Are you and your friends fans of bourbon? Well that reason alone is cause for celebration and a perfect excuse to host a bourbon tasting party. Sure, you could just crack open some bottles and let people casually drink, but you could also make this into a true learning session.
There are several ways to approach a tasting event. I’d say that you should limit your selection to 4-6 bottles, as palate fatigue can set in. Limiting your guest list will make it easier to discuss amongst yourselves. Try capping your guest list at 10 people. This will ensure that you only have to buy one bottle of each bourbon. 750ml will yield just over 25 oz which will have everyone get 2 oz with a little more for the host. Glencairn glasses are nice to have, but you could also use rocks or Old-Fashioned glasses. Lest you think you need to have a glass for every whiskey and for every person, you can make do with one glass per person. Just make sure to rinse your glass with either the next whiskey or some water after you taste.
WATER OF LIFE
Speaking of water, make sure you have glasses and a pitcher full so everyone can stay hydrated. You’re going to want to use spring or distilled water here, particularly if your area has hard water. This can make a huge difference in your drink.
Tasting at Brown Forman distillery / Photo Credit: Dana McMahan
Have at least one straw or eye-dropper to add a few drops to your whiskey. You may scoff at the addition of water, but the water will act much the same way that swirling your glass of wine does. You’re opening up the whiskey when you add water. This allows you to detect scents and tastes that you may not discover otherwise. In this case, save the ice for when the tasting is over (this will close the whiskey), when you can just relax with your favorite selection(s).
One way to think about bourbon is to view it from the mash-bill’s perspective. If you need a refresher, check out our write up on mash bills. In bourbon’s case, at least 51% corn must be used with the remaining grains; typically wheat or rye (known as the flavoring grains) and malted barley. There are standard bourbon mash bills which incorporate 70% or more corn, with the balance using rye and barley. There are also high-rye bourbons which incorporate 18% or more rye, along with the corn and some barley. Wheated bourbons typically use the standard mash bill, but instead of rye, they use wheat along with the corn and some barley.
At-home tasting party / Photo Credit: Rob Hess
You could mix and match to see how the products differ by including one or two of each in your tasting. Start with the wheated bourbons, then move on to the standard bourbons. Finally, finish up with the high-rye bourbons. You don’t have to break the bank either. The point of the tasting is to see how the mash bills influence the final result. Entry-level bourbons are fine here; they might just surprise you. Try to stick with similarly aged products, and begin with the younger and finish with the older. If you can do that and stay in the wheated, standard, high-rye order, even better. Mix and match from the list below:
Standard Bourbon Mashbill
*Many to choose, these are just a small taste of well-known brands
– any Jim Beam Bourbon, but try Jim Beam Single Barrel or Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut
– any Wild Turkey Bourbon, but try Wild Turkey Rare Breed or Wild Turkey Longbranch
– any Elijah Craig Bourbon, but try Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
– most Buffalo Trace Bourbons (save for their experiments), but try Blanton’s Original Single Barrel or Stagg Jr.
– any Old Grand-Dad, but try Old Grand-Dad Bonded
– Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
– any Four Roses Bourbon, but try Four Roses Single Barrel
– Bulleit Bourbon
– any Old Forester Bourbon, but try Old Forester Single Barrel
– Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Named, not because of the state you may get if you overindulge, but rather for bourbons of similar age. You can try all entry-level products or go for something a little more upscale like going with 10 or 12 Year old bourbons, which are sadly disappearing.
Entry level/No-age-statement (NAS) bourbons
A couple of things to note. Pay attention to the proof of the bourbons; you don’t want to be surprised when you take a big sip of cask-strength whiskey. Perhaps add bourbons higher than 50% ABV later in the line-up, so you don’t burn out your taste buds. Secondly, don’t swirl your glass of whiskey around like it’s a glass of wine. Gently ease the glass to your nose. Open your mouth slightly and you’ll discover that with the alcohol having somewhere to go, you can get more aromas to appear in the glass.
Pappy Van Winkle tasting / Photo Credit: Edsel Little
Also, even if you live in Kentucky, there are folks making bourbon that aren’t one of the “Big Boys” all throughout the US of A. Buy a bottle from your state/region and add that to the lineup to see how their products differ from the well-known brands. There are far too many to list here, which is such a wonderful thing to say.
So now that you’ve got your shopping list, pick a date to plan your party. Call your friends, crack open some bottles, and start tasting!
Ready to get started on your bourbon tasting party?