you go. Before each whisky is sampled, offer a brief description of the whisky and it’s unique story. If you’re unfamiliar with the whiskey’s background you can usually find excellent descriptions on the distiller’s website or by reading our other whisky guides and reviews.

To learn more about the proper procedure of nosing and tasting, please read our Whisky For Beginners 101.

Once the whisky is poured, follow the basic tasting technique described in our Scotch Whisky Guide and ask everyone to discuss what they noticed that was unique about the whisky. The best part of any tasting is the discussion and learning about the different flavors and aromas each person noticed in the dram.

Take your time, especially if there are only a few whiskies. Try to spread them out and really take a few minutes to appreciate each dram’s complexity.

Eyeing the whisky and examining the color and appearance

Eyeing the whisky and examining the color and appearance

A Few Last Tips

You are always free to personalize your whiskey tasting to your preferences, but here are a few things professionals do that you might consider.

  1. Many people associate cigars with whisky but it’s best not to smoke immediately before or during the tasting since it can interfere with the flavor and aroma of the dram.
  2. Unless the purpose of the evening is to showcase foods that pair well with certain whisky, it’s best not to serve any food or snacks until after the tasting is over. Like tobacco, food can greatly impact the experience.
  3. For those participating in the tasting, don’t offer other beverages besides water until the tasting is over. It’s for the same reason described above: it will impact the experience. It’s best to only serve cocktails and other beverages to guests who aren’t participating in the tasting, though your guests should feel free to enjoy anything you are offering.
  4. Many men enjoy their whisky over ice, but purists always recommend avoiding ice at all costs because it greatly alters the flavor and the aroma of the whiskey. While it is certainly acceptable to add a drop of water to your whisky, ice should only be offered upon request.
  5. Avoiding scented products is very beneficial whether you are hosting or attending a whisky tasting. This means avoiding cologne, scented soap or lighting scented candles. The only thing the guests should be able to smell is the whisky they are tasting.
Nosing the whisky before trying it

Nosing the whisky before trying it

Recommended Whiskies for Tastings

Below is a selection recommended whiskies for tastings that can be mixed and matched to meet all budgets.

$20 – $50

2016 World Whisky of the Year Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

2016 World Whisky of the Year Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – $28

The best whiskies will always come with an interesting tale and the Northern Harvest Rye from Crown Royal is no exception. Whether you agree with him or not, renowned whisky critic Jim Murray named this dram the World Whisky of the Year in the 2016 Whisky Bible. It is an exceptional rye for the price range and its flavor profile is complex when compared to other similar spirits at similar price points. At the very least, you can try it for yourself and debate whether you and your guests feel it’s worthy of such acclaim.

Auchentoshan American Oak – $35

A perfect whisky to begin a tasting with, Auchentoshan is one you may remember from our Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky. A beautifully complex dram, it is gentle and light without even a hint of peat. Despite this, it’s flavor profile is still remarkable and because it’s such a gentle dram, it’s well suited to those who are new to whisky or don’t enjoy a stronger flavor profile.

The Talisker 10 Year is an exceptional young malt

The Talisker 10 Year is an exceptional young malt

Talisker 10 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky – $40

An excellent daily dram, there aren’t many 10-year-old whiskies that receive such high praise. Often regarded as a top choice by whisky critics, this is a classic Isle of Skye dram that is sure to please even the most discerning whisky connoisseur.

The Usquaebach line was originally made for royalty

The Usquaebach line was originally made for royalty

Usquaebach Reserve Blended Scotch – $42

One of the more elegant and complex blends from the Highlands, this blended Scotch whisky is actually quite unique and historic. The Reserve is reasonably priced at around just $40 but if you have some extra room in the budget I highly recommend upgrading to the 15. The Old Rare Superior Blend comes in a stone flagon and is priced just under $150 but is well worth it. It is arguably one of the finest blends ever produced and a GG favorite.

Blantons Bourbon

Blantons Bourbon

Blanton’s Bourbon – $49

More expensive than most bourbons, the complexity is well worth the price. Sure you could go for a Maker’s Mark, a bottle of Knob Creek or even a bottle of cask strength Bookers. However, Blanton’s quality is unsurpassed and it remains a favorite amongst bourbon aficionados. You won’t be disappointed.

$50 – $75

Johnnie Walker Select Casks

Johnnie Walker Select Casks

Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Finish – $54

This limited edition blend from Johnnie Walker isn’t the most fantastic blend you’ll ever try, but it’s one that will certainly cause some heated debates. Often regarded as the ‘finest’ blended whisky by young Wall Street traders, it’s also a favorite in Asian markets and by some of the older and more reserved executives. However, there is also a large contingency of whisky drinkers who feel it’s highly overrated. This is what makes it a perfect choice for a whisky tasting.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask Whisky

Laphroaig Quarter Cask Whisky

Laphroaig Quarter Cask – $60

We don’t often recommend quarter casks, but this is one that many of the Laphroaig fans haven’t tried. It’s a little different than the age-labeled whiskies but has an exceptional offering of peat and smoke that Islay whiskies are known for. A younger malt, it still has an irresistibly complex flavour profile, due to its double maturation in two American oak casks.

