The Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Bourbon Tasting

April 2, 2024
The Ultimate Guide to Hosting a Bourbon Tasting


If you’ve not yet hosted a bourbon tasting event at your home or garage bar, you’re missing out on one of the greatest experiences in the bourbon world.  Not only is it great to get together with your people to enjoy some bourbon, but the opportunity to really focus on and appreciate the nuances of what’s in your glass provides for a memorable experience, one which you’ll be wanting to repeat every week!

In this post we will walk through what’s required to host a legit bourbon tasting party from choosing your flight of bourbon to the glassware you may want to consider, what sort of food you can pair with the tasting to help draw out flavors, and how to facilitate the conversation.  With this advice in hand, you’ll be well on your way to putting together a bourbon tasting that will be talked about as “the best time” by all your guests.

Laying the Groundwork

So, if you’ve never done one of these events before, there are a few initial considerations that you’ll want to account for in your planning, the first of which is how many people you will be inviting.  For me, I limit these types of events to eight as that’s how many seats I have around my garage bar, but you ideally want to have a manageable crowd for your space and to ensure that everyone can participate fully.  When you have a crowd, it’s not as easy for everyone to find their way into the discussion and have a lively and engaging conversation.

Choosing the Bourbon

bourbon tasting bottle selection

Perhaps the most important thing to consider straight out of the gate when hosting a bourbon tasting is what your lineup for the evening will be.  Some things to consider when making these types of important decisions are:

  • How many bourbons are you going to sample? For a crowd of eight, I usually sample six bourbons, which takes around an hour and a half to two hours to work through.
  • What’s your budget?  If you’ve got north of a hundred open bottles like we do this isn’t always a big consideration, but let’s face it, bourbon can be an expensive hobby.  You don’t have to break out the Pappy’s for these kinds of events and to be honest, we usually do ours blind and it’s far more often that stuff lower on down on the shelves wins out in a blind tasting over top shelf bottles.  In fact, one tasting I’d even thrown in our infinity bottle just for fun and it actually WON out over everything else we sampled that night.
  • Do you want to have a theme?  This can be a fun way to provide some focus and help with selecting what you’ll be drinking.  Themes such as high proof only, double oaked only, finished bourbons, Weller’s only, based on age, etc. can provide the sidebars to your evening.
  • If you’ve become a Bourboneur member you can also enter all your open bottles into our “Wheel of Destiny” and spin the wheel and select your bourbons on the fly during your event and let random chance dictate what you’ll be drinking.  I’m kind of addicted to spinning the wheel to be honest.

Whether by random chance or your own design, set out with a plan and expect that no matter what you’ll have some great conversation among your guests.    

Choosing the Glassware | Did You Taste That?!?!

custom glencairn glass with 2 ounce pour line

So I have more than a little bias about glassware and its importance as selecting the right glass can really have a significant impact on how the whiskey you pour tastes and smells.  Let's put it this way - having the right glass is like a painter picking the right brush - creating dull lines or fine detail.  When you think about the fact that that bottle of whiskey may have been a hundred years in the making between the oak used in the barrel growing from acorn to tree and the years (potentially) sitting aging in the barrel waiting for this moment - why shortchange yourself and the experience with the wrong glass? Whiskey glassware design is as much about functionality as aesthetics.  Generally, three types of glassware are preferred for a tasting:

  • Glencairn Glasses:  So, for many reasons, a Glencairn glass is the best glass IMHO for tasting and appreciating your whiskey.  The development of the Glencairn was borne through bringing together the master blenders from five of the world’s largest whiskey companies and perfecting the design.  I’d like to think I’ve improved on that design as ours has a custom etched in two ounce pour line…or if you’re one of those that fills your glen to the top, the line would probably be a refill reminder!  You can pick up your custom etched glen HERE.
  • Copita glasses:  Hailing from Spain, this glass is often used more traditionally for sherry tasting but some folk shave also started using it for bourbon tasting too.  Imagine if you will a small version of a wine glass…I’m guessing its tulip shape is appealing to some, and certainly does help funnel vapors to the top of the glass for an enhanced experience.  It’s no glencairn, but it’ll get the job done.  You can check this type of glass out HERE.
  • The NEAT glass:  A fairly new arrival on the market this type of glassware boasts a design built to enhance the drinking experience.  Most notably, a unique rim design suggests alcohol aromas dissipate by using this type of glass limiting the burn you can sometimes experience from higher proof bourbons.  You can check this type of glass out HERE.

Whichever glass you choose, make sure to have enough for each guest, and also to have some extras in case of breakage or the random plus one that might show up that you weren’t previously expecting!  You’ll also need a glass of water for each person to help cleanse their palates between bourbon samples but just a regular ol’ glass will do for that!

Supplies For Your Bourbon Tasting

vials for bourbon tasting

Beyond just bourbon and some glasses, you’ll need some supplies to ensure your event goes off without a hitch.  We’ve included a few must-haves below:

Eye droppers:  Beyond having some water available for cleansing your palate between sips, having eye droppers staged at each “station” for folks to use to dilute their bourbon if they find the proof or heat too overwhelming is a nice touch.  You can pick up a set of four with a miniature funnel to fill them HERE.  Beyond helping tamp down the heat on a hazmat type bourbon, a touch of water can also help bring out different aromas or tastes which might not have been noticeable prior to adding a splash!

Bourbon tasting sheet: A must have accompaniment to your upcoming bourbon tasting, having a well put together tasting sheet will help you look like you know your stuff and help your guests focus in on the bourbon in their glass and enjoy a memorable time.  The Bourboneur Tasting Sheet provides the opportunity to sample six different bourbons next to each other, ranking each for their aroma, taste and finish ensuring your guests are all thinking about their whiskey the same to standardize the results!    

