LEADING A TASTING Always start by gathering the group’s attention. This can range from asking, “Are you ready to taste?” to a complex reinforcement of your brand message. Speak clearly and slowly — speaking just slow enough that it feels awkward to you is the right speed. Explain that you will be guiding the tasting and that participants should wait to sip until instructed. If possible, have water available and suggest participants partake of it as needed. Proceed through the samples in turn. Name each product at least twice. Lift the bottle (and your sample, if you are participating). Unless you’re dealing with sophisticated tasters like spirits judges, suggest nosing in through the mouth and out through the nose, at least to start. This minimizes the risk of alcohol burn to the olfactory senses. If your samples are large enough — at least 0.5 ounce — execute the triple sip technique:
»»Tell participants to space out the sample across three sips, and with each sip roll the spirit over the whole tongue before swallowing.
»»First sip: It will burn, and that’s OK — don’t talk about flavor.
»»Second sip: The spirit will be gentler and some flavors will start to come through.
»»List a few and ask if anyone notices other notes. »»Third sip + finish: Here the spirit should be at its most flavorful. Some folks will never get past the burn, and that’s OK. (They’re not likely to be customers or brand enthusiasts.) Even if you think your spirit is exceptionally smooth, try the triple sip method. Most consumers aren’t used to sampling highproof spirits the way you are. Proceed through each spirit in turn and conclude strongly. You should get a round of applause at a
formal tasting, and thank-yous and some follow-up comments and questions at informal tastings.
HOW NOT TO LEAD A TASTING The worst thing you can do is hand someone a sample and say, “What do you think?” You’re ceding control to the audience! Out of the politeness, you’ll likely get a vague positive response (“It’s good”) so you might feel successful when it’s quite the opposite. Remember, the tasting is an opportunity to impress on the taster what you want them to think and remember about your product. If you don’t have anything better to say, just say, “Here you go! This is —” and name your product. Don’t say, “How old do you think this is?” and then surprise reveal that it’s younger than they say. That tactic can be off-putting by making the taster look foolish. Never correct, contradict or challenge your audience. Everybody’s palate is different. If they can’t taste anything, that’s OK, too — it takes time and practice to develop the ability to taste nuanced flavors in high-proof spirits.
CONFIRMING VALUE Let’s look at the basic evaluations of success. How many people did you talk to? How many sampled your product? How many signed up for your e-newsletter or followed you on social media? How many bottles or how much merchandise did you sell? On the account side, count contacts made that could convert into activations, cocktail menu placements, in-account tastings, spirit dinners, earned media, etc. with proper follow-up. Tastings are a cornerstone of a distillery’s marketing, but to be fully utilized foundation work is needed: Clarifying brand identity and messaging; designing experiences considering venue, audience and time; training staff; preparing tasting components; guiding the audience through the experience; and finally capturing the return. It’s time to stop handing out shots and to start generating business value.
Tim Knittel is a bourbon educator, writer and event specialist in Lexington, Kentucky. He formerly managed the culinary and VIP hospitality programs for the Woodford Reserve Distillery. He now runs Distilled Living which provides private bourbon education, brand representation and distillery consulting services. He holds the title Executive Bourbon Steward through the Distilled Spirits Epicenter.
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