How to Throw a Whiskey-Tasting Party

Whiskey is so hot right now. With craft cocktails gone fully mainstream and an ever-expanding crop of artisanal distilleries around the world, fans of brown booze have it pretty good. To take advantage, why not throw a whiskey-tasting party? You can use some of those dusty bottles every home bar seems to accumulate, learn a little and, most importantly, figure out what you like best. Here are nine rules for throwing a whiskey-tasting party.

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1: Be Responsible

This should go without saying but anytime you serve alcohol to people you should take extra steps to ensure their safety. For example, nobody should be driving to your whiskey-tasting party unless they plan on staying the night. Make your tasting pours small—half an ounce is plenty—and don’t feel like you have to drink every drop of every spirit. It’s called a whiskey tasting, not a whiskey finishing.

2: Pick a Format

"Whiskey" refers to any distilled spirit made from grain and encompasses a bunch of categories made all over the world. It's impossible to cover all of the varieties out there so we recommend choosing either a "horizontal" tasting with single bottles from multiple categories or a "vertical" one with several bottles in a single category. Either way, these are the major types of whiskey you should consider:

Bourbon

Made from a mix of grains that includes at least 51 percent corn, bourbon must be made in the United States and aged in brand-new charred American oak barrels. All bourbons share deep caramel-and-vanilla flavors, though the secondary grains that are used make a big difference: Bourbons that contain rye tend to have spicy, cherry notes, while those made with wheat have extra sweetness and smoothness. (Tennessee whiskeys, such as Jack Daniel’s, follow all the rules for bourbon but are also filtered through charcoal before aging, which gives them similar flavors but a milder mouth feel.)

Rye Whiskey

The requirements for American rye whiskey are the same as bourbon, except that 51 percent of the grain must be rye instead of corn. This style was far more popular than bourbon before Prohibition and is the original base of classic cocktails like the Manhattan. Think of the difference between bourbon and rye like the difference between cornbread and rye bread: Rye is drier, spicier and generally a bit more austere. (Confusingly, Canadian whiskey is sometimes also called rye, but it’s a bit different—see the next slide.)

Canadian Whisky

Canada also makes its whisky (like Scotland, Canada usually spells it without the e) from a combination of grains, but most brands ferment, distill and age each individual grain separately and then blend the finished spirits. Canadian whiskies tend to be smoother and milder than their American counterparts, though there's also a range of new distilleries popping up making American-style rye, single malt and other tradition-breaking styles.

Scotch Whisky

As the name implies, Scotch must be made in Scotland. There are two basic types: single malt Scotch is distilled from 100 percent barley, while blended Scotch is a mix of different single malts along with spirits made from other grains. Both types of Scotch typically age in used bourbon, sherry or port barrels and are quite a bit less sweet than American whiskeys, with toasty and fruity notes dominating. Some distilleries, especially those on the remote island of Islay, use barley that’s smoked with burning peat, which gives the resulting whiskies smoky notes that can range from bacon and barbecue to seaweed and iodine.

Irish Whiskey

Many Scots might disagree, but Ireland is likely where the spirit we now call whiskey was invented. There are a few Irish single malts, but most of the Emerald Isle’s whiskey is distilled from a mix of grains like in the US, and then aged in former bourbon, sherry and other used barrels like in Scotland. Notes of honey, fruit and flowers typically dominate.

Japanese Whisky

Next-to-unknown outside its home country just a decade ago, Japanese whisky has become super-trendy in whiskey-geek circles in recent years. Japan’s distilleries take lots of inspiration from Scotch, producing excellent spirits from barley and aging them in used barrels, but they also make whiskies from corn that are more like bourbon, as well as blends that marry both types.

Other

There are lots of styles of whiskey out there that don’t fit into the established categories as well! Lots of US craft distilleries have been experimenting with all-American single malts, whiskeys made from 100 percent barley but very different than their Scottish and Japanese counterparts. Others are using unusual grains like sorghum, spelt or quinoa, or aging their spirits in barrels made of unusual types of wood or which previously held beer, coffee or maple syrup. The possibilities are honestly endless.

