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.
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.
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.
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.