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6 Tips for a Successful Whisky Tasting

by Oliver Klimek on August 20, 2009

When you plan to invite some friends to a whisky tasting there are quite a few things that should be considered. After all, you and your friends want to have the best possible experience with the offered drams. And there are some pitfalls you should avoid.

1. Start with a Meal

You are going to consume a decent amount of alcohol, so it is best to set a solid foundation by eating enough before you start with the tasting. With an empty stomach you are much more likely to encounter the undesirable effects of alcohol when you’ve had a few.

No Chili, no Garlic!

The meal should not by overly spiced, and you should refrain from using garlic as well. Chili paralyses your taste buds, and the taste of garlic is so persistent that it will be with you for the rest of the tasting which clearly is not something we want to happen.

Little or no Alcohol

You want to enjoy the tasting with clear senses, so try to hold your horses before. A glass of beer or light wine with the meal is OK, but don’t overdo it.

2. Water and Bread.

Prepare jugs of cooled still spring water, both for adding to the whisky and to drink in between. Don’t use tap water as it might be contaminated by chlorine.

To neutralize your senses between drams, serve bread. Other light snacks are also possible, but make sure they are not too spicy (see above).

3. Less is More

Even if you are convinced in your drinking capabilities, it is better to restrict the amount of whiskies in a tasting. Sooner or later you will notice the effect of the alcohol, and you don’t want your senses to be dimmed to early.

The number of whiskies in a tasting should not exceed five or six, even if you are tempted to show off all the great whiskies you might have in your collection.

4. The Right Order

There are some useful rules of thumb when choosing the order of the whiskies in a tasting session. All can be summarized by the musical term crescendo:

From Low to High ABV

When you begin your session with a cask strength whisky, your taste buds might be numb from the start. So it is best to start with the “normal” ABV of 40+ and them work your way up to the cask strengths (if planned at all)

From Young to Old

The older a whisky becomes, the more complexity it gains. It is therefore advisable to help your palate adapt to the growing complexity.

From Mild to Strong

This does not mean ABV but the general character of a whisky. If you have heavily peated, sherried or otherwise finished drams on your list as well “untreated” ones, save the strongest ones for later.

From Cheap to Expensive

Sounds a bit cheesy but has its justification. If you are lucky enough to serve a dram of Black Bowmore, you don’t really want it to be followed by a Grouse, no matter how famous.

Compromises

When trying to follow these rules, you will likely run into dilemmas like “cask strength 12yo lowland or 40% 18y madeira finish first”? In these cases you have to make a decision to break one or more rules. The rule of thumb for this kind of situation might be: break as little rules as possible but be careful with early cask strengths. In this case I would actually prefer to take the finish first.

But then again, a whisky tasting is not a Japanese Tea Ceremony. So, if in doubt, just take one first and then the other.

5. Set a Theme

The right choice of whiskies is very important for the success of a tasting session. It is not just about quality, though. If you’re on a tight budget, you can have a great session even with entry level whiskies only. More important is that the choice is balanced.

It is easy to get lost in the whisky world with its thousands of available bottlings. But even when you narrow down the choice to the dozen or so bottles on your shelf, you should think of a red line to follow.

Here are a few starting points for your inspiration:

Example 1: World Wide Whisky

1. Quality blended Scotch (12yo or older)
2. Quality bourbon
3. Irish pure pot still or single malt
4. Japanese vat or single malt
5. Typical Islay
6. Speyside sherry monster

Example 2: Islay

1. Bunnahabhain 12
2. Bowmore 12
3. Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition
4. Lagavulin 16
5. Laphroaig 18
6. Ardbeg Lord of The Isles

Example 3: Scotch Regions

1. Lowlands: Glenkinchie 12
2. Highlands: Dalmore Gran Reserva
3. Islands: Highland Park 18
4. Islay: Port Ellen n-th Release
5. Speyside: Glenfarclas 30yo

6. Don’t Drink and Drive!

flickr picture by tienvijftien

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

WhiskyViking October 26, 2009 at 3:09 pm

You can write a book on this subject but you have covered a lot in a few words.

Reply

Roddy Graham March 21, 2012 at 10:59 pm

I think I’d want the Laphroaig 18 before the Lagavulin – it’s a much more mellow dram.

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