3: Choose Your Bottles (and Try Something Local)

Five bottles are about the perfect number for a whiskey-tasting party: There are enough choices to compare but not so many that it gets overwhelming. Feel free to use open bottles you already have on hand if there’s enough for everybody to taste—one ounce of each whiskey per person should be more than enough. In terms of price, avoid the very bottom-shelf bottles, as they won’t have much personality, but if you’re a beginner, you also don’t need to go after the most expensive stuff. $20-$50 is a good, solid price range to stick to. And, please, make one of those bottles something distilled near you! There are hundreds of craft distilleries in the US, and almost all of them make whiskey. (This list is a great place to look for a local whiskey distillery, although it’s no longer being updated as of a few months ago.)

4: Ready the Glassware

Yes, glass. This is a classy whiskey tasting, and you’re officially not allowed to use plastic cups! There are special glasses designed specifically for tasting whiskey, like the Glencairn, which is the whiskey-geek industry standard and which you can find inexpensively at any large liquor store. But regular old highball, rocks, wine or even shot glasses will work fine. Wider-mouthed glasses let more of the whiskey evaporate, which carries more aromas into the nose, and clear ones are best so you can judge the whiskeys’ color. Ideally, you want enough glasses so each guest can have a separate one for each whiskey. (Short on glasses? Your local restaurant supply store probably sells them by the case for surprisingly low prices.)

5: Feed the Crowd

If you’re going to be drinking, you need to be eating too. Bread, fruit and cheese are great nibbles for before and during the tasting when you don’t want any super-strong flavors interfering with anything, but afterward, you should have something nice and hearty ready to go. A stew, chili, soup or something else that can sit on the stove or in a slow cooker is great, plus it lets guests just serve themselves.

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6: Compare & Contrast

The whole idea behind doing a focused tasting of anything, be it whiskey, wine, coffee or steak, is to understand its flavor by comparing it to other things. And it’s easier to compare when you have those other things present! Lay out bowls of the flavors and aromas commonly found in whiskey—honey, a vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, cloves, coffee beans, chocolate, apple, pear, peach, cherries, toast—so you can smell and taste them side-by-side with the whiskeys that share their flavors.

7: Smell, Taste and Add Water

Time to start pouring! Walk through the whiskeys one at a time, starting with your nose. (You don’t have to stick your schnoz deep into the glass like you would with wine; just hold it a few inches below your nostrils.) Do you smell spices? Smoke? Fruit? Next, take a small sip and hold it on your tongue while you breathe in through your nose, then swallow and then breathe out through your mouth. Think about what you’re tasting, as well as the order you taste it. Does the whiskey start off sharp and spicy and then mellow out, or does it start sweet on the tip of the tongue and then turn more herbal and bitter at the back? As the "finish" plays out after you swallow, are you tasting anything new? Now, add a few drops of water and taste again. It seems like a small thing, but altering the alcohol level in a whiskey can completely change the aromas and flavors you’re most able to detect.

8: Figure Out Your Favorite (Take Notes)

The whole point of this tasting isn’t to pick out the objective best that everybody loves, but for each person to figure out what they like. Pick out your favorite whiskey and try to articulate what you like about it. Which of the other whiskeys share those characteristics? Do the same thing with your least favorite—what didn’t you like about it? Now, you are going to be drinking, so it might help to take notes you can refer to later. There are lots of templates available online you can print out for your guests: Here are three good options.

9: Open the Bar

Now that everybody’s tasted your whiskeys and picked out a favorite or two, it’s time to start experimenting. Break out some simple cocktail ingredients—lemons and limes, some club soda and ginger ale, a few fresh herbs—and let everybody play with making a few drinks. Think about the flavors you found in the whiskeys and which ingredients will match well (or hide flaws). You might even discover a new house cocktail!

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