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6 Tips for a Successful Whisky Tasting

When you plan to hold a whisky tasting – which can be anything from inviting a few friends to a large formal event – there are quite a few things that should be considered. After all, your guests want to have the best possible experience with the offered drams. And there are some pitfalls you should avoid.

Here are six essential tips to turn your whisky tasting event into a memorable experience for the participants

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 water, both for adding to the whisky and to drink in between. Don’t use tap water unless you are sure it is not contaminated by chlorine. To be on the safe side it is recommendable to use still spring water.

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” alcohol content of 40% to 46% 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 richest ones for later.

From Cheap to Expensive

This 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 example 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 Annual Release
5. Speyside: Glenfarclas 30yo

6. Don’t Drink and Drive!

Pro Tips for Making Cocktails

Cocktails are forever in fashion, although recipe trends may vary. The fun part is, anyone can make a good cocktail as long as they follow a great cocktail recipe (I especially like the cocktail recipes on videos over at Gourmandia) and know a few simple techniques.

 

To begin, equip your home bar with good, basic equipment. Each of these is vital to making a decent cocktail: a jigger to measure out the ingredients (even pros have a hard time eye-balling measurements for a cocktail), a bar spoon, a hawthorn strainer (for shaken drinks), a julep strainer (for stirred drinks), and a good quality shaker. Cobbler shakers are good for beginners, while Boston shakers are usually preferred among pros.

Next, think about ingredients. Buy at least medium-grade alcohol. This will improve your cocktails immensely. When using fruit juice, use the freshest you can find. Especially when using lime or lemon juice, squeeze it yourself. Bottled lemon and lime juice taste nothing like fresh-squeezed.

You might think ice is ice, but the wrong ice can ruin a drink. Only use ice that’s truly cold. The ice should not be melting and it shouldn’t have been in the freezer for more than a few weeks. It’s best not to store the ice next to foods, since it will absorb their flavor. Never reuse ice; toss it out after using it once.

To make your own sugar syrup, mix equal parts of sugar and water. Heat the mixture in a saucepan until the sugar is entirely dissolved. Allow it to cool before using. For sweeter drinks, you can double the amount of sugar.

Generally speaking, most cocktail ingredients should be used in this order: sugar, ice, liquor, mix, and carbonated soda.

Cocktails with difficult to blend ingredients should be shaken. When shaking a cocktail, use no fewer than three and no more than six medium-sized ice cubes. Don’t use crushed ice, because it will over-dilute the drink. Place the ice in the shaker and add other ingredients in the order of alcohol content (with the highest alcohol content going in first). Hold the cocktail shaker in both hands, in between your shoulders, and shake hard and horizontally for between 10 and 20 seconds, unless the recipe specifies otherwise.

Cocktails made only from liquids should be stirred. When stirring, use a glass or metal mixing rod (or “swizzle stick”). Use a mixing glass, then strain the cocktail into a serving glass. As with stirring, don’t use crushed ice. When you see water condensation on the outside of the glass, the cocktail is properly stirred.

Most cocktails should be served in chilled glasses because icy coldness helps the drink taste less alcoholic and – at least to most people – more palatable. In fact, be sure you don’t use such large glasses that by the time the drinker is finishing his or her drink, the cocktail is warm. Smaller glasses are best.

And if you’re tempted to think any glass will work, think again. The right glass enhances the cocktail’s flavor. Mixed drinks such as Long Island and gin and tonic should be served in tall, straight-sided glasses called “highballs.” Cocktails with juice generally should be served in tall, skinny Collins glasses that keep the cocktails colder longer. Coupette glasses, with a broad rim, are best for daiquiris and margaritas. Anything “on the rocks” goes in an “old-fashioned” or “rocks glass.” Martini glasses are suitable for any shaken and strained cocktail; their unique shape helps prevent the ingredients from separating.

Enjoy!