When conducting private tastings with friends, associates and other scotch lovers it is important to know only one thing. Scotch is fun! The versatility of this particular drink varies from distillery, region, product, barely/cask type/strength, process, ect. and even expands further through use of what sort of glass you are using to taste with to adding 1 or 2 ice cubes or a little water (there are others who suggest club soda to bring out different aromas and tastes, but I am not one of those voices personally).
When conducting a scotch tasting however a few things will help you along your deciphering journey. The most important thing to have is water, both for adding a little to your scotch and for cleansing your palate. I also suggest small palate cleansing foods like salty meats, mild or smokey cheeses, dry breadscrackers and acidic fruits. These also make fantastic pairings when tasting your scotches but in all honesty, less is more in the situation of tasting your scotches.
Though there are laws in Scotland prohibiting scotches to reach alcohol levels higher than 94.8 % alcohol by volume, the same laws prohibit them from being less than 40 % abv. Cask strength is a term used in whisky-making to describe the strength of whisky in the cask during maturation. So some scotches can get pretty high up there (I have one cask strength with an abv of 61.5%). With that being said, may I recommend a small tasting between 4 and 8 scotches. An even number is also highly recommended so you can do a side by side pairing of contrasting or similar region/style of scotch. It's best to also provide each taster with a piece of paper and pencil to allow note taking if an attendee so desires. Try a 5-Star rating system with your scotches so that when you look back on your notes you can have a quick glance at which ones you like best so you know what to get when you go out to eat or to purchase.
The next step is to decided what sort of tasting you are going to conduct. There are several varieties of scotches so picking a brand and doing a portfolio tasting is one way to go about it. Major house distilleries such as Glenlivet, Glinfiddich, Glenmorangie and Balvenie all have many different types of aged malts, with a wide variety of casks used to make their whisky and different strengths. The major thing you will miss from doing this however, is identifying the many different styles that each region can bring about so for first time scotch tasters I recommend getting a defining scotch from each region. There was a marketing launch created in 1988 by United Distillers and Vintners which is now owned by Diageo appropriatly named "The Classic Malts of Scotland". These are single malt scotches from each major region of Scotland and I highly recommend starting with these well known brands. To learn more about the classic malts of Scotland, visit their website at http://www.malts.com/en-us/home/home.htm. The website is full of information about each scotch complete with moving photographs of each distillery, region and bottle, tasting notes product listings and recommendations for other scotches if you like one more than another. It also lists a recommended dinner and food tasting (even a printable tasting wheel). A "Favorites" worthy site.
With that being said, I recently enjoyed a small three person scotch tasting this week. Each member of the tasting provided between two or three Scotch Society of America whisky bottles. Please read my previous blog about scotches to find out further information about these very rare and unbelievable drams. The predominant character between all of these scotches outside of having some of the most memorable fiery finishes is the depth and complexity of each bottle. At least three of the bottles had a powerful nose with a stand out characteristic. One smelled of such powerful fruit it was deemed one of your fruits for the day and another without any argument was unanimously described as having a strong nose of toffee (and was probably my favorite of the group). Then there was also this 10 yr Islay malt that had a strong presence of pipe tobacco and struck matches that would knock your socks off.
The best part of the scotch tastings is the conversions and the company. Trying to find the right descriptions and hearing the different opinions of each scotch taster will not only help you figure out your own preferance in the drams but it lets you enjoy the experience of tasting each scotch on a more personal level.