Guests love guidance—from where to hang their coats to what to drink. An open-ended “What can I get you to drink?” is too often met with blank stares or indecision. All the better reason to make whisky the center of your get-together. By building a party around a whisky theme, you’ll share your passion with friends, secure your position as a great entertainer, and ensure a carefree evening. With a little pre-planning, there’s nothing to do but pour a dram and watch it all fall into place.
“Whisky makes a great theme for a party because, one, it’s delicious and, two, it’s a conversation starter,” says Katie Garrett, owner and founder of Old Hickory Whiskey Bar in Pensacola, Fla. “Since everyone has different palates and preferences, discussions about which whisky is ‘best’ can be exciting and sometimes intense, but always entertaining.”
Whisky is a big universe, with a lot of ground to cover, so it can be helpful to narrow your focus and give your party a theme that everyone can relate to, regardless of their whisky knowledge. Plus, by narrowing your efforts, there will be plenty of room remaining for more drinks and more parties.
Life of the Party
Whether you and your friends are new to whisky or consider yourselves connoisseurs, everyone—even those who may think they don’t like the spirit—can enjoy an evening with whisky.
There’s something for history buffs. “It has a wonderful heritage that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, depending on which whisky,” says Robin Robinson, a private sales and marketing consultant in the spirits industry and author of The Complete Whiskey Course. “You can pick almost any point in history and attach a whisky theme to it,” from Prohibition speakeasies to Mad Men-era business lunches to Colonial-period ryes.
There’s something for newcomers. “It’s on trend right now,” says Robinson, who likens it to the wine boom of the 1980s. “It’s on everyone’s mind. They want to learn about it, or they know a little and want to explore more. It’s a topic of conversation among people of all walks of life.”
There can even be something for people who think they know whisky. “It’s such a vast arena to play in that it never fails to surprise people,” says Robinson, whose Whisky Smackdown classes at New York City’s Astor Center are the longest-running whisky classes in the country. “For example, there’s a misconception that all scotch is smoked. But if you lined them up on the face of a clock starting at noon and then proceeded around the clock in order of peatiness, you wouldn’t taste peat until 9 or 9:30. That is always a fun discussion.”
And if that weren’t enough, the continuing craft cocktail craze lowered the entry barrier to drinking the dark spirit for many, adds Andy Treinen, vice president of the Frazier History Museum in Louisville. “A party is a great way to introduce a new audience to whisky. All of the different flavors are exciting to play with, and you’re crafting an experience for people.”
Lighten Things Up
This is a party after all, so it’s best to skip the tasting mats and debates about chill-filtering. To create a welcoming whisky event, start by picking a theme and try not to overthink it. “A simple and straightforward theme is important. Don’t complicate things too much,” recommends Julia Ritz Toffoli, founder and principal of Women Who Whiskey, an experimental whiskey club for women. You might focus on a specific style of whisky, like bourbon, or choose a more playful approach, like bottles favored by popular TV or film characters.
Before investing in specific bottles, it’s important to consider your guest list. “The most important thing is to make sure that the guests you’re inviting will appreciate all your efforts,” Ritz Toffoli says. “The bigger the party, the looser the theme and the rules of engagement.”
Unless you are assembling some highly distinguished whisky drinkers, you don’t need to invest a lot to create a great evening. Rare bottles are better suited to quiet moments of contemplative tasting than a convivial evening. There are plenty of high-quality, widely available whiskies suited for social drinking that still offer thrilling flavors. “Buying whisky is an investment and it’s a jungle—there are so many different flavors to work from,” says Rasmus Just, national scotch educator for Diageo Reserve, a frequent host of whisky events and dinners. “If whisky is a new thing [to your guests], people are looking for experiences.”
You’ll please the greatest number of people by selecting whiskies with a diversity of flavors and showcasing the spirit in various ways: neat, on the rocks, and in cocktails. To help guests enjoy but not overdo it, keep your reserve bottles out of sight, so there doesn’t appear to be an abundance of beverage and you can better monitor consumption. When it comes time to open them, it may be time to wind things down.
Like a good story, a good party has an arc to it. An easy Highball with high-quality soda water, pre-batched cocktails like a Manhattan, Boulevardier, Rob Roy, or punch are perfect ways to welcome everyone and put any “I don’t know whisky” nerves at ease. “Whisky is kind of esoteric to people, which means some are still a little intimidated by it,” Robinson says. “The more you can do to lighten it up in the first hour, the better the rest of the party will go.”
In a sit-down tasting, tasters usually progress from lightest to boldest whiskies in an orderly fashion; a more convivial party atmosphere should have a self-serve bar that helps guide guests according to their tastes and encourages interaction. Most of our whisky bar ideas allow you to create everything beforehand, which fosters an atmosphere that is relaxed and allows guests to sample as they wish. “The whole idea is to make people comfortable. After that, the whisky does the rest,” Robinson says.
The best whisky displays include lighthearted education that will encourage exploration and conversation among guests. You don’t need a degree in nosing to share your passion for whisky. “I love drawing little info cards for anything I’m serving at a party. I add my own opinions and other fun facts beyond what’s available on the label,” Ritz Toffoli says.
Details on the distillery, distillers, how it’s made, and folklore are easy to find online, particularly at Whisky Advocate‘s Whisky 101, while tasting notes, maps, or displays of the flavors in each bottle help less-experienced whisky drinkers suss out aromas and flavors that they otherwise may not pick up.
“Have fun with it,” Just says. “You don’t need a PowerPoint. Have jokes, don’t be too pretentious, and maybe consider Star Wars ice molds.”
It goes without saying, but make sure all guests who drink do not drive. Robinson will even take charge of keys when people arrive, just to be safe. And don’t forget the designated drivers, who would appreciate more than water and soda. Batching a mocktail punch allows them to keep a handcrafted drink in hand and feel like they’re in the spirit of the night—and could even get couples to come who otherwise might turn down your invite, Treinen says.
Keep plenty of water (in pitchers or bottles) and whisky-friendly foods available throughout the evening, spreading them around the room to avoid bottlenecks which could hamper self-pacing. “Choose something you don’t have to stop and attend to and that doesn’t need knives and forks to eat,” Robinson recommends. Never overlook the simplicity and satisfaction of charcuterie boards of spicy meats, ripe cheeses, olives, dried fruit, and crackers or crusty bread.
The fact is, little details impress, whether that’s a garnish on a welcome cocktail, using clean, empty whisky bottles filled with twinkle lights for decoration, or name cards with tasting notes for each whisky. So don’t lose focus of the theme. “Try to keep the whisky as the centerpiece. That’s what makes it unique—otherwise it’s a party that has whisky in it,” Robinson says.
By sharing your joy of whisky without getting too pedantic, as your guests enjoy their last nightcap, there’s no doubt many of them will be newly converted whisky lovers, perhaps adding you to the guest list of their own whisky evening.