Ahh, whisky tasting. How hard can it be. Put whisky in glass and taste. Sounds easy in theory but in practice you need a strategy. Really.
All tastings are not alike. Some tastings are designed to be small leisurely affairs lingering over one or two whiskies discussing nuances and spending time with each dram tasting the changes that comes with time. Other tastings are massive affairs with hundreds of people jostling and scrumming to taste the most desirable of hundreds of whiskies in a frenzied rush before last call. And still others are one-offs in a liquor store as you are shopping for something else and someone thrusts a small plastic ramekin into your hand while extolling the virtues of whatever liquor is being touted – whisky is you are lucky, flavored vodka if you aren’t.
Somewhere in between those two extremes is the sit down tasting – wherein the participants taste between 5-8 whiskies led by a moderator. That’s not to say that the one style of tasting is better or worse, but merely acknowledging the obvious – they are different. At a sit-down tasting you typically learn about the distillery, the history of the brand and the decisions that go into each of the expressions being tasted, while in a big tasting you can discover and taste some really interesting whiskies, although all too often for too many people - interesting is just a proxy for expensive whiskies. More on that topic another time.
Augustus Gloop was a glutton for candy, don’t be a glutton for Whisky, nothing good can come from it.
I’ll leave aside for now the shop and the moderated tastings to focus on ‘Big Tastings’. If you have never been to one such as WhiskyFest or WhiskyLive - they are something to behold. Hundreds and hundreds of whiskies as far as the eye can see. But that great variety and quantity requires both a strategy and restraint. All you survey is wonderful to behold but much like the proverbial kid in a candy shop, if you aren’t careful you’ll come to an ignominious end, much like Augustus Gloop.
When I attend a big tasting – be it of whisky, wine or beer – I like to be there as early as possible, but I won’t taste anything for the first hour – really. I just walk around, learn the lay of the land, start a few conversations, and start putting together the mental list of things that interest me – which are rarely the most expensive offerings mainly because my wallet can’t make those expensive purchases very often.
If I’m at a whisky tasting, as I put together my list the first thing I do is strike off all of the things that aren’t whisky. I’m always a bit surprised by all of the purveyors of rums, vodkas, Tequilas, other liquors and cocktails who attend these events. I, like many people have a finite palate, and I prefer to save my palate and tasting capacity for whisky when I’m at a whisky tasting. The same holds true at beer and wine tastings as well. It’s not that I don’t appreciate other spirits and beverages, it’s just they weren’t the reason I made the time to attend the tasting.
My next step is to look for new expressions from brands I’m already familiar with – maybe I’ll want to taste them and maybe I won’t, but I like to know about them, especially if they are new releases or if I’ve never tasted them before.
A reporter notebook is the perfect size notebook to carry at a tasting, and are available at an office supply store near you..
After I’ve surveyed the room, chatted with friends, and made some notes in my tasting notebook. Did I forget too mention the fact that you need to have a notebook and take notes at a tasting? If you don’t take notes somewhere after the 3rd or 4th sample, they’ll all get jumbled in the whisky fog. For me the trusty reporter notebook is the ideal size. It’s small enough to carry while holding a glass and taking notes, it flips open on the short side and it’s long enough to take a decent amount of notes – much easier than trying to type notes onto a smartphone. Plus carrying a notebook around makes you look like you know what you are doing, even if you are a clueless whisky newbie.
When I’m finally ready to christen my glass with some liquid gold – I actually chat with the person behind the table to ask what they are pouring. I find this more polite, than simply thrusting my glass in their direction and grunting: “25 Year”. It is amazing what a little politeness will do for you – imagine pouring tiny 1/4 oz pours hundreds of times in a night to an increasingly boisterous and buzzed audience.
Once I have the sample in hand – I nose, taste it (very small taste) and try to write a quick note. I’ll add a drop of water from my water bottle (did I forget to mention you should have a water bottle) and taste again. At this point I’ll still have some whisky in the glass. Now I do something that violates almost every tenet of my Scottish heritage. I dump the remainder of the whisky, but not on the floor of course – after all I’m not Richard Patterson, I use the bucket.
- This is considered poor form at tasting – usually the spit bucket is for spitting into, not drinking out of.
Spittoon, dump buckets, spit bucket – no matter what you call it, you have to use one. But not like this poor schlubb to the right – even if it can be viscerally painful – pouring out or spitting those whiskies is the right thing to do, even if it is expensive whisky.
Finally though it should go without saying, never attend a tasting on an empty stomach – seems obvious, but I’ve made that mistake one time and never again. Even when the event has food available – I make sure to eat a good meal a few hours before attending. Not so much that I’ll be full, but more than a quick bite at the local burger or chip joint. And if the event has food take the time to step away, grab some food and use the time to reflect on what you’ve tasted. Your head will be clearer and your palate will appreciate the rest.
Finally, not to end on a down note but if you are attending a tasting – you need to seriously consider your transportation plans. I try to use public transportation or taxi’s whenever possible, alternatively I go with a group of friends and one of us takes turns being the designated driver which means we can smell the spirits, but not taste them. Don’t endanger yourself or others by driving. Just don’t. Getting a hotel room or a limo service is much, much cheaper, and so much safer, than risking driving under the influence. ‘Nuff said.
Whether you merely like whisky or truly love whisky – do attend a big tasting. They really are fun events and the costs are very reasonable if you use the tasting as a way to taste a variety of whiskies. I know my costs of admission have been more than paid for when I think about the money I’ve saved by not buying whiskies I thought I wanted until I tasted them at big tasting. Have fun and please share your favorite tasting strategies. -t