Build Your Next Whisky Tasting Around One of These Themes

While no one would argue that simply getting a group together to sample and enjoy whiskies is a bad time, adding a focus can make it a much better time. Fresh, fun ideas will give your club’s next tasting a clear focal point, and ensure everyone has a blast.

“The easiest and most common is for us to rally around a specific distillery,” says Josh Peters, a longtime member of several Los Angeles-area clubs, like Malt Nuts and the Southern California Whiskey Club (SCWC). And while there’s no shortage of distilleries, he finds that slightly more “out there” tasting themes offer a welcome change of pace. Peters says core club members bounce ideas back and forth throughout the year to come up with creative and educational programming that brings whisky to life in new ways.

“When we have clear, interesting themes we sell out the events in under 24 hours,” he notes. “When the theme is a bit ambiguous or too similar to something we’ve done before it can take longer to fill all the seats.” Check out these ideas to get your club off to the right start, or add some fresh life to your existing whisky crew.

Build Your Best Blend

Amateur blending is a passion for many whisky fans who want to test their skills or emulate the pros. There are several possible approaches you can take. Encourage everybody to bring their best blend, constructed by combining two or more whiskies, for a taste-off. Or you can create a more structured blend-off, where everyone uses the same bottles to create their best blend. This is also a good opportunity to utilize whiskies that perhaps aren’t particularly great on their own, but could be an asset in a blend. Blending is best done by constructing your formula on a small scale, like an ounce or two, then scaling up the recipe proportions for the group tasting.

Choose Your Whiskies: Widely available whiskies with distinctive flavor profiles.
Bonus Round: Start a club “infinity” whisky; continually add the remnants of unfinished bottles and taste its evolution over time.

Drink for a Good Cause

Many clubs have turned their tastings into an opportunity to raise money for charity. For instance, John Brittle’s Nashville group, JB’s Whiskey House, frequently hosts people who have donated money for a tasting of many of the group’s rarest bottles. (This year alone they plan to raise close to $100,000.) Similarly, The Bourbon Crusaders run an event called “Barrel Through Hunger,” with proceeds benefiting local food banks. Open to the public, each $250 ticket lets you taste some of the group’s special private barrels before enjoying a high-end dinner and a live auction featuring some truly elite bourbon. Over $375,000 was raised at their 2019 event.

Choose Your Whiskies: Rare and highly desirable bottles that will encourage donations.
Bonus Round: Some whiskies are made available only to charities; try going directly to those distilleries.

Trade more than notes by pooling together a grab-bag of whiskies. (Illustration by John Devolle)

Poach Someone’s White Elephant

Everyone has different palates and eventually you’re likely to pick up a bottle that doesn’t suit your taste. Instead of dumping it down the drain, why not bring it to a whisky swap? Have each participant bring a wrapped gift in the form of an opened bottle of whisky they didn’t particularly like, a full one they can spare, or even the last few sips of a great offering. Pull names from a hat at random and have each person select and open their gift bottle. Here’s the fun part: After you reveal your bottle, you have the option to force a trade with anyone who has gone before.

Choose Your Whiskies: Any bottle, full or partially full.
Bonus Round: Using the same process, swap with new 50ml. minis.

Drink Locally

With around 2,000 craft distilleries in the U.S., there’s a pretty good chance there’s a whiskey distillery close by. In many cases, a local distiller may be willing to conduct a tasting for your group, or even invite you for a distillery visit. If you’re fortunate enough to have several whiskey makers in your area, create a local flight. Pair the whiskey with another local delicacy, like the Dallas Bourbon Club did. “A few members cooked some Texas-style barbecue for the group,” says Peter Schmidt, who does a lot of the club’s thematic planning. “The rest of the club brought some delicious whiskey and threw it all on a community table where nothing was off limits.”

Choose Your Whiskies: Whiskeys made in your hometown or, at least, home state.
Bonus Round: Volunteer your club to evaluate pre-release whiskeys, limited editions, or barrel samples at a local distillery.

Aim High

Whiskies over 140 proof (70% ABV) are technically considered hazardous materials, and are not permitted on airplanes. After realizing they had at least nine different releases that stretched into the 140 stratosphere, the Beast Masters Club gathered them for a tasting they suitably dubbed “Hazmat Night.” But you don’t have to abide by the 140-proof rule for your own tasting. Other whiskies bottled at the proof they emerge from the cask, 60% to 65% ABV, are equally fair game. These whiskies aren’t just potent, they are also packed with flavor and texture, offering an incredibly rich mouthfeel. Best of all, given their alcohol strength, they are ideal for sharing with a group.

Choose Your Whiskies: Cask-strength, barrel-proof, or hazmat-strength whiskies.
Bonus Round: Pair up whiskies of minimum strength (40% ABV) with their cask-strength or higher-proof counterparts for comparison.

