At EWA we’re firm believers that anyone can start a whisky club. Even if you’re new to whisky yourself, founding a whisky club is a great idea because it enables you to try more whiskies than you could reasonably source by yourself, and provides you with a sounding board as you develop your palate. While it certainly helps to be knowledgeable about whisky, this is not the defining trait of a great whisky club president. An excellent president of a whisky club is first and foremost an enthusiastic listener and helpful when it comes to leading a group towards a consensus on the flavour profile of a spirit. We’ve created a list that anyone can use to get their whisky club off the ground. Remember that your club doesn’t need to be high-brow, a whisky club should really be about developing your knowledge of whisky with the help and company of others!
Step 1. Do your research
You can undoubtedly start a whisky club without being an expert. Even so, understanding the basics of how whisky is made, and the fundamental differences between styles of whiskies, is somewhat essential to starting a whisky club. There are many resources you can access for free, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are other resources that offer a comprehensive grounding in the subject, such as our Introduction to Whisky Certificate. This online course offered by us, the EWA, explains the whisky production process in eight interactive modules. The course covers things such as cask production and how the shape of a still affects reflux, and therefore the final flavour profile of a spirit. You could use this course to prepare before your first meeting, or it might be an activity you decide to complete with your other group members.
Step 2. Give your meetings direction with a theme
To help make your tastings engaging, and make sure people are involved during the tasting, it’s a good idea to pick a theme for every tasting. This will help your club members orient themselves when tasting a whisky and give them something to look out for when thinking about how a whisky differs from others tried during the session. The theme you pick can be as vague or as distinct as you choose but having one to stick to will help you speak to a room of people about the whiskies selected. You might opt to use world whiskies as a theme, and include whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, America and Japan. Alternatively, you might have non-age statement whiskies as your theme. A theme of any kind will help your members talk about the flavour profile of a spirit, and lead to a more interesting discussion of the whiskies tasted. At the end of this article we’ve included a list of potential tasting themes for your club.
Along with deciding on a theme, it’s a good idea to do some research into each whisky you settle on for the tasting. You might read the reviews of a whisky to get a sense for the style of whisky it is. While it’s a good idea, as president, to read the tasting notes of critics, you may want to keep this information to yourself and let your club members develop their own opinions about a spirit. This is a great way to help your club members develop their whisky-tasting abilities.
Step 3. Get the word out
It’s up to you how large your club will be. You may want your club to be an informal meeting of friends who share your love of whisky, or to grow an organisation that includes many people in your community and beyond. Whatever your aspirations, you will need to publicise the group in some way. Word of mouth is a great start and ensures that every new member will know at least someone in the club before joining. A social networking site like Facebook or Meetup.com are other great options if you want to reach out to people in your area. The benefit of using social media is that you have an online space to start discussions, review whiskies, auction off bottles and make announcements. Finally, never underestimate the humble flyer. Whisky lovers are probably to be found in places where other robust drinks are served (i.e. coffee shops).
You might also wish to alert brand ambassadors to your newly-founded club. Many distilleries have dedicated brand ambassadors for every region of the globe. Brand ambassadors from many distilleries will come to your club to give a tasting. Investigate a whisky club index to register your club. Alternatively, if you’re interested in having a tasting with a brand ambassador from a particular distillery, do some research, and get in touch with them! There is no replacement for hearing from someone aligned with your favourite distillery talk about how their whisky is made.
Step 4. Make sure you have all the right tools
The fun part is, of course, buying the whisky! You might also want to purchase specific glasses. Having several boxes of Glencairn glasses will ensure you’re prepared for any number of new members. Sherry glasses are also a good choice when organising a tasting.
There are many other tools you can buy to make the tasting experience more enjoyable. Spittoons are obviously necessary if you will be trying a large number of whiskies, and you may want to have them even if you are only tasting a small number of whiskies, especially if your members are driving to the club venue. Pipettes for adding just the right amount of water to samples are enormously helpful. You should always have carafes of water and water glasses available to members. Lastly, if you are pouring many samples prior to the start of the meeting, you will want to cover the tasting glasses in some way to maintain the sample’s concentrated aroma off before they have been drunk! You can cover them with paper coasters, or you can go for some glass lids for Glencairn glasses.
Step 5. Prepare your venue, decide the tone you’d like your club to take
Whether you’re hosting your club meeting in your home, a reserved space, or your neighbourhood bar or pub, the venue you select for meetings will impact the tone of your club enormously. Consider the noise levels in a public space before scheduling to have your club meeting there, you will want to have an active discussion, and a bar that’s too noisy won’t be conducive to a good meeting.
Ensure that your members are comfortable and set up for a tasting. A living room is probably not the best place to hold a tasting because every member will need to have several glasses before them. Ideally, the space you choose will be large enough to house slightly more people than you anticipate; comfortable and have adequate table space.
Step 6. Finance your club
Perhaps the easiest way to finance a whisky club is to charge a small fee to all members per tasting session. When the fee needs to be paid is up to you, but it is probably easiest to charge it at the door, using those fees to finance the next meeting. This does mean that, as president, you’ll probably have to pay for some whisky upfront or have a small contingency budget – but you are the one who gets to decide which whiskies will be tried!
Keep the pours between 10 and 20 ml, and you will always have a half-bottle of whisky left, as long as your club doesn’t go over 20 members. You can auction off the opened bottles to members, either at the end of meetings or on your group’s webpage, if you decide to have one.
Alternatively, you could work out a membership scheme so that you have some funds available upfront to finance the start of your whisky club.
Whatever you decide to do, err on the side of flexibility, so that it remains easy for people to join the club and come to tasting sessions when they choose. This is the best way, we’ve found, to ensure that you always have a well-attended tasting.
Step 7. Be inclusive and an open leader of the tasting session
It’s very important to cater to the different knowledge levels of your members. This is another meaningful way to grow the membership of your club. Consider undertaking whisky education together; like visiting distilleries if there happen to be any in your local area; reading whisky-themed books as a sort of book club wing of your whisky club; or taking a course together.
The most interesting and exciting tasting sessions occur when the leader of the tasting doesn’t influence the perception of the other tasters. Let your club members discuss the flavour profile of the spirit without assistance. You may think that you’re not leading them towards the tasting notes of a critic, but having read them yourself, you may unconsciously sway the group.
And finally, enjoy yourself, and let yourself learn from the other club members. Founding a whisky group shouldn’t be all work and no fun!
Potential Themes for a Whisky Tasting
1. Speyside single-malts
2. Highland single-malts
3. Islay single-malts
4. Campbeltown single-malts
5. Lowland single-malts
6. Scotch Blends
7. Peated whiskies (not exclusively Islay whiskies)
8. A tour of Scotland: whiskies from each of the five whisky regions of Scotland
9. Sherry casks
10. Ex-bourbon casks
11. Single cask whiskies
12. A vertical tasting: one distillery, different styles
13. A horizontal tasting: different distilleries within a single region
14. Your own variation upon these themes