No matter what time of year, gatherings of family and friends in the winter or during the summer present the bourbon enthusiast with a great opportunity to show off ones knowledge, wares, and fine whiskey. If done properly, a private bourbon tasting at home will thrill your guests and have them talking for months to come.
Here’s how to do it right!
Get the Right Tools
Unless you are planning on serving your bourbon in Styrofoam cups to a bunch of frat boys (no offense, I know some fairly classy frat boys), you want to make sure you have the right tools to accommodate your guests.
For an at home tasting, you wont need the tools that we as bartenders use, but if you are planning to craft cocktails, you will need a few tools. These include a metal shaker with a tight-fitting top covering a strainer which fits onto a bar tin, a julep strainer – a perforated over-sized soup spoon with holes, and a jigger. Jiggers are important here, since they ensure precise measurement of bourbon pours. This will save you money, prevent you from running out of bourbon too quickly, and will keep your pours clean.
These tools are all available at most liquor or major department stores. Rather than buying these items in pieces, you can save time and money by picking up an entire Oggi Pro Stainless-Steel 10-Piece Cocktail Shaker and Bar Tool Set. They look great, last a lifetime, and are easy to clean and maintain.
We have talked about the importance of glassware to the bourbon tasting experience in previous articles. When served neat, proper glassware captures and releases the aroma of your bourbon better than wide-mouthed glasses. Of course any glass will do, but the only one I can put my vote behind is the Glencairn. You can pick up a set of 6 traditional Glencarin Crystal Whiskey Glasses here, or a set of 4 Glencairn Wide-Bowl Whisky Glasses here.
Whiskey Stones or Bourbon Ice Balls
Whiskey Stones are odorless, tasteless, solid cubes that are usually made of soapstone that will chill your liquor without diluting it or interrupting its taste.
For higher proof whiskeys, you may actually want some dilution with slow melting bourbon ice balls. Theres no secret to making bourbon ice balls – all one needs is a mold. These can be had cheaply by hunting around on Amazon.
Find Great Food Pairings
Depending on how extensive your tasting will be, you may want to pair your bourbons with some nice appetizers, a main course, and maybe even some desert.
Hors d’oeuvres is the French word for appetizer, and are meant to sustain your guest while they meet and greet one another before the tasting begins. Hors d’oeuvres can also serve to stimulate the appetite, just as apéritifs do when served before meals.
If you are planning on hosting a short tasting, hors d’oeuvres should be enough to please your guests. But not just any appetizers will do; there are some that pair better with bourbon than others, and finding the right match can be tricky. You want appetizers that both compliment the flavors already present in the bourbon without diminishing their own flavor profiles. For starters, experiment with sushi, cheeses (particularly sharp cheddar), unsalted cracker, and dried fruits.
Hors d’oeuvres can also cleanse the palate between tastings, and add brand new dimensions to the bourbon tasting. Try sipping your favorite bourbon, then chewing a piece of dried cranberry or walnut and sipping again. Notice the difference in the structure of the bourbon, and how new flavors are expressed that may have initially been subtle or overpowering. Have your guests try this as well, and talk about your differences in perception.
There is no limit t0 the variety of main courses that can be offered during a bourbon tasting. Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and Buffalo Trace all suggest signature dishes that pair well with their particular brands. Start with their websites, or do a search for some recipe ideas. I have paired bourbons with everything from smoked salmon and fried chicken to rib eye steaks and shrimp and grits. For starters, I found this amazing Makers Mark Bourbon BBQ Ribs recipe via BourbonBlog.Com. It goes a little something like this:
Prep Time: 24 hours/day beforehand. Cook Time: 5 hours. Level: Easy.
2 cups Makers Mark
1 bunch cilantro – cleaned and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
¼ cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 rack of peeled pork spare ribs
3 tablespoons butter
½ white onion, peeled and diced ½”
1 cup pineapple juice
1 cup tomato juice
1 cup ketchup
1 cup water
Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Fresh red radish, for garnish
- In a large bowl, mix the Maker’s Mark®, cilantro, garlic, ginger, garlic, cumin, cayenne, curry, mustard seeds, Dijon and brown sugar and salt until well combined. Pour into a shallow baking dish. Submerge the full rack of ribs in the marinade and refrigerate over night.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. After 24 hours, remove the ribs, brushing off any excess marinade and spices (reserve the marinade for the barbecue sauce), and place on baking sheet and roast in the oven for 45 minutes. Remove the rack from the oven, wrap the ribs tightly in foil and cool in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.
- Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the marinade liquid and all of its components, the pineapple and tomato juice, ketchup, and water. Cook this mixture for 45 minutes on a medium simmer, stirring occasionally.
- When the ribs have cooled down, slice them in between each bone to separate them from the rack and place in a large mixing bowl. Strain the barbecue sauce through a fine mesh sieve and pour over the ribs, tossing to thoroughly coat them.
- Place the individual ribs in a single layer in an ample-sized baking dish, pouring the excess barbecue sauce over the ribs, and return to the oven. Lower the heat on the oven to 350°F and bake for an additional hour, turning the ribs occasionally to insure sauce coverage.
- The ribs will be tender and the sauce should glaze the ribs during the baking process. Serve hot with picked cilantro leaves, thinly sliced radishes, and Maker’s Mark “chilled neat”
Chocolate, toffee, vanilla, and molasses all go particularly well with bourbons. And hey, who doesn’t like desert? “Try Four Roses Limited Edition 2011 with a warm chocolate cake,” says Kentucky-based chef Jonathan Lundy. “Its strong cocoa scent is perfect.”
If you decide to do chocolates as stand alones rather than in recipes, dont pair cheap, store bought chocolates with a fine bottle of bourbon. Like whiskeys, there are some nice, moderately priced, high class desert chocolates on the market. Try Nestle’s English Imported Black Magic Chocolates ($18.95), Cellas Dark Chocolate Covered Cherries ($23.72) , or if you are really aiming to please, shell out for some hand crafted Vosges Haut-Chocolat ($90.62). You could also combine both bourbon and chocolate with some Woodford Reserve Bourbon Balls .
Talk Your Guests Through The Tasting
Before your tasting, take some time to learn about the bourbons you are serving. While its important to know and understand the basics of bourbon, what makes the tasting fun are the little known facts that one discovers when learning about their favorite bottles. Also, understand that no two palates are the same. As you taste your bourbon, talk about the different flavors others perceive as they imbibe, and see if you can identify the same ones.
If you know a bartender who is particularly knowledgeable (and well mannered) , you may want to invite them to the tasting to assist you in a professional capacity. Many bartenders who are dedicated to their craft are more than willing to lend a hand – myself included.
Have you ever done a tasting at home? If not, are you planning on doing so in the future? Leave us a comment below and let us know what you think, advice on food pairings, and experiences you have had at tastings in the past!