How to Host a Spirits Tasting Party

Whisky tasting by the THS Scotch malt whisky society in Leith, Edinburgh, Lothian, Scotland.

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Tasting parties are a common social get together, often for wine, beer, and cheese. Why not host a spirits tasting? These intimate gatherings are very easy to organize and a unique party with a purpose.

Your party can be as simple as inviting a few friends over, gathering a variety of spirits, and having glassware, water, and crackers on hand. It can also turn into a regular event, with each member of the party hosting once a month or so, each focusing on different distilled spirits.

Guest Count

Keep the event intimate with around 5 to 10 people. This gives everyone an opportunity to sit and discuss their impressions of each bottling without becoming overwhelmed with too many opinions.

Plan on at least two hours, or if you'd like to serve food before or after, allow four hours.

Serving food after the tasting is best so that everyone has clean palates while sampling.

What You Need for a Cocktail Tasting

  • 5 to 7 bottles of your choice of spirits
  • Glasses or small plastic cups for tasting
  • One carafe for each bottling being served, numbered with tape or a neck tag
  • Glasses with water
  • Unflavored, dry crackers to clean the palate in between spirits
  • Ice bucket or bowl for discarding unwanted liquor
  • Small, light hors d'oeuvres for snacking

Choose Your Spirits

For your first few tastings stick with one type of spirit (i.e. vodka, tequila, whiskey, etc.) and choose one or two familiar brands, at least one value brand and at least one super-premium brand.

This can become an interesting personal experiment and it is often surprising to people when they understand the difference between the quality of liquors produced and that of brands of the same quality.

Decide Between a Blind and Known Brand Tasting

Blind tastings are more exciting because of the mystery involved. Today we are influenced so much by marketing and brand identity that we tend to have preconceptions about almost everything, spirits included. You’ll sometimes find that people will unknowingly prefer a cheaper spirit to a more expensive one.

Known brand tastings are good for comparing premium brands against one another, such as a selection of 15 year Scotches or fine Cognacs versus Armagnacs. In these instances, branding is usually not influential.

Disguise the Brands for a Blind Cocktail Tasting

There are a couple of ways that you can hide a brand’s identity from your guests.

The least expensive and easiest way is to cover each bottle with paper, a bag, or a towel. However, depending on how you do this, it can look tacky and many bottles have such a distinct shape that many people can recognize it.

The other option is to pour each liquor into a separate carafe or pitcher. This looks better and takes away the brand recognition. Number each carafe with a neck tag or tape and have an answer key so that you are the only one who knows which brand is inside.

Find Information on Each Brand

This is especially interesting with known-brand tastings. Have a fact sheet for each bottle that lists it's distinguishing characteristics.

For instance, knowing that a bottle of Square One Vodka is made with rye and that Chopin Vodka is made with potato can lead you to understand the characteristics of the two distillates when they are tasted side by side. In the same way, gin from Holland can be distinguished from gin distilled in England.

These bits of trivia can help lead discussions and further understandings of the spirits you're trying.

Have Paper Available for Taking Notes

You can either supply small tablets for each guest or print out the tasting notes form.

If you use the prepared notes form, print one per spirit per guest (eg, 5 spirits and 5 guests equals 25 note forms).

Taking notes while tasting is helpful when reviewing what you've sampled; if nothing else, for the simple fact, that by the time you get to the fifth spirit it can all become a blur and notes will remind you what you did and didn't like.

Guide Your Guests Through Each Spirit

As you progress through this process allow your guests plenty of time to take notes, then open the discussion of each step before going to the next.

  • Pour one spirit at a time and pass a glass to each guest.
  • Begin by observing the appearance of the spirit; it's color, opacity. Swirl the liquid around in the glass and observe its legs and thickness.
  • This motion will also intensify the spirit's aroma. Hold the glass under your nose and, with your mouth open, inhale the fragrance. What do you smell?

Note the Tastes

To fully understand and analyze each spirit, you will want to repeat this process a few times. With each sip, you'll notice smells and tastes you may have missed the first time.

    • Take your first sip and allow the liquid to slowly enter your mouth. Note the feel and taste of this initial entry.
    • Allow the liquid to sit on your tongue, swirl it around inside your mouth and analyze the flavors and feel of the spirit. Is it silky, smooth, warm?
    • Swallow and take note of the feel, heat, and flavor. Also, notice how long the taste stays with you. Does it last a long time or is it short?

Cleanse the Palate in Between Spirits

After your party has finished tasting one spirit you'll want to take a short break before pouring the next round. This pause allows people to regroup and absorb their impressions of the previous spirit, as well as giving them time to refresh their palate. It's important to remove any lingering flavors before proceeding and the most common way to do so is to drink a small amount of water or eat a few unflavored crackers. During this time your guests can also discard any unwanted liquor in an ice bucket or bowl.

Follow up on Everyone's Thoughts and Reveal the Brands

Continue tasting one spirit at a time until all have been sampled. When you're done, ask everyone which spirit was their overall favorite, least favorite, and general impressions. If you're doing a blind tasting, this is the time for the big reveal. Announce which brand corresponds to each carafe of liquor and use your fact sheets to begin a discussion of the distinguishing characteristics.

Make a Game out of It

A simple guessing game can add some extra excitement to a blind tasting and is great if your guests are already familiar with a variety of spirits.

    • Make an unordered list of each brand that will be tasted and give them to your guests.
    • Challenge the guests to name the brand of each sample as you progress through the liquors.
    • Reward the person with the most number of correct answers with a bottle of one of the spirits tasted.

Tasting Party Tips

  • Pour small amounts of liquor for each tasting. Typically, you'll want to use between a one-half ounce and one ounce of each liquor for each person. If you serve more than this, the higher alcohol content will take its effect on your guests quicker than it would during beer or wine tastings.
  • Choose glasses (whether glass or plastic) that are about the size of an old-fashioned glass. Glass is preferred, as are those with a rim that curves inward at the top to "trap" more of the aroma inside. Stemmed glassware (not cocktail glasses) is even better because the body heat from your fingers does not warm up the liquid.
  • If you have leftover spirits at the end of the tasting offer your guests a cocktail shaken with their top pick. It's a great way to finish the evening and see what your favorite tastes like mixed.
  • If you begin a regular tasting club it may be convenient to ask each member to contribute one bottle. As the host, it's appropriate for you to purchase the most expensive bottle. It's also a good idea to assign each person a brand to bring so that there are no repeats.
  • You can find out a lot about a brand by reading the labels. If you need more information you can often find the company's website or from my selection of liquor profiles and reviews.