How to guide: March Madness for whiskey lovers
By guest author, Jon Christensen
There really is nothing better than sitting around with friends, having good conversation and a laugh, all while sipping whiskey. How do you make that even better? You throw in a little experimentation, a dash of learning, and of course, a healthy dose of friendly competition. This is accomplished by forming a whiskey group/club/society based on a love of whiskey, a desire to explore new flavor profiles, and a yearning to find a whiskey that is perfect for you.
Find your GOAT
As mentioned in my previous article on whiskey glasses, whiskey is all about personal preference. One of the best ways to find what you like is to take multiple whiskies out for a taste test. You really never know what you might find. You may even find your own GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).
A few years back I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest to a whiskey tasting. Several long-time friends hosted regular blind whiskey tastings at one of their homes and I was invited as “guest pourer”. What is a guest pourer you might ask? Well, it is an incredibly important and rewarding role in a blind whiskey tasting. A blind tasting is one in which you sample and score the whiskies without knowing anything about them other than their appearance, aroma, and flavor profile. The guest pourer is responsible for pouring the set of tastings for the group and for recording the comments and scores. The bonus is that the guest pourer is also able to sample the whiskey. Pretty cool right?
After attending several sessions, the group agreed to expand and accept a few additional members…yay! I am privileged to be associated with this diverse group of whiskey lovers and enjoy every time we are able to get together. In fact, a larger organization called the B&F Whisk[e]y Society was born out of this concept, the isolation of Covid, and a desire to support local businesses through difficult times. Today, the members of the original group and the rules and bylaws were changed and solidified. Individuals have been added, considerations for travel have had to be taken into account, the need for virtual tasting due to Covid, and lessons have been learned. If this sounds interesting it might help to know how our group functions.
How does it work? The group currently consists of eight members. Each month one of the members is responsible for hosting the tasting at their home. The reward for hosting is that the host gets to keep the whiskeys. Each tasting is comprised of four bottles. One bottle is $50 or less in cost, another $50-70, another $70-90, and finally $90 and above. This last, which is the responsibility of the host to provide, is referred to as the “Million Dollar Bottle”. Though looking back, I think the most expensive whiskey anyone has put up for competition was around $200. Since there are eight of us now, we actually have two subgroups of four. The host’s group is responsible for bringing the whiskey for that event and the price point rotates per person through the group. Each person is responsible for bringing four total bottles for the season, one from each price point. The other group is responsible for bringing snacks, food, and a palate cleanser. You have to clean your palate between whiskies and beer seems to work well for this. The subgroups alternate months and we have designated the first Friday of each month as our tasting night. This is important as without pre-arranging a specific date, events tend to slide, and it gives everyone the opportunity to hopefully plan ahead.
All tastings are performed blind so as not to bias the voting. This requires a guest pourer to pour all the tastings out of view of the group. When the group first started, the pourer would pour one whiskey at a time and bring out the glasses. Once that whiskey was tasted they would bring out the next and so on. A major advancement was the use of a paddle with a set of four tasting glasses. This proved a useful tool for these tastings as it enabled pouring all four whiskies at once. This resulted in better comparison of the whiskeys as the tasting progressed in addition to fewer repours. Samples are simply referred to as A, B, C, and D for voting purposes. Due to Covid, and occasional business travel, not everyone can physically attend every tasting. For these instances, the group has purchased 1oz bottles which are filled and labeled by the guest pourer for anyone who cannot attend or who is attending virtually. Everyone samples each whiskey and confidentially provides scores to the guest pourer who updates the official book. Scores are tallied by the pourer and the whiskies are presented to the group in reverse order.
Usually there are a few surprised faces around the table as old favorites appear in unexpected order. Honestly, it is amazing how many times a lower priced whiskey has beaten the competition. It is also amazing how many times you can rank the whiskey you put up for the competition toward the bottom. Results are sent out to the group as a whole once everyone has completed the tasting and provided their ranking. Sometimes the winner will change based on the absentee ballot count. Re-tasting/pouring of samples for those attending in person are allowed. In fact, we have had several rounds where two or even three whiskeys were so close in profile that it took a few extra sips to narrow down the scoring. This is difficult in the virtual format, and on at least one occasion, we believe additional tastes would have resulted in different voting.
Whiskey tasting bracket
There is a winner for each tasting with a total of eight winners for the season. For the following two tastings, the eight winners are divided into two sets of four based on the subgroups. The two top scoring whiskeys from these tastings go on to the final tasting for the year. The winning whiskey from that tasting is then crowned the season winner. Each win brings bragging rights for the individual who put that whiskey up for competition.
Some additional admin – whiskeys cannot be repeated within a season. However, different finishes/versions of the same whiskey can be entered. Every member puts up $100 at the start of the season. We found that if a winning whiskey was good, everyone wanted another sample and by the time you get to the next round there may not be much left in the bottle. Therefore, the fund allows the group to purchase new bottles of each of the winners. With eight people it is expected that funds should be sufficient to purchase all required bottles unless the most expensive bottle wins each round. Leftover funds go towards the bill of a season wrap party. If the low bottle wins each time it could be quite the party. One important note, if you put up a rare whiskey you should acquire two bottles just in case you win. If you cannot procure a second bottle for the next round, your whiskey forfeits and the next highest scoring whisky is entered in its place.
Sounds simple right? Well, maybe not as simple as you might have originally thought before reading this article, but it is worth the effort. It gives you and your friends an opportunity to explore your tastes and sample more whiskies than you would normally have the opportunity to try (32 in one season). You may not get to sample all 101 Whiskies To Try Before You Die from the book by Ian Buxton, but you will be off to a good start. You will also learn a lot about whiskey. You will learn terms such as: mash bills, sourced vs produced, finishes, barrel proof, and dozens of others. This explosion of knowledge occurs without effort as you stand in front of the store display reading labels trying to decide which whiskey to purchase for the next round. Try asking a knowledgeable associate at your local liquor store for their thoughts — you might just be surprised. While struggling over the decision I have received advice on two separate occasions that led to wins. The secret is to not let your preconceptions influence your decision. Don’t be afraid of the new, or different, or that bottle of Legent that is a collaboration between Master distiller Fred Noe at Jim Beam and Master Blender Shinji Fukuyo at Suntory. It just might surprise you as well as everyone else. Just remember to have fun, enjoy the company, and keep your mind and palate open to new experiences.
RackHouse Whiskey Club is also a point to start trying new craft whiskeys. You never know, one from the box that get's delivered to your door may be a winner!
Cheers! Slainte! Prost! Ganbei!
Special thanks to a great group of people: Phil, Basant, Drew, Matt, Rob, Kris, and Rob