Fill up the Barrel

With more clubs purchasing barrels of whisky, many ponder what to do with the empty barrel. Do what a Houston-based whisky club did—refill the barrel with commercial whisky to create a custom whisky. Wade Woodard, who spearheaded the project, poured about 100 bottles into a 53-gallon barrel (leaving air space to promote oxidation and aging). If your club is big enough, the cost shouldn’t be prohibitive. Woodard’s group spent $1,650 total among its eleven members. Tasting the whisky at each gathering becomes a point of discussion. Have the group vote regularly on whether to bottle it or let it ride. Save the empty bottles to distribute the blend among club members.

Choose Your Whiskies: Affordable, high-proof whiskies (bottled in bonds are a great option).
Bonus Round: Fill two different-sized barrels to compare how they mature differently.

Go on the hunt for long forgotten whiskies to add some throwbacks to your next tasting. (Illustration by John Devolle)

Dust Off Some Oldies

By searching flea markets, estate sales, and even off-the-beaten path liquor stores, many whisky lovers uncover forgotten vintage bottles in the pursuit sometimes known as “dusty hunting.” For those who don’t have the ambition for the actual hunt, vintage bourbons and other whiskies can be purchased at many auctions. In Kentucky, new laws have made private sales of vintage whisky more accessible. Beast Masters Club of New York actually holds a Dusty Battle, where members bring their best dusty for everyone to taste. It’s a great way to experience what old bottles can offer and create an auction hit list of your favorites.

Choose Your Whiskies: Bottles with a tax strip, imperial measurement, or a fine coat of dust still on the shoulders.
Bonus Round: Buy a few bottles and put them in a club time capsule to be opened in ten or even twenty years.

Hunt for Bargains

Everybody wants to find whiskies that overdeliver on their price. The best way to do this is to dedicate an evening to cheaper bottles usually relegated to the bottom shelf of the liquor store. This is a feat best accomplished through blind tasting, so you might want to keep these whiskies a total surprise for your group. There’s a reason many entry-level whiskies have been mainstays for decades, and if you set aside your bias, you just might discover a delicious everyday sipper.

Choose Your Whiskies: Define bottom-shelf however you wish. Your definition will likely vary by whisky type, since many bourbons or ryes can be bought for $20, but not much in the way of single malt scotch.
Bonus Round: Make a classic cocktail with the bargain whiskies to see which work best mixed.

Travel Through Scotland

Even most whisky beginners know there are five scotch regions. However, aside from the heavily peated pours from Islay, most drinkers can’t exactly describe the archetypal flavor profile of each. Change that by getting notable bottles from each of the five regions—Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, and, yes, Islay—and seeing if you can notice the similarities within each region, and the differences. Or you might decide that the regions are not an indicator of flavor at all, as many people are starting to believe.

Choose Your Whiskies: Create a flight of iconic representations of each of Scotland’s whisky regions.
Bonus Round: Conduct a tasting of scotches that are atypical for their region, like a heavily peated Highlands, a richly sherried Lowlands, and an unpeated Islay.

Blow Out Some Candles

Celebrate a club member’s birthday by tasting whiskies distilled during their birth year or those that are the same age as the guest of honor (i.e. all 30 year old releases for someone turning 30). Obviously, celebrating along with some senior club members could be costly, if not impossible, but even if you can pool for a single purchase, it makes a memorable way to celebrate a birthday.

Choose Your Whiskies: Bottles fit for the birthday boy or girl.
Bonus Round: Test tasters with a multiple-choice quiz based on movies, hit songs, or world leaders from the year the whisky was distilled.

Explore the world of spirits beyond whisky and see what qualities rum, cognac, mezcal, and more share with the water of life. (Illustration by John Devolle)

Show Your Team of Spirits

So you’ve got yourself a whisky club. That doesn’t mean aged rum, cognac, armagnac, or even añejo tequila and mezcal are off limits. You’ll be stunned to realize that many of these spirits share similar DNA with whisky, especially those that are matured in used bourbon barrels, a very popular practice for aged spirits of all types. If you choose to taste blind, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish other spirits from whisky. “It always opens people to new flavors and alternatives to whisky,” says Peters, who has organized this exact same tasting with SCWC.

Choose Your Whiskies: A baseline American whiskey with other barrel aged spirits.
Bonus Round: Some spirits will name the type and brand of the whisky barrel it was matured in. Try tasting these alongside the actual whisky.

Build the Best Old-Fashioned

Not all tasting nights need to be focused on neat pours. Lay out a buffet of whiskeys— both bourbons and ryes—that represents diverse prices and styles. Include bourbon made with wheat and rye and whiskeys of different proofs and ages. Play around with turning them into Old Fashioneds, a simple cocktail that lets the base whiskey shine through. You’ll need sweeteners (sugar cubes, simple syrup, demerara syrup), a variety of bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s, garnishes including citrus peels and cherries, and, of course, ice cubes and glassware. Maybe your club can eventually create their ultimate group Old Fashioned!

Choose Your Whiskies: Eclectic bourbons and ryes.
Bonus Round: Try a Manhattan mix-off, using various whiskeys, sweet vermouths, and bitters.