The Blade _ Bow is one fantastic American whiskey

The Blade & Bow is one fantastic American whiskey

Blade & Bow 22 Year – $70

This limited release is crafted in the historic Stitzel-Weller distillery in Kentucky where Pappy Van Winkle was produced. In Diageo’s push to release unique whiskies, they took some of its last remaining stock and blended it with other fine bourbons to create one of the most fantastic American whiskies you’ll ever try. Despite its fairly reasonable price tag, this whisky is a limited release and is highly coveted by Bourbon enthusiasts which have caused some bottles to increase in price. It’s not unusual to find a bottle of this nectar on sale for upwards of $600 a bottle. This is one whisky I always bring out at tastings, and the reviews are always extraordinary.

$75 – $100

The Lagavulin Distillers Edition

The Lagavulin Distillers Edition

Lagavulin 1999 Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish Distillers Edition – $87

Bottled in 2015, this distillers edition is a masterful release from one of the most popular distilleries in Scotland. While the 16-year bottling is quintessential, it’s a whisky most have enjoyed. Since the goal of a tasting is to introduce people to drams they may not have had a chance to sample, this remains a great option at a reasonable price from a distillery that’s iconic and revered.

The revered Dalmore 15

The revered Dalmore 15

The Dalmore 15 – $99

The Dalmore line of single malts has long been a personal favorite of mine and one I often recommend in our guides. The 12-Year is a fantastic dram but the 18 is one that most men haven’t tried. It is an exceptional Scotch whisky and it’s the perfect balance of sweetness and spice with layers of complexity that showcase the precision used to craft this decadent dram.

Over $100

The Orphan Barrel lineup

The Orphan Barrel lineup

Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet – $300+

It’s not unusual for this American whisky to fetch a price in the high hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This whiskey is about as rare as they get. Orphan Barrel is a Diageo brand that literally takes orphan barrels found in the back of distinguished distilleries and bottles what’s left. Once the bottling is gone, it’s gone forever, and that’s what makes this such a great whiskey for a tasting. It has a story, and it’s so rare that chances are no one has tried it before, and few will try it again.

The incredible 25 year Highland Park

The incredible 25-year Highland Park

Highland Park 25 Year – $450

Once you get to the 25-year mark, whiskies become a little too potent for most people. The flavors remain complex, but it becomes more difficult to differentiate them and often takes a keen palate to be able to appreciate the dram –  and the price. However, one distillery that has seemingly managed to perfect aged whiskies is Highland Park. Unlike most of their competitors, Highland Park manages to create the perfect blend of sweet to spice with layers of complex flavours that are as easily distinguishable as waves in rough seas. If your budget allows, consider a bottle of the 30-year as well. If your budget is slightly lower, the 18-year is a perfect dram and one I often recommend. In fact, I would say it’s the finest single malt under 25-years.

Conclusion

The goal of a whisky tasting is to sample some unique whiskies and engage in discussion and fellowship with like-minded people. It can be a wonderfully formal event or a very casual party amongst friends. The decision is yours. What is your favorite whisky? What whiskies have you put together for a tasting?

Summary
Article Name
Whiskey Tasting Guide & How To Taste Whisky
Description
The definitive guide on how to host a whisky tasting for all budgets.
Author
8 replies
    • Mark Hewitt says:

      Mr Shapira ,
      Yes I have , as a very young man I visited Japan in 1976 . I found the whiskey there to be astonishing , so too the beer ; these days I still include a couple of bottles n my armoury and surprise friends who come to visit .
      Even here in Australia we have a history of whiskey making going back to around 1860 . One brand from Tasmania has recently received an international award of the most highest recognition .

  1. Richie Rich says:

    The problem with Orphan barrels is that bottles were over marketed with Diageo lying about and withholding info from its consumers. Diageo tried to use every buzzword possible (rare, Stitzel-Weller, Limited Edition, etc.). When bottles of Barterhouse started popping up every where, some with bottle numbers in 80k range. How do you lose and then find thousands of barrels? After being pressed on the source Diageo admitted that these bottles weren’t distilled at Stitzel-Weller but just aged there. It was downhill after that and rumors began to fly. Oh, and every bottle was around the $100 mark a con which a lot of folk fell for.

  2. Duncan King says:

    I would personally advise against trying to taste more than 5 whiskies in a single session, especially for beginners. I tend to find that it becomes very difficult to fully appreciate the nuances after tasting more than 5 or 6 whiskies, and most professional tasters and whisky ambassadors I’ve talked to seem to agree.

    One thing I do always recommend is that people should not finish each whisky before moving on to the next. It’s always very interesting to go back over the drams that you’ve already tasted to see how they compare, and how they change over time.

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