Tasting parties are a great foodie activity for an evening in with friends. If you stick to tastings of purchased, semi-perishable foods, then you have an activity for a weeknight party as well; you do your shopping the weekend before. The classic tastings are wine, cheese and chocolate, because they offer quite range of variety and almost everyone likes them. They even go together; I've done a number of wine-and-chocolate tastings myself. Even for the "big three" though, you have to decide what kind of tasting you're going to do.
The first kind of tasting is a "range" tasting, where you taste a range of different things within your category in order to train your palate or get the full flavor of what's available from a single source. This is probably the better kind of tasting to do with friends who are not that gourmet or at least new to being foodies. For serious foodies, you can make it challenging by blind tasting and asking people to guess what they're trying. Examples of this:
- Tasting a chardonnay, merlot, syrah and port from the same vintner or wine region.
- Tasting three different bars (milk, dark, varietals) and two truffles from the same chocolatier
- Tasting four different cheeses from Northern Italy (Parmigiano, Fior di Latte, Talleggio, Mascarpone)
- Tasting five different cheeses from a single cheesemaker.
The second kind of tasting you can do involves tasting very similar products from a variety of sources, generally to compare quality. Usually these kinds of tastings lend themselves more to "serious" tasting, with blind tastes and scorecards, and are more fun with a bunch of friends who see themselves as serious foodies. Examples of these would be:
- Tasting champagnes from five different cellars.
- Tasting regular dark chocolate from 4 different chocolatiers
- Tasting single-origin dark chocolate from four different countries.
- Tasting five different cheddar cheeses, either from different places or different cheesemakers in the same region.
You'll notice that I'm recommending four or five different samples in all of the above. I find that that's the right number to strike a balance between having enough to make the tasting interesting, and palate (and wallet) exhaustion. If you're will a really hard-core crowd and have a long evening, you might go as high as seven items; beyond that, only a trained professional is going to notice differences. Also, it's useful to have something complimentary to cleanse palates between tastings: mineral water, crackers, bread, cheese and fruit can all work depending on what's being tasted.
Also, you're making a mistake if you limit yourself to only wine, cheese and chocolate. There are thousands of other possible tastings; pretty much any food which has a variety of preparations or ingredients. Here's some general tips for holding a successful tasting party:
- Set aside 2-3 hours for the tasting. A slower tasting avoids palate fatigue and encourges fun, so don't be afraid to draw things out.
- Pick something which everyone coming over likes. Don't assume, check with them.
- Have a "palate cleanser" to eat or drink between tastings, such as bread, crackers, sparkling water, or cake.
- Some items require tasting on things, such as butter, salt, olive oil and hot sauce. Pick "neutral" items of good quality for those.
- If items need to be tasted hot or cold, plan to bring only one or two out at a time.
- If doing an alcohol tasting, make sure nobody needs to drive home.
If you've done these before, or your friends are sufficiently "gourmet", you can make tasting parties more fun with additions like secret ballot and guessing games. For example, you can have each person write their evaluation of each tasting down on slips of paper, and then read those out once the tasting is done for "impartial tastings". If your friends are sufficiently involved, you can have them bring over the various items to taste, one or two per person, with some coordination beforehand; this works well with secret ballot. You can also hide the details of the items being tasted and have people try to guess what they're tasting, with token prizes for the winners. I was pretty shocked when someone correctly guessed "Pinot Noir from the North California coast" at a wine tasting!
What follows is an idea list of other kinds of tastings you could do:
Tasting a range of things:
- Olives: Picholine, Nicoise, Castelvano, Manzanilla, Kalamata, Oil-cured
- Hams: Virginia, Prosciutto, Sopresatta, Serranno, Jamon du pays
- Smoked Fish: trout, whitefish, salmon, sturgeon
- Pickled vegetables: dill pickles, gerkins, caperberries, asparagus, greenbeans, etc.
- Beer: blonde, IPA, amber, wheat, porter, stout
- Fancy Salt: Fleur de Sel, red, black, Sel Gris.
- Whiskey: Bourbon, Canadian, Irish, Scotch
- Peppers (for the brave): Thai, Serrano, Jalopeno, Pasilla, Anaheim, Habanero
- Vinegars: cider, white wine, red wine, balsamic.
- Coffee: brewed different ways: french press, moka pot, vaccuum pot, toddy and drip.
- Apples (in October): Granny Smith, Rome, Fuji, Pink Lady, Arkansas Black
- Tomatoes (in July): Early Girl, Lemonboy, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Roma
- Herbal Liquors: Chartruse, Frangelico, Benedictine, Dubonet, Campari
Comparing very similar things:
- Balsamic vinegar from four different producers.
- Olive oils from five different presses.
- Smoked salmon from three or four different smokehouses, or smoked with different woods.
- Bacon from four different producers, or with four different preparations.
- Coffees from five different roasteries.
- Six different coffee blends/origins from the same roastery.
- Vodka or Gin from five different distilleries.
- Four different single-malt Scotches.
- Butters from five different dairies.
- Soy sauces from different producers, with sushi.
- IPA beers from four different breweries.
- Hot sauces from five different manufacturers.
- Mineral waters from five different springs.
Hopefully that gives you some ideas for your own home tastings. Blog them, and link back to this post.