How to Host a Bourbon Tasting Party
We sent out the bat signal last week asking people what they wanted to read about, and one of the most interesting things we got back was “how to host a bourbon tasting party.” We’re thrown our own tastings, so I figured I’d give some advice based on what we’ve learned the last 4 years.
I remember when we first had the idea to start a Bourbon Society. I had just watched this documentary about bourbon, and they were interviewing the president of the Los Angeles Bourbon Society. I thought to myself: well if LA has one, then Baton Rouge definitely needs one! I texted my buddy Jacob, and we were sold. I told my wife (then fiancé) that I was starting a bourbon society and she laughed a second then said, “Ok cool, what does a bourbon society do?”
That was a fair question from the lady, and I honestly had no idea. I told her I’d get back to her and immediately started the Google machine. I started to read about other bourbon groups around the country and came up with some ideas. It seemed like first and foremost: we would get together every so often and drink bourbon. Well, that’s what I told her and with a little convincing, we had hosted our first bourbon tasting about two months later.
My buddy Jacob and I hosted our very first bourbon tasting on May 30, 2015. It wasn’t a disaster, but that’s mainly because our friends are very kind and understanding that we had no idea what we were doing! My goal today is to make sure that your first time is a lot better than mine…
The one thing we did right was choosing a correct theme. A theme will set the tone for your tasting. We chose to sample Michters’ standard offerings, so it was US Kentucky Straight Bourbon, US American Whiskey, and US Sour Mash. The key is that we focused on some of Michter’s whiskies. We’ve done tasting events where I brought out all the whiskey I owned, and everyone just enjoyed what they wanted. It was a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but there was no cohesiveness to it! When you have a theme, a shared group of certain whiskies, you are able to enjoy it all together. You can go one bottle at a time and then share your thoughts on that bottle together.
What’s a theme? That means you are all tasting a group of whiskies that fit together. You can pick several different offerings from the same distillery. You could choose Four Roses and do yellow label, small batch, and single barrel. You could pick the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection and sample Baker’s, Booker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden’s. Another themed idea could be barrel proof or cask strength whiskies. Then you could choose Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, 1792 Full Proof, and EHT Barrel Proof. If you wanted to go with the sweeter side of bourbon, choose a wheated bourbon tasting. (Side note, bourbon is always at least 51% corn. The second ingredient tends to be rye then malted barley. Pappy, Maker’s, and other like-minded distillers choose wheat as their second highest ingredient and those do tend to be a lot sweeter.) You could choose Maker’s Mark, Larceny, and Rebel Yell Bourbon.
This doesn’t just apply to types of whiskies or same distillers too. You could pick a single barrel tasting. Then do something like EHT Single barrel, Four Roses Single Barrel, and John J Bowman. What about doing similarly aged whiskies? In that case, set your age at 10 years and try to get the ones that are closest to that. You could pick Eagle Rare, Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond 10-year-old bourbon, and Rebel Yell 10 year. The truth is that the options are virtually unlimited! The key is to choose bourbons/whiskies that have a common theme that you can connect back together.
Second most important thing is to not get lost in the whiskey descriptors! Have you ever read a review of some new bourbon where the writer talks about the Bazooka bubble gum and essence of nightshade that they are tasting on the palate? What does that even mean?!? Sometimes, people just get too pretentious when it comes to bourbon. I’m throwing that out there and you know what, it’s the truth! I’m thrilled that your palate is so advanced that you can taste 27 different and unique flavors in every whiskey you sample! Good job, but you might want to cool it a bit because you sound lame. Two days ago, I met someone who really enjoys bourbon and picks up a new bottle every month. They were very excited about bourbon at first then said something to the extent of “I really love bourbon, but I don’t get all those same tastes that some people get out of bourbon.” I immediately told them that it was fine and to just enjoy bourbon the way you want to and ignore all those stupid reviewers.
Just because you can’t taste a hint of honeysuckle in your bourbon doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong! When it comes to tasting, especially in a group setting, keep it simple! Stick to the classics, vanilla, caramel, oak, and tobacco. There’s nothing wrong with having the taste buds of a Greek God but in these intimate group settings, you’re putting too much pressure on it. Keep it simple and discuss openly what you’re tasting.
Third, add some uniformity to the way you are tasting, at least at first! You’ve decided on the 5 buddies who are coming over, you’ve smoked a brisket all day and meticulously picked 4 themed bourbons from your collection. The key now is to do the pouring correctly! Have plenty of sniffers, Glencairn’s, rock glasses, or even plastic cups available. Give everyone an equal amount of whiskey to start. Everyone should try it neat at first to see what they taste. Then add a few drops of water or even an ice cube to see how it changes. There is no wrong way to enjoy whiskey, but you really want to all start on the same foot so that you are experiencing it all together equally.
Lastly, just remember to have fun! You are drinking whiskey after all! Sometimes, us drinker/collectors (myself included) forget what this game is all about. We forget that whiskey is meant to be consumed and enjoyed with friends. The best whiskey experiences I’ve ever had were when I pulled out some awesome bottle, that I traded my soul with the devil for, and enjoyed with a handful of guys. Bourbon unites us together. It’s fun and delicious. Let it be fun and delicious and don’t take it too seriously!
Well that’s the best advice I can give for how to host a bourbon tasting. Remember to pick a theme, come up with easy and simple descriptors, start off uniformly, and have a good time! I still remember after that Michter’s tasting telling a buddy I was sorry that the tasting part didn’t go as I planned. I had written down all the tedious notes and going over everything for ten minutes before each pour was a buzzkill. He laughed and said that he still had a great time because he was with our friends and he thoroughly enjoyed the bourbon. As long as you’re enjoying whiskey with buddies, you’re going to have a great time!