September 27, 2023 3:28 pm

Whiskey Etiquette… What?

The suggested “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for large format tastings

from those on the other side of the table.

You did it! After trying a few things your friends poured for you and picking up a handful of bottles from your local shop to begin creating your own collection, you realized you still wanted more. You got bit by the bug and want to try all you can. So you happen to see an ad for a giant whisk(e)y tasting festival coming to your area and spring for the $150 ticket. Thirty plus tables, fifty plus brands, over one hundred different expressions and unlimited samples. You did it. You’re thinking… Now what? How does this work?

The night before putting these thoughts down, I worked a pretty big tasting event pouring some well known names within the single malt scotch world. Combine that with an extremely large and exceptionally thirsty crowd, my table was VERY busy all night long with a line well beyond what I could attempt to count or get a gauge on most of the time. I’ve been in the industry a good while and have poured a lot of people a lot of whisky, so managing a table of ten different expressions from six different brands for a sizable crowd is not anything out of my comfort zone. But, throughout the night I found myself surprised at the etiquette some of the attendees showed, or probably better to say the lack thereof…

So, if you find yourself about to attend a bigger tasting event for the first time and are curious how best to conduct yourself and get the most out of your experience, here are few friendly pieces of advice. As the saying tends to go, “Good manners never go out of style.” And while one of the number one rules about whisk(e)y is that you should enjoy it how you like it, there is still plenty of room, I believe, to abide by the words above, especially in a large format tasting event of any kind – be it whisk(e)y, spirits, wine, beer or otherwise. What do I mean?

Dress appropriately for the venue and ticket price.

Most of the time you can likely leave the extremely formal dress at home, especially if the event takes place a retail store. Sometimes an event may even specify how formal they may request guests to be. But, if you find yourself going to a nicer restaurant, hotel or banquet hall and paying over $100 for your ticket, it’s fairly safe to assume dressing business casual at the very least. These will likely not be the kind of places you’ll want to show up in wearing your over-worn concert t-shirt and camo shorts. On the flip side, the black tie-type affairs to sample whisk(e)y do exist, but you’re very likely going to know that by a multiple hundred dollar admission.

 Don’t try to sample everything, you’ll never make it.

Attempting to drink every possible sample at every table will not end well, I promise you. It’s a marathon (of sorts), not a sprint. Those 1/4 oz pours will add up, and so will those higher ABV’s. You don’t want to be the person who is literally carried out by event staff at the end of the night, or worse, by security because you body surfed through a distillery’s nicely decorated pop-up bar and a row of their banners. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion. There’s unfortunately almost always one in the crowd.

 Save your palate and taste buds – plan your pours accordingly if you can.

As an extension of the last thought above about not trying to taste everything, consider this a two part ‘pro-tip’ for what you do decide to taste.

Part One:

Seek out the pours you’re more likely to not have an easy chance of tasting again, whether it be rare, expensive or both, i.e., why bother tasting something you already know very well and have an open bottle of back at home?

Part Two:

Consider saving the higher ABV’s, and the more intense flavor profiles for the later part of the show. Don’t get me wrong, I love my cask strength sherry bombs and heavily peated malts from Islay.

Starting off with high ABV’s right out of the gate will be a sure fire way to blow out your taste buds leaving you without much of a chance, if at all, to really be able to taste any more subtle expressions after.

This is, of course, unless your plan of attack for the night is just staying with those profiles. Then good luck, and God speed.

Be aware and mindful of your surroundings.

While all of these are not meant to be in any particular order of importance I think this one covers a lot and says more than I can. Basically, a “Golden Rule” of sorts.

Look around, be aware. If you know you’d like to sample more than one or two different expressions available at a table and there is a long line behind you, try to keep to the side and allow others to come up and sample as well. Now is not the time to simply just stand with your friends at the table carrying on a conversation blocking those who have been waiting patiently. And on that note, you may want to consider language, content, and volume of your conversations since you never know who may be listening and in earshot of what you have to say. (Insert suggestive winky face.)

Never be afraid to ask questions or for a recommendation.

The knowledge and details known for every brand and bottle by every single person pouring behind a table can vary event to event, but if you’re curious or unsure about what to try it never hurts to ask. At the very least offer what you like to normally drink and if the person pouring is on their game, like any good bartender is, you’ll hopefully get something right up your ally, and even better, walk away with a new favorite.

It’s not all about age – don’t be the one to ask, “what’s the oldest thing ya got?”

It’s tempting, and the desire to taste something really old is almost always there for everyone, but asking that question is a sure-fire way to turn off the person pouring for you. And likewise,  asking, “What’s the best thing ya got?” probably won’t do you any favors either. Unsure how to best proceed? Refer back to the last paragraph.

Bottles down” means “bottles down” – please don’t ask for more.

Many large events have a strict “bottles down” policy to stop pouring at the end time of the tasting. Sometimes this is imposed by local law and/or the event’s alcohol permit. Other times this is imposed by the the venue hosting the event itself. Whichever the case may be it is not the time to try and make another lap around the room asking tables if they can pour anything else for you. Those people that do pour a guest after they shouldn’t can get in a lot of trouble – enough that they and/or the brand they represent may be banned and not allowed to attend and pour for that event again.

Be safe and know your limit.

Above all else, during the event and at the end of the night, be safe. If you are drinking make sure to not be driving. At bigger tasting events, especially those that have unlimited pours and do not use a system like a tabbed wrist band (tear and give a tab for every sample pour) it can be easy to forget just how much you’ve had. Even those 43%’ers add up!

Likewise if someone is concerned for your safety and suggests that you may have had too much, it will likely be in your best interests to trust them. No one wants to see you ending up with a DUI, or worse, making a news headline in any way.

While many of these are really just basic best-practice guidelines, and some should probably go without saying as common sense, it’s still good to refresh and keep all in mind next time you’re walking into a room full of a couple hundred people with a massive lineup of bottles in front of you. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece earlier, good manners never go out of style. You paid your hard-earned money for that ticket, and so did the person next to you who may be at their first big tasting too. So why not lead by example?

Cheers, and enjoy!

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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