Throwing a bourbon tasting party is fun, easy, and appropriate for any and all seasons. We recently co-hosted a tasting for a group of forty people in the back yard of a beautiful Los Angeles home, and thought we'd share a few tips for planning one of your own.
- Choose Your Brands There are many options when it comes to choosing your brands. First, you need to decide if you'll be conducting a vertical or a horizontal tasting. A vertical tasting means that you stay within the same brand. For example, we poured samples from Four Roses bourbons to give people a sense of the differences between one company's products. A horizontal tasting includes different brands. You might choose to stay with bourbons made in Kentucky, or to sample brands produced from other states. You can choose to stay with 40% ABV, or move up to 45% and 50%. Mashbill can also play a part in your selection. Decide if you want to serve bourbons with similar amounts of corn, rye, barley, etc. There has to be a presence of at least 51% corn to be considered American bourbon, but that remaining 49% can vary greatly between brands.
- Plan Your Budget The cost of bourbons vary depending on age, availability, and demand. Plan to spend $30 to $80 per bottle for a collection of well-established brands like Four Roses. You can also book-end your tasting with bottles that start at $100, but that's entirely up to you. Remember that there are about twenty-five ounces of liquid in a 750 ml bottle. Since we wanted to pour each person a one-ounce tasting from each bottle, we needed at least two bottles of each label to cover everyone. That being said, one ounce may not seem like a lot, but if you're pouring five flights, it adds up. Consider pouring ½ to ¾ ounce flights to stretch the bottles and not overload people too quickly.
- Create a Signature Drink When your guests arrive, they will want to socialize a bit before sitting down for the tasting. Create a signature bourbon drink that your guests can sip while waiting for the main event to begin. We recommend creating a light drink with a lower ABV and not too much added sugar. Our drink of the night was the Delta Infusion, a recipe from our latest cocktail book, Cocktails for Cougars & Cowgirls and made with Four Roses. The bartender mixed two ounces of the Delta Infusion with two ounces of club soda for a refreshing aperitif. Might we add that it was a real hit!
- Build the Dining Menu If your tasting will take place before dinner, which we recommend, provide your guests with a few appetizers upon arrival. Our event was catered with Southern food, including tray-passed appetizers like mini pulled-pork sliders and mac & cheese bites. However, you can do it all on your own to keep costs down and quality up and your event will still be as special. Offering appetizers that are higher in fat, like mixed nuts and cheese is also a good idea before serving high-proof alcohol. But your dinner menu can be anything you dream up! Bourbon pairs well with leafy salads, grilled vegetables, barbecued meats, grilled fish, and chocolatey desserts. Check out the food section of Southern Living if you need inspiration.
- Find Your Bourbon Guide You don't need to be an expert to guide your friends through a successful bourbon tasting. You just need to do your homework in advance. The websites for the brands you've selected offer loads of information, ranging from the history of the label to the tasting notes to the mashbill. If you're set on having a professional do the talking, you've got two other options. The first is to call the label and ask if there's a brand ambassador in the area to come and conduct the education part. The other option is to choose labels offered by the same distributor, and ask the distributor if there is a local rep who can guide the crowd through the distillation process, and the unique properties of each bourbon.
- Set the Table We had custom blue placemats created for each guest to add some extra festivity to the evening, and to provide a clear place for people to set their tasting glasses. You can design your own using a site such as Crush Tag. Besides a floral centerpiece, we also prepped the tables with small dishes of coffee beans and little glasses of distilled water, which is the closest thing to branch water. The coffee beans are needed between tastings to clear the senses. All your guests need to do is gently inhale the aroma of the beans (we prefer espresso roast), and not eat them as one guest tried to do. The water is for those who may not be accustomed to drinking bourbon and need to open it up with a couple drops. The addition of water is also nice just for the sake of comparison. The taste of a bourbon can change dramatically with just a few drops of water, as many people noted when tasting Four Roses Single Barrel.
Planning a bourbon tasting is one of our favorite activities, and people always walk alway happy to have a new foundation of knowledge about this amazing spirit. Planning a bourbon party now and need help? Tweet us your questions! @GirlWalksIn2Bar