Discover the Joys of Tasting Whisky with Friends
It's the night of WhiskyFest Chicago. The ballroom is brimming with hundreds of whiskies for sampling and the excited whisky lovers who adore them. But one group of attendees seems to be having the most fun of all. Adorned in matching navy blazers embellished with their club patch, and sporting fur pelts draped around their shoulders, Illinois's own Whiskey Wolf Pack is chatting with distillers, clinking glasses with presenters, posing for photos, and generally owning the room.
Don't mistake this dashing whisky club's gregariousness for indiscriminate imbibing. These guys know good whisky. The Wolf Pack first came together in 2016 as a way to pool their cash and obtain the bottles they might not otherwise afford on their own, according to vice president and current treasurer Robert Pagel. (Lest you wonder where his whisky fondness lies, he gave his son the middle name “Macallan.”)
“When we were younger, dropping a hundred dollars on a bottle was a big thing. It got to a point where we had this group of guys and we'd get together and have a drink and we said, ‘Why don't we have a club, where we each put in $25 a month and buy some great stuff?'” says Pagel. Their list of trophy bottles is impressive; they casually rattle off names like 1976 Glenrothes, Highland Park Bicentenary 1977, Highland Park 30 year old, Port Ellen, and more.
Despite the rarity and value of these whiskies, each one is now just an empty bottle—and a wonderful memory. “So many people now buy bottles to not open them,” Pagel adds. “But we are whisky drinkers, not baseball card collectors. For us it's about having guys that appreciate what you appreciate, coming together and saying, ‘How awesome is this!'”
Tasting whisky blind is a great way to strengthen your palate and bond with your whisky club.
The Wolf Pack's cooperative hunt for whisky isn't strictly financially motivated. With many whiskies growing ever more elusive, they also benefit from stalking their prey as a team. Whisky clubs know there's power in numbers. “The beauty of the club is we have ten guys looking and we have ten sets of eyes on everything instead of one person. Todd found a shop with three 'Yama 18s' at $289,” says Pagel, referring to club “sergeant at arms” Todd Bosco's discovery of a trove of prized Yamazaki 18 year old single malt from Japan.
When one club member locates an opportunistic buy, they send a group text for the other members to weigh in. More often than not the purchase is made. With the eight key members of their whisky club scattered as much as two and a half hours from one another, the Wolf Pack gets together at the homes of various members several times a year to sample their prized bottles, along with others that they contribute from their private collections. For instance, they supplemented the Highland Park 30 year old with 18 year old, 12 year old, and others to create an epic vertical tasting. “The whole point is to have a big, big bottle—something you'd never have on your own,” says Pagel.
Along with sampling some truly amazing whiskies, organizing their whisky drinking get-togethers into proper tastings has helped each member advance their connoisseurship. “We were all whisky fans and our appreciation of whisky has changed dramatically,” Pagel says. “We started out as Jack and Coke guys. We soon learned what scotch was about, and learned what Irish was, and we just continued growing our love of whisky.” For these friends, tasting together has paid huge dividends in both whisky knowledge and good laughs.
Of course, what works for the Wolf Pack may not be the ideal format for you and your friends. The Wolf Pack is one of hundreds of whisky clubs popping up across the U.S.—each with a slightly different approach. Some might focus on a single style of whisky. Some clubs are even more intimate than the tight-knit Wolf Pack, while others extend to multiple cities around the globe. There are clubs that are highly social in nature, meeting at a local bar, while others might stress blind tasting and serious debate.
But if you've ever dreamed of starting your own whisky tasting club, Pagel has one bit of advice. “Do it! Do it as soon as possible,” he says. “As you get older you realize you don't get time back. For $25 a month, I mean that's the cost of Netflix, and for us to be able to get together and try whiskies is worth so much more.”
Make Some Rules
Each year the 3 Drunken Celts whisky club, based in Southern California, prepares for their annual grand tasting of around 120 whiskies by posting the rules for the event. Rule number one is “Have fun.” It's also rule number three. And five.
“We do have some rules but they are quite few,” says founding member Jason O'Donnell. “Every odd numbered one of them simply reads ‘have fun.' In all sincerity though, our primary rule that works for us is leave your politics at the door. We don't talk politics at our events.”
Fortunately, this seems to be the case for most whisky clubs. Good whisky fosters good fun. However, a few basic rules are often the key to keeping things fun. James Smith, co-founder and president of Water Witch Appreciation Guild, says a successful tasting club must have a clear intention and structured meetings. “The hardest thing is to keep it from being a drinking club. We started with a handful of guys who knew each other, and if anyone went in the wrong direction, we made it firm and fast that it's not what we are here for,” explains Smith.
The Water Witch Appreciation Guild was founded in 2010 among members of the volunteer firefighters of Water Witch Hose Company No. 2 of Milford, Connecticut. Currently, around fourteen members meet quarterly to sip and discuss whisky.
Discussing the whiskies you taste with your club opens the floor to a lively assessment of the spirit.
Each meeting includes two whiskies for tasting. Beforehand, members are required to do their homework. “We decided to meet once a quarter,” Smith says. “Two guys each pick a scotch to purchase and they are then reimbursed by dividing the cost among the group. We usually make it about $20 a person. But also, the member is responsible to research that scotch and do a presentation, talk about the whisky, the distillery, and share what they learn.”
Meetings last two hours, and each whisky is given a one-hour time slot to sip and discuss. “When some of these guys started, their idea of whisky was a shot that you jolt down quickly,” explains Smith. “We take our time and they learn to appreciate it. We invested in a set of Glencairn glasses engraved with each member's name. We set up a nice table with two bottles on it and line the glasses up for the members attending.”