Vials:  If you’re going to do a blind tasting, I suggest using these 30ml (about an ounce) clear glass vials.  You’ll also want to get some dot stickers like these to mark the top of the vials (1, 2, 3, etc.) to ensure everyone is tasting and scoring the same bourbons!    

Tasting Wheel:  Help your guests unpackage their bourbon by providing printed off flavor wheels like this Tasting Wheel from the American Bourbon Association.  You can also become a Bourboneur member and use our custom guide to ask questions about what you’re tasting to lead you to specific tastes to help you become a more sophisticated bourbon connoisseur.

Snacks for Your Bourbon Tasting

Pairing food with whiskey provides an interesting opportunity to further explore your bourbon.  In some cases, food can make it taste better and in others, it can help unfurl the complexities of the flavor profile helping you to finally unlock what it is that you are tasting in your bourbon.  Not dissimilar to wine or beer pairings, the various flavors sitting in your dram, be that caramel, honey, smoke, leather, fruits, all come together with your food to create an effect. However, finding the right foods that pair with bourbon is key to creating an epicurean experience!  Three categories you should consider when putting together your next tasting:

  • Big on Fat.  The idea with these pairings is to use the heat from your body to melt the fat in the food which then coats the inside of mouth. Add in alcohol and something magical occurs as various subtleties are brought out of the bourbon.  I’m a huge fan of aged Irish cheddar for my tastings and it’s a mainstay for every event I host now. If you’re looking for something a bit heftier, try bratwurst or kielbasa as well!
  • Sweetly Sugary.  Maybe I just am a bit biased living here in the south where this recipe was born, but candied pecans are where it’s at here.  We use this recipe in making ours, and highly recommend using the optional orange zest…it’s a game changer. If you're looking for simple foods that pair with bourbon, you can't go wrong with these.
  • Salty Like the Ocean.  Surprisingly, you may be able to head to your local convenience store in a pinch on your search for foods that pair with bourbon. For a cheap and easy addition to any bourbon tasting, one can add something like kettle-cooked potato chips to the mix, which adds an interesting juxtaposition of texture against a smooth, full-bodied bourbon.

Setting Up Your Bourbon Tasting

setting up your bourbon tasting

One thing to keep in mind with your bourbon tasting is that at its core, this is a sensory driven experience so you should try to limit strong smells or loud noises that interfere with or could take away from the immersive experience that you’re about to have.  Everything should be set up and ready to go before your guests arrive with each place setting including writing utensils, pre-poured bourbon in your vials, water, etc.  You may want to arrange your bourbon’s being sampled in a particular order, perhaps increasing from lowest to highest proof, or sweeter to earthier, this is highly dependent on the lineup and what you may want to highlight in each flight.

Depending on how indulgent you want to be you can also provide some notes on origin, age, proof, cask type, etc. for each of the bourbons being sampled.  My personal preference is to keep this information back, making the ultimate reveal at the end of the tasting even more intriguing!

Conducting the Tasting

You’ve put in a lot of work to getting ready for the big event and now your guests are set to arrive.  The perfect bourbon tasting is fun and relaxed but also orderly and informative.  To get the most out of the experience for you and your guests, we’ve put together a few suggestions for conducting your bourbon tasting below.

  • Start off your event by grounding folks in how the experience they’re about to have will work.  It’s likely you may have experienced bourbon afficionado’s and novices alike so take time to discuss general tips on how to taste bourbon, the food choices you have paired together for the festivities, how the scoring and ranking works, and above all else, set the expectation that this is to be a conversative event.
  • As you ask folks to pour their first bourbon in their glass, ask them to nose the whiskey.  Pick on one or two guests to prod about what it is they’re smelling, helping prime the conversation.  Similarly, as folks begin to taste their bourbon, as host, it’s your job to inquire something like “as you move the whiskey around in your mouth, coating your tongue and cheeks what are you tasting?”  “What do you think about the finish.”  You are a facilitator of the experience and any lulls in the discussion is your opportunity to insert yourself to keep people engaged.
  • Repeat the process for the rest of the whiskeys, following the order that you have chosen. You can also ask your guests to revisit some of the whiskeys, to see how they change over time, or how they compare with each other. You can also ask your guests to experiment with adding water or food, to see how they affect the whiskey.
  • When I end a tasting, I like to work around the room and ask each guest to provide their overall rating for each bourbon, capturing the value and creating an overall average for each bourbon tasted.  Once complete, I reveal what each bourbon was from the lowest ranked to the highest with what typically is a surprise or two in the mix for each of the guests.  
  • As you finish up, this is a great time to ask your guests to share their overall impressions, opinions, and learnings from the tasting.

Hosting a bourbon tasting party at home can be a fun and rewarding way to enjoy and learn more about brownwater, while also spending some quality time with good people. Hopefully with this guide in mind, you will be able to plan, prepare, and execute a successful tasting event, that will impress your guests and elevate their palates. Cheers!

Access Taste Data for Nearly 500 Different Bourbons

Unpackage complex flavor intensity data on nearly 500 different bourbons to find a pour you’ll love in our Members Only section, where you can sign up and then pin/add our site to your home screen where it will function much like an app, often referred to as a “web app.” The new web app will incorporate all the existing features available on Bourboneur as well as an expanded offering of tools and resources to help Bourboneur’s everywhere become whiskey wise. Want to keep up with Bourboneur and our upcoming launch, bottles drops and more?  Join our community of thousands by scrolling down and subscribing to our weekly email list – you can also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and yes, even TikTok.  Show us some love and give us a like on your favorite platform, or all of them and keep up with all the Bourboneur happenings!

Bourboneur Glencairn Glass


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