So you’ve discovered this wonderful nectar of the gods we call Bourbon. You may be an expert in sipping the juice, or you may be entirely new to it. Either way, the next step from enjoying bourbon is to make it a social focus. Just as Wine Tastings have been en vogue for decades, Bourbon tastings are becoming the en vogue evening social event to host at your home.
We’ve had numerous readers reach out to us over the past few months asking what they need to know in order to host their own tasting. With the holidays fast approaching, it’s as good a time as any to give a quick how-to on hosting a tasting of your very own.
First things first, you should decide the format. Should everyone bring their own bourbon, or will you provide it? Should the tastings be blind, or will you tell everyone what they’re drinking before tasting? Will you be the host, or will you bring in an expert?
The simplest question involves the expert. There are no shortages of professionals and experts who will come to your home to conduct a tasting. You can scour the web for them, or ask someone who buys and markets bourbon at your local liquor store. Most will charge a nominal fee to appear. Even ModernThirst is available for guided tastings.
But for the bulk of tasters, that’s over the top.
Most tastings will be self-hosted, and that’s absolutely fine. This post will focus on those enterprising self-hosting tasters.
What format should I choose?
This one is really up to you, but I’d recommend providing the bourbons yourself as the host. You can obviously ask attendees to pitch in a few bucks for their share, if it’s important. But by controlling the bourbons, you can stick to a more cohesive theme and format, which will work out for the best in the long run. So the issue should be which bourbons to choose. An there are a LOT of bourbons to choose.
Personally, I would try to keep most tastings to 4-5 bourbons. After 4 or 5, many tasters will find their taste buds a little fried, and have a hard time picking out any nuances between different bottlings.
As to which specific bourbons, that’s entirely up to you. And how you present them matters as well. You can choose to reveal everything to your guests before they taste it, or you can have them taste it blind.
- Flights of similar bourbons:
- Taste a flight of wheated bourbons
- Taste a flight of Bottled-in-bond bourbons
- Taste multiple bourbons from the same distiller (horizontal tasting)
- Taste different bottlings/years/ages of the same bourbon (i.e. Vertical tasting)
- Choose an All-Kentucky lineup, or an All-not-Kentucky lineup
- Choose bourbons all of the same proof/age from different distillers
- Flights of contrasting bourbons:
- Choose all bourbons from different states
- Compare single barrels from different distillers
- Compare various mash bills
- Compare various proofs
- Rare tastings
- Compare rare or limited release bourbons, or compare them to the corresponding regular-release bourbons.
- Compare different kinds of whiskeys
- Compare Bourbon vs. Scotch vs. Rye vs. Wheat Whiskey
What do I need to pull this off?
After you’ve selected and purchased your bourbon, the next step is to gather the tools and accoutrements you’ll need to actually host the tasting.
Choose a location. Pick a place people can interact with each other and the whiskey. A place that is too noisy and with all sorts of smells with a lot of things going on around you won’t lend itself to a successful tasting. Guests will be distracted, they won’t be able to discuss, and they will have a hard time putting their thoughts together. This doesn’t need to be complicated, though. Standing around a bar top or kitchen counter is fine. Gathered around a dining room table or coffee table is fine too. Make it comfortable.
Stock the essentials
You’ll need glasses. Lots of them. You will want one glass for each type of bourbon per guest. So 4 guests tasting 4 bourbons will mean 16 glasses. Have them bring their own, if necessary. But you’ll want them to be able to compare them side by side- comparing or contrasting colors and smells before tasting. The type of glasses you choose are up to you.
Most will agree that a Glencairn Glass is the ideal bourbon tasting vessel:
Small Brandy Snifters work great as well:
Even standard rocks glasses will do the trick, albeit they aren’t the best option:
Try not to mix and match glass types for each guest. It’s fine if one guest has four Glencairn glasses and the next has four snifters. But don’t have a guest use two snifters and two rocks glasses. The shape of a glass affects appearance and aroma, so you want them to compare apples to apples. I do recommend using glass or crystal whenever possible, but I have been to many successful tastings using disposable plastic cups as well, so don’t turn your nose up.
There are two reasons to have water on hand. The first is for a palate cleanser between tastes. Each taster should have access to clean, cool water to drink between bourbon tastes. The second is to splash the bourbon. With that in mind, make sure the water is iron-free. You can accomplish this by choosing distilled water, available at any grocery store, or by buying water that is free of iron naturally. Many commercial bottled waters are naturally iron free, and checking their websites will usually reveal a water quality test where the minerals present in their product are listed. Remember: iron is the mortal enemy of whiskey. Keep it away from your bourbon. Have a small pitcher of lead-free or distilled water on hand in a vessel or format that makes it easy to splash the bourbon in the tasting glass.
No good host lets their guests leave hungry. Luckily, unlike wine, bourbon is a very powerful drink, and can stand up to most foods. Still, it’s best to have some snack foods nearby that can be eaten easily and with a minimum of effort. Salted foods pair very well with bourbon. Crackers of nearly any kind work well, as do salted meats like summer sausages, ham, and the like. A standard meat and cheese tray is a great accompaniment to bourbon.
This hurts my heart a little bit to write it, but you should consider a bucket for those who don’t want to drink all of their tasting. Some people will struggle to drink bourbon neat, and some will just want to keep the amount of bourbon that gets into their bloodstream to a minimum, for obvious reasons. Some will taste the bourbon, and then pour out what they don’t swallow. Have extra glasses (even plastic cups, if necessary) around for that purpose.
Do your homework
If you’re hosting, read up on what you’re offering to your guests. There will be questions. How old is this bourbon? Who made it? What’s the proof? How much does it cost?
Provide reference materials
This can go hand-in-hand with doing your homework. If you’re hosting a tasting for those new to the bourbon world, print out some reference materials with basic bourbon facts and terminology. This will both impress your guests, and will help move the tasting along without requiring you to lecture the whole group first. And providing materials such as pen and paper to write down thoughts is a great tool as well. Modern Thirst has a flavor wheel and tasting sheet that you can download and print out. This can serve to be a great tool for tasters of all levels, and helps you provide a structured way to organize the conversation around the bourbons you taste. Here is a link to home bourbon tasting reference materials including the flavor wheel and scoring sheet. Print them out, make copies.
Make it fun!
Bourbon tastings can be very educational, but they need to be fun. Pick some fun music in the background, allow guests to talk and chat. After the tasting, let them finish off anything left in the bottles.
Make it safe!
It goes without saying that safety is paramount. But it would be remiss to gloss over the fact that bourbon is a potent liquor, and a tasting could lend itself to over-imbibing. So be responsible. Make sure there are designated drivers or taxis available. Guests will appreciate the effort you make to keep them safe.
Are you hosting a bourbon tasting at your home? Have you already done so? Send us photos or share your experiences! Let us know how it went! Need help planning your own tasting or would you like ModernThirst to help conduct it? Contact us!