Rather than stash away any remaining whisky, the Water Witch Appreciation Guild opens the meeting to friends, spouses, and other guests following the formal session. “The rule is that the first two hours are members only, then we open it up. Some people who visit don't really like whisky, but we encourage them to come after to sample something and discover if they might like it,” says Smith.
Other clubs similarly spread the word on whisky, while asking participants to earn their membership credentials. Wine lover turned whisky fan Fred Cubberly decided to start the Cubberly Whisky Club in 2010 and since then has welcomed between five and ten guests to sip from his collection eight or nine times a year. Cubberly provides all the whisky, cigars, and food, with others donating on a voluntary basis. As you might imagine, there is a lot of interest. So far, 358 different whiskies have been shared across his table.
“Membership is by invitation, and subsequent participation,” explains Cubberly. “To become a member you must have tasted at least 100 whiskies. At that time, you receive a club decanter with your name, Cubberly Whisky Club, and the number 100 etched on it.” Those who attend regularly are considered associate members.
Cubberly is generous with his time and whisky. In return, members and guests are only expected to follow a few simple rules. Each rates their whiskies on a 100-point scale, and participates in the discussion to name the “best of tasting” and “best value” from the flight. In addition, “Everyone attending is to have someone drive them and pick them up or Uber to and from the tasting,” he adds.
Let it Grow
Don't be surprised when a lot of eager whisky drinkers show interest in your new whisky club. Sooner or later most clubs have to make a decision about limiting their size. Virginia's Richmond Whiskey Society is set up in such a way that members take turns hosting in their homes. Each month the hosting member is responsible for selecting and purchasing the whiskies they want to offer, and is permitted to invite a guest of their choice.
Tastings can also be a useful way for club members to discover new whiskies.
In the case of Richmond Whiskey Society, the structure of their club dictates the ideal size. “We have gone back and forth on this, but we've felt pretty comfortable with having a maximum core of twelve members,” says Richmond Whiskey Society social media coordinator Jereme Yoho. In addition to hosting, each member contributes $100 annually to a fund earmarked for future group events, like trips or a private-barrel purchase.
As a novice scotch drinker, Kirk Figus went in search of a whisky club where he could learn more. Unable to locate one near him, he founded Drummond MacDougall's Single Malt Society in St. Louis, Missouri. Figus began by cobbling together a website and was able to convince 17 strangers with a love of whisky to send money his way to get started. “The first sessions, we met in the back room of a liquor store where we had room for 25 or 30 people. I'd borrow my son's computer and give a crappy little presentation on the whiskies,” he says.
Within a year, Figus was having to conduct the same presentation five times. Ten years and 398 whiskies later, the group stands at 176 members, who meet six times a year in a meeting room at the Cheshire Inn in Clayton, Missouri. Members prepay $297 for a year of six themed tastings, like “Island Hop” and “Cask Finish Night” with Figus leading a multimedia presentation while providing ample time to socialize. In addition to information on the distilleries and whiskies, Figus keeps it fun with games like “fact or fiction” where members guess whether a statement is true or false, and another based on Gaelic words that he calls “How the hell do you pronounce that?”
While he embraces the challenge, Figus concedes that things can get more complicated as a club expands. “I started off needing just one bottle of each whisky. By the end of last year I needed five bottles of each. Getting five bottles can be harder than you think,” he says. “A lot of times I go to put together a lineup and can only get four of something, so it really limits you.” Now, he is concerned that tariffs on scotch whisky will make sourcing those he wants even more challenging. “Overnight our biggest cost is going up 25%,” he laments.
Do It for the Love of Whisky
Like most successful clubs, Drummond MacDougall's Single Malt Society was born of a personal interest in whisky and a desire to learn more. In terms of finances, Figus says, “My goal was to either breakeven or not lose too much money.” Clubs simply seem to function and serve members best when they are not money-making endeavors. “I have a full-time job and do this on the side. It's a labor of love,” he adds.
At their walk-around grand tasting, the 3 Drunken Celts collect no fees and rely entirely on the generosity of members to donate the whiskies. “We have about 120 bottles showing up to each year's grand tasting…all of which are donated by members. Entry to the grand tasting is one bottle of any type of whisky regardless of quality or cost. This gets you and four friends in the door to the tasting,” says O'Donnell, adding that the number of top-shelf bottles that are contributed is amazing.
Regularly scheduled tastings can help maintain your club's participation.
Despite, or perhaps due to their laissez-faire governance, 3 Drunken Celts has persisted and grown for two decades. They are not even certain of their total membership, which they estimate to be from 200 to 500 people.“We made the decision early on to keep this a not-for-profit hobbyist-type club and that's eliminated much of what could have been a hassle over the years,” says O'Donnell. “We've made other good choices all along that limit what we need financially to pull this off, so we don't burden ourselves at home.” For instance, the grand tasting operates in conjunction with the annual Renaissance encampment in Taft, California called Great Western War, so everyone can walk to their campsite following the event. “We fell into this easily and had great luck pretty much all along the path. Whisky makes good friends, it seems,” beams O'Donnell.
But whatever your ultimate scale, most groups find that keeping costs down, and being open to a broad spectrum of members, and of whiskies, is the most rewarding approach. “Our members are quite the mix. We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, restaurant staff, and retirees. Men, women, straight, gay, and anyone in between. All that is required is they have an interest in and a love of whiskies,” says Kurt Maitland, curator of the Manhattan Whiskey Club, which has more than 60 members.
Dues for the Manhattan Whiskey Club are modest by New York standards, just $135 a year to attend monthly tastings with food on offer. “Finding space for events, scheduling tastings, keeping track of members, chasing after brands—all of these [make] running the club my unpaid second job, but in the end it's worth it,” says Maitland, who above all relishes sharing whisky with new friends. “That joy never goes away.”