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THALIA DEMAKES is a freelance writer.



March 2006
Updated November 2009

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Cocktails & Spirits

Whiskey 101

Page 5: Plan A Whiskey Tasting

This is Page 5 of a seven-page article. Click on the black links below to view the other pages.



Planning For A Whiskey Tasting

Picking A Theme

As with planning any other type of event, selecting a theme for a whiskey tasting is a wonderful way to set the tone and offer a reference point. A tasting (and nosing) usually consists of five or six different whiskey samples. We have found it to work best when the selections are based around a particular theme.  Below you can find a few suggestions of themes to get you started:

  • Single Malt Tasting: This is a great theme to start with. For this tasting, select a bottle of single malt from each of the five whiskey-producing regions of Scotland. You should have representatives from the Highlands (both Speyside and Orkney), the Lowlands, Skye, and Islay. This type of tasting allows you to discover the various characteristics in the whiskey for which each region is known.
  • Singular Region Tasting: You can also choose a variety of samples from one particular whiskey-producing region, and base your theme around comparing brands from that specific location. Some ideas for this type of tasting include “Whiskeys of Speyside,” or “Whiskeys from Islay.” This theme works well for intermediate whiskey tasters who are already familiar with the ways in which geography plays a role in production.
  • Vertical Tasting: A vertical whiskey tasting is one that involves sampling several different expressions or ages of the same brand. This type of tasting is interesting because it forces you to detect subtle differences that are determined by the age of the product. This theme is nice for advanced tasters who have already determined preferences for a particular brand.  

Selecting the Whiskey

Once you have selected a theme, the next step is to decide which samples of whiskey to include in your selection. To get some ideas on where to start, we suggest checking out the following two publications, which have proven to be invaluable resources:

  • Whiskey Bible. For suggestions of whiskey to include in your tasting, pick up a copy of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, an annual guide. The precious resource includes listings of more than 2,000 whiskeys that have been tasted, evaluated and rated by Murray himself, known worldwide as the “whiskey guru.” The book covers all types of whiskey, including Scotch (single malt, blends, vatted malts, single grains), Irish (pot still, malts, blends, grains), Bourbon, rye, Japanese, Canadian, Australian, European and other whiskey varieties. Designed specifically for quick and easy reference, Murray’s book includes easy-to-understand notes on tasting, and reviews of all that is new and worth looking out for in the world of whiskey. 
  • Michael Jackson. Another wonderful resource to consider in choosing your samples is Whiskey: A Definitive World Guide, by the late, great Michael Jackson. This volume is the first publication of its kind dedicated to helping people discover what Jackson considered the world’s finest spirit.
  Jim Murray's Whiskey Bible
The Whiskey Bible is an annual book that rates whiskeys.
  • Websites. There are also countless whiskey websites, making for an abundance of information available on the Internet to help you determine the selections for your tasting. The Malt Advocate is an online publication dedicated to the whiskey enthusiast, offering an entire section dedicated to helping you go about your purchase. With tasting notes written by John Hansell, this buyer’s guide gives great insight on more than 100 different brands, making it the perfect go-to guide when conducting a whiskey tasting.

Once you have an idea of the whiskey samples you would like to include, invite five or six friends to take part in your tasting—that is, unless you prefer to sample solo. Assuming you will have company, give guests the specifics, share your enthusiasm about holding the event, and let them in on your theme. Ask that they each bring one of the specific bottles of whiskey from your list. This way, you not only involve them in the process, but you’ll also minimize your own budget.

What You Will Need

  • Five or six selections of whiskey
  • Six tulip-shaped glasses for tasting (one for each taster)
  • A white tablecloth to offset and accentuate the color of the samples
  • A supply of paper and pens for note-taking
  • A jug of spring water, needed for diluting
  • A water glass for each of the tasters


Go To Page 6: Preparing For The Tasting

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