Make Suds Your Bud

The classic dive bar pairing—the Boilermaker—is nothing more than a whisky with a beer. While the standard workingman’s Boilermaker tends to focus on blue collar beers like Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon, there are a lot of whisky bars creating upscale takes. Lay out a variety of sippable whiskies along with some versatile beers that can be mixed and matched to discover great pairings. Maybe you’ll find IPAs pair well with an incredibly citrusy Irish whiskey, or that a rich single malt works well with a chocolaty imperial stout.

Choose Your Whiskies: A variety of sippable whiskies.
Bonus Round: Try a variety of styles of beer: lager, stout, and IPA.

Start With the Finish

Cask-finishing refers to whiskies that receive a secondary maturation in a special type of cask to impart distinctive flavors. Casks that held various types of sherry, port, and even beer are popular choices. Pair up some of these whiskies with the wines, beers, and spirits that lend those flavors, to help you better pick them out in the whiskies. “We’ve done a night where we had whisky aged in different sherry barrels and then we got those sherries, and you had to match the sherry to the whisky blind to see if it was possible,” Peters says.

Choose Your Whiskies: Any that indicate they’re finished in specialty casks.
Bonus Round: Create your own finish. Prime a mini barrel with wine, beer, or other spirit such as brandy, then fill it with whisky.

Go Whisky Globetrotting

Skip drinking anything from the traditional whisky-producing nations—America, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and Japan—and venture around the rest of the globe. Far-flung places like Mexico, Wales, Tasmania, and Taiwan are making great whiskies, and also creating fresh takes on the spirit given their diverse grains, methods, and climates.

Choose Your Whiskies: Try whiskies from France, Taiwan, India, and Australia.
Bonus Round: Focus on a single style, like single malts of the world.

Take a Vertical Challenge

Many whiskies are released annually or in sequential batches. Some of these serial releases are intentionally varied in style, while others can be strikingly similar. And often they reveal subtle changes in your favorite whiskies. Have production methods changed from year to year? Has the distillery switched stills? Or yeast? Maybe they’ve upped the barrel entry proof? Has a giant conglomerate bought your favorite brand? A vertical tasting is the perfect way to compare whisky releases over time.

Choose Your Whiskies: Multiple bottles of any whisky that emerges as an annual or batch-and-numbered release.
Bonus Round: A horizontal tasting can compare an annual release with its sibling bottlings within the brand or distillery.

Get Smarter With Age

Pick a popular age statement—say 10 or 12 years old—and gather whiskies of that age. This tasting is the most fun when you span several different whisky nations and climates, observing how a Kentucky bourbon matures at a different rate than a single malt scotch, for instance. Also note that the age statement on a bottle of whisky always refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle, so some bottles may benefit from having included much older whisky in the blend.

Choose Your Whiskies: Whiskies bearing the same age statement.
Bonus Round: Conduct a vertical tasting of the same whisky at different ages. Try to identify the sweet spot. Is older better?

Locate a whisky from a since-closed distillery and you and your tasting group will be tasting some precious liquid. (Illustration by John Devolle)

Resurrect a Dead Distillery

There are a lot of whisky distilleries operating all over the world, but some of the most buzzed-about are those that no longer exist. These “ghost” distilleries no longer produce whisky, but while scarce, bottles from them remain tucked away in collections or even on dusty store shelves. Thus, for this themed tasting, you’ll drink bottles exclusively from distilleries that are (gulp) dead. “Where else are you going to get to drink through thirteen dead distilleries in one night?” asks Peters, who has done such an event before.

Choose Your Whiskies: Stitzel-Weller, Port Ellen, Littlemill, Brora, and others that are now only a memory.
Bonus Round: Conduct a newborn tasting: only the first releases from brand new distilleries.

Embrace a New State

Believe it or not, whiskey is produced in every U.S. state, although inspection of labels will verify that the majority of American whiskey still comes from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. Look beyond these three states and you’ll discover a lot of creative craft distillers and emerging regional styles. “Tasting whiskey from around the country is a learning experience,” explains Blake Riber, who runs Seelbach’s, an online craft spirits retailer. “The biggest factor in location is the climate. Whiskey aging in barrels in Wisconsin with its extremely cold winters is going to mature much more slowly than a barrel in Florida or Texas.”

Choose Your Whiskies: Whiskey from any of the remaining 47 states and Washington, D.C.
Bonus Round: Focus on whiskeys from a single prolific distilling state, like Texas.

Make Peace with Peat

Many American whiskey lovers believe all scotch is peaty, but that’s not the case. Some scotch is not peated at all. Many that are list the parts phenols per million (ppm) of peat flavors that were applied to the barley during malting. This can range from zero to several hundred ppm for the peatiest whiskies. Using these cues, build a themed tasting in which you ramp up the peatiness: Start with unpeated single malts, then move to slightly peated, and finish with the Islay peat monsters. Note that while ppm can be a good indicator of smoky flavor, it actually refers to phenols in the malted barley, not the final whisky. Look for those that seem to defy their ppm.

Choose Your Whiskies: A selection of whiskies with varying levels of peat.
Bonus Round: Conduct the same progressive-style tasting with a different flavor component, like sherry.

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Denny Potter on Craftsmanship

“I am a huge proponent of blind tastings, because I want people to appreciate whisky that you think is good, not what someone else is telling you.”