Whisky tastings are a vital part of whisky culture, whether you are brand new to the water of life or nearly embalmed in it.
Think of it as foodies going to dinner at new restaurants: it’s the only practical way to experience a broader range than what most of us have either the cashflow to support, the cupboard space or the company to indulge us.
Firstly, the best thing about any whisky tasting will always or should always be the stories. Tastings are a chance to really indulge in the history, quirks, legends and rare tales. A great host will both inform and entertain, as well as answer your questions. But there are a few kinds of tasting out there and people seem to want to know what to expect. I’ve tried to break it down to the style of tasting as well as the types of whiskies you might be trying.
Whisky Girl Fact #13: I’m most interested in helping you enjoy whisky whichever way you like, but you’ll struggle to convince me there is a better way of enjoying whisky than in the company of other whisky lovers.
There are group tastings and individual tastings but for the most part, I’ll talk about those ticketed events where you pay a set fee, for tasting a set number of whiskies. You’ll be in a group tasting and usually it’s pretty easy to either bring friends or make them at the event. I still believe firmly that a great introduction to whisky is best done at a bar one on one, so you have the chance to learn your own palate and taste, but a group tasting is a fun experience to share.
Expect 5 – 6 whiskies to be served in tasting drams. These are usually a half pour, because host responsibility matters. In fact, at some distilleries in Scotland recently, I was offered takeaway drams for tasting in plastic pottles. I have an opinion on that but it’s not for now.
You should also expect the host to guide you through the tasting process on the first dram, whether you’ve been tasting for years or it’s the first time. Whiskies will usually be tasted from the lightest and subtlest to the heaviest. Makes sense right? You don’t want to overwhelm your palate with peaty smoke and then taste a light Highland floral malt.
Expect some nibbles but nothing that will overwhelm the palate. Most common, cheese and crackers or breads. My preference when running a tasting is for a combination of dried fruit, contrasting cheeses, nuts and dried fruit – but I like to help the palate out a little.
Your average whisky tasting will cost between $50 and $85 in Auckland City. I’ve paid an overrated $US95 in Las Vegas and a distillery tour and tasting is usually in the vicinity (whether Scotland, Ireland or Kentucky) of $10-15 NZD.
What to look for: hosts and venues that make you feel comfortable. As I’ve written before, most whisky-lovers love to share their passion for the water of life with people. So look for those people. Facebook and Google will give you a good guide or find a local whisky lover to point you in the right direction.
How do you do it? The crux of it is, you pick one and go for it. Whisky lovers are a reasonably welcoming and accepting bunch. We are still basking in the relative joy of whisky being accepted as mainstream and cool again, thanks to Mad Men, Californication and Denny Crane. Pick a tasting and head along. Or take a friend and commit to learning as much as you can.
The 101 Tasting
These are great for learning the basics of how to nose a whisky (whisky-wank talk for smelling it), how to taste a variety of flavours. You’ll learn some language and the basics of how whisky is made or varies from region to region. However, pick wisely and remember that any good bar can give you the same personalised experience too. The danger of the 101 is the inevitable attendee who knows, or fancies they know just a little bit more than anyone else and feels the need to prove it to the host. In fact, this person is the antithesis of a good time at any whisky tasting but they appear like clockwork.
The Vertical Tasting
This is perhaps my favourite kind of tasting. A single distillery but a range of their expressions. I recently had a Jack Daniel’s vertical tasting that really opened my eyes to something new in the Rested Rye. Each distillery usually has a core flavour profile and unique finishes or small modifications to the recipe can provoke interesting new perspectives on that core story. Often, this is a beautiful way to get to know the work of a single master distiller. A vertical tasting might still include an independent bottling too. This is an ideal tasting if you’ve found a distillery you like, or to really learn in depth about a particular range.
The Regional Tasting
More particular to Scotch and world whiskies than the Americans, it’s not uncommon to gather a cluster of whiskies from the same region to compare and understand what nuances are happening between the distilleries as well as seeing their commonalities expressed side by side. Last week, I tasted several of the few remaining Campbeltown whiskies at the House of Whiskey monthly tasting. These tastings are interesting to pull together, to choose a range that can represent the region’s iconic profile (Islay’s is peat and phenols, Highland’s heather and honey, florals) and still tell a compelling story. Again, these are a great way to introduce yourself to a particular region and learn what you like or don’t like. In here, I bunch the Japanese or Irish tastings as they are generally not as broken down as the Scotch regions.
The Style/Cask Finish Tasting.
I’ve only ever been to one of these, but it was a mind-blowing flavour ride.
Whisky Girl Fact #12: I love sherry cask finishes. Love them beyond imagining. My favourite finish of all time.
A tasting of five sherry finished whiskies could be a regular Friday night, but this was also matched with chocolate, nuts and semi-dried fruits. We tasted rare independents. These tastings are good if you know what you like or if you are feeling brave. Not a place for starters, unless you like a place to prove your poker face. In this instance, I loved how exploratory the tasting was and the chance to try things super unusual.
The Distillery Tasting
There is nothing that compares to the thrill of opening a cask and pushing the valinch deep into the dark depths of that barrel to extract liquid gold. Or sitting with a master distiller who is introducing the new spirit or an experimental cask. Once you love whisky and it’s inside your bones, you must find a way to taste from a distillery whether in New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, the US or Japan. There is nothing like drinking from the source.
Where to get started? Visit The Jefferson for their monthly social club tasting or the House of Whiskey for their monthly events in Auckland. In Christchurch, check out Whisky Galore’s schedule. Connect with Glengarrys Malt Club for more regular tastings too.