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How to Host a Whiskey Tasting Party

How to Host a Whiskey Tasting Party

So you want to host a whiskey tasting party. You want it to be entertaining, informative and a positive experience for everyone. You’ve come to the right place, but if you’re going to host such a party, you will be expected to come armed not only with an array of suitable bottles, but knowledge about what’s inside each of them. Let’s start with the basics.

Whiskey is an “umbrella term” encompassing bourbon, scotch and rye. Bourbon comes from the United States, Scotch from Scotland, and rye, sometimes called Canadian whiskey, refers to the multi-grain blend of wheat, corn and of course, rye that comprises its grain bill. No matter the type of whiskey, each starts with a mash of fermented grains, quite like beer, which are then distilled, wood-aged and cut with water.

Each step of the distilling process offers chances to impart certain flavors, again, quite like beer. How long you age, the ratio of grains used and the water profile are just a few of the myriad variables that contribute to the final product.


attractive whiskey glass on wooden table

Thirst For Knowledge
Make sure you’ve done a bit of research. As the host, you are positioned to be the field guide and knowledge base for everything from how to drink to the background of the distilleries you’ve chosen to showcase. Basic info about the distiller, region, style, what to look for within the flavor profile and more can help deepen your guests’ appreciation for what they are imbibing.

Speaking of guests, considering who you invite should be one of the very first steps in planning your party. A good rule of thumb is to keep the event reasonably intimate – a group of five to seven friends is ideal. Unless you’re doing this as a paid event where maximum attendance is a factor,  you want to be able to genuinely connect with these people, and that means having the time to do so. After all, whiskey is the jumping-off point, but the drinks are never a means to an end in themselves – they are a tool to enhance connection.

After you’ve got your list of attendees, choosing a theme is a logical next step. Perhaps you’re taking a trip around the Scottish Highlands, showcasing various regional distillers, or focusing on a single company’s blends. And if everyone is relatively new to the game? Your theme may well be “An Introduction to Whiskey”, featuring a couple choice makes of each type. Four to six varieties is plenty – as always, moderation is key to a smooth evening for all parties.


cheese plate for whiskey tasting party

What You’ll Need
Once you’ve got the whiskey, there are a few other items you’ll want to have on hand. Right at the top of the list is glassware. Tulip-shaped glasses allow guests to fully take in the aroma, and you get bonus points for mini-tulips. Snifters will work as well. Smaller glasses lend themselves to appropriate intake, and encourage the guests to savor each whiskey’s flavor, rather than gulp.

Next up, appropriate light snacks to cleanse the palate, ease the stomach and keep anyone from falling out of their chair. For palate cleansers, unsalted crackers or corn chips work well, and it goes without saying that water (room temperature) should be plentiful. Not just for hydration, however. Water also helps cleanse the palate and adjust a whiskey’s proof to bring out flavor. If you do use ice, which can dull flavor, try not to use more than one cube.

Foods bring out flavor as well, and again, helps keep your guests even keeled. You can base food choices off what flavors they bring out in whiskey. Fruits like apricot, cherry and cranberry work well, and nuts like walnuts, pecans and almonds for their tannic qualities. Cheeses are a must. Their buttery fats, salt and smoky flavors work wonders in tandem with whiskey. Smoked gouda or aged parmesan, cheddar and brie are all good bets, and thinly sliced meats – ham, pepperoni, salami and so on add salt and umami. The rich, earthy qualities of chocolates, dark and milk, add yet another layer to your flavor arsenal.

A range of snacks that hits all the groups above allow for endless experimentation and flavor combination, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. Base your choices off of the beverages you provide, and off how they would complement other snacks. Finally, when the tasting is over, bring out a more substantial meal to send everyone off on the right foot – it doesn’t have to be much more than pizza or burgers if you’re with close friends.

Photo Courtesy Flickr Shaun Dawson


whiskey being poured for tasting

Take Note
Supply your guests pen and paper, so they can take notes while tasting. Sure it seems a bit over-the-top, but just as keeping a journal can enhance your focus and clarity of life, so too can noting the flavors of the whiskey, and increase one’s ability to express and share these sensory experiences. At this point, it’s time to taste.

Time to Taste
A good place to start is showing your guests how to taste. After filling each glass with about 1.5 ounces of whiskey (start with the lightest kind and move towards the darkest), have your guests examine their glass in the light, noting its clarity and hue. Have them swirl, then inhale through the nose, and ask for their thoughts on its qualities. If they aren’t big drinkers, you can explain how color and smell can indicate how whiskeys will taste, and their strength.

Now it’s time for the big moment. Add a small splash of room-temperature water to each glass (guests can do so themselves if you provide bottles or containers. Corked and caged bottles offer a touch of class.) For those who gasp in horror at the thought of diluting their drink, explain that it enhances flavor by neutralizing the alcohol.

Have your guests take a sip, swirling the whiskey in their mouths to coat their palates and release its full flavor, and then discuss/take notes. Ask questions or suggest snack pairings. Or just smile sublimely. Each round should be spaced out between five and ten minutes (starting shorter and waiting a bit longer as your guests imbibe more), allowing for discussion, distraction and digestion.

Once all whiskeys have been tasted and discussion is complete, a small toast and thank you is in order, which your guests will undoubtedly return to you. You can breathe easily, knowing you’ve successfully hosted your first whiskey tasting party.


whiskey glasses on display