Have you ever seen a post on whiskygram, or whiskytube and thought to yourself “Self, I would really like to try that whisky I just saw, but either I can't find it or maybe I can't afford it"?
Well, what if I told you that there was a fairly simple way that you COULD try it, and most of the time it wouldn’t cost you a cent. Welcome to the whisky community's worst kept secret…but also one of the whisky communities absolute best aspects.
Welcome to the wonderful world of whisky samples.
Over the next couple of minutes I will try to give you the information and the what, where, when, why and how to go about enjoying this amazing aspect of the culture we all are trying to keep awesome. We will cover why this is such an important feature to keep alive in the whisky world. The how, how to get your own sample bottles to fill and share with friends and other whisky geeks. We will even tackle the sometimes awkward way to get involved in sharing samples. We will also touch on the downfalls of sample sharing and some things that come along with it that people should know before truly jumping in head first.
There is a phenomenon in the world known as “FOMO” or “Fear Of Missing Out” and it is ever present in the whisky community and I don't ever see that changing. As much as I tell my friends, and tell myself for that matter, that there will always be another “can’t miss release” or “bottle everyone needs to have on their shelf” the truth is everyone is guilty of it at some point of seeing a bottle or a release that for a plethora of reasons, one just can’t get at that moment, and so begins the cycle of FOMO all over again. Most of the time, it isn’t even the fact of not having the actual bottle on your own shelf, it’s that you feel you may not even get to try that “one of a kind” but most likely “similar to others before and after” whisky inside the bottle. FOMO, meet the almighty sample bottle…
Sample bottles as we know them in the whisky world are usually small glass bottles with plastic lids that hold one or two ounces of fluid. These look, and almost always are, food grade, laboratory issue bottles used to collect and house/store lab samples in various contexts. In fact most people in the community will acquire their sample bottles directly from shipping companies or Lab supply companies (more on this later). They can come with slightly different lids, but there is one particular lid style I swear by when I purchase my sample bottles (poly-cone style). The main reason for going through these suppliers is that the bottles already come pre-sanitized and almost ready to fill from the get-go. Continued Below Photo
What else does one need besides the bottles and lids themselves? One important part of any sample bottle being exchanged is the label on the bottle. There’s nothing worse than looking through a small pile of sample bottles and finding one or more without any identifying features on it. Now there are many different ways to label these little magic potions that I have seen over the years. Some creative, and some not so creative. My preferred method is with “Avery” brand labels that you can find at any staples or office supply store. Heck, even some Dollar Stores sell labels that will do the job. I recently bought a decent home printer(finally) and with the Avery labels, there are website templates that you can use and save to your computer and the printer will actually use these templates to print clearly on the labels themselves. This is a huge plus for someone like me that was destined to become a doctor with the penmanship leading the way. Well, I definitely didn’t become a doctor of any ilk, but I did learn that a computer printed sample bottle label is the way to go for all involved. I even have a template stored with the DarkCloud logo on it, where all I need to do is type in the actual info for what is going inside the bottle. Now, if you want a simple solution, these labels are just as easily printed on with a pen, and if you can print neatly enough it's a perfectly apt way of handling the labelling. One other clever way I have seen a lot is using green painters tape and just using a small square and assigning a number to each bottle. I have had samples sent this way and then the sender of said samples will DM me a photo of the bottles so you know which whisky belongs to which number. Another way of using a numbering system is to write/type out a master sheet of paper that you can then fold up with the sample bottles that acts a s ledger for the whiskies inside. Another awesome way to use sample bottles is to send blind samples to friends as a sort of game on trying to guess country, region, style etc.
Okay, now that we have covered the labeling part, let's talk about what exactly these are, how to get them, where to get them and what else you may need. The most common name for these types of sample bottles is “Boston Round” and any supplier will know what these are. They come in the usual cylindrical shape and in quite a few different colours, but most commonly amber or brown, and clear glass. They can and do come in a square (rectangle) shape as well but most of the time it's the usual cylindrical shape most people use. Amazon has them sometimes, and that is where I bought my first ever large order from. This tends to run you a little higher cost than say a packaging or supply store will. Uline is a fairly common shipping supplier that a lot of people use to buy their sample bottles from and you can buy a single case at a time (usually 40ish bottles) and up to bulk size orders of hundreds or even thousands. I mentioned the poly-cone lids a little earlier. Here is what I mean. They are lids that screw on to the bottles but under the lids they have plastic cone shaped sealers that use the pressure of the lids screwing on to seal the liquid and prevent leakage. Another common style of lid, looks the same as the poly-cone, but has just a piece of lined paper glued into the lid that will also seal. I try to avoid these as the glue will leach into the liquid due to the high alcohol content of whiskies. I have had too many good whisky samples ruined due to glue leaching into the sample, and I would hate a sample I gave to someone ending up tasting horrible because the lid I used had the glued in type of seal and now the glue is mixing with the whisky inside the bottle. Recently I was made aware that sometimes you can order these sample bottles with eye dropper type lids, but this type also will potentially ruin the sample as the rubber dropper top will be eaten away by the liquid inside and a friend had a few of his and his dads samples completely wrecked and sludgy with somewhat decaying rubber.
Some of my whisky friends have become real pros at free pouring from whisky bottles directly into the sample bottles. I however have not perfected this art, and therefore I have purchased a small (one ounce size) metal funnel that will sit on a sample bottle and allow a much easier and cleaner pouring of said sample. Spillage is a waste and I will avoid wasted whisky any chance I can. I also will pair the funnel with one of those kids liquid medicine measuring cup things when pouring a lot of samples at once, say for a tasting or a large group. I have one that is clearly marked out for half ounce, ¾ ounce and 1 ounce. This saves a huge amount of time for me, and being a dad of two girls who go to public school and dance competitively, one or both is always sick it seems. So we have a large collection of these little measuring cup things.
On to the fun part. How do you get into the exchanging of samples game? Well I highly suggest you first arm yourself with a small army of ready-to-fill bottles yourself. That way, you are good and ready as most people willing to sample their bottles don't want anything in return but a sample swap is fair and is how I usually like to go about it. Once that is handled, the best course of action is to plain and simply ask. If you see someone posting a whisky that is of high interest to you, shoot that person a private message and inquire about possibly trading samples. The worst that could happen is they say no, and you really aren't any worse off, in fact at least you tried. But for the most part this community is astoundingly amazing and generous and most are willing to swap samples with someone. I have met a lot of great people, who over time have become decently good friends all because one of us reached out to swap samples. It's always better to offer a trade than to ask for a sample in my mind.
Before I wrap this up, I will share some cautionary suggestions with you all. Over time you will most likely acquire a few (dozen, hundreds even) used sample bottles that people have sent to you. There is absolutely no reason why you can't re-use these sample bottles again but I do ask that you run them through a dishwasher cycle, or hand wash them in a sink as if they were a drinking glass. If you use any kind of soap on them just give them a quick check to ensure all soap residue is completely washed off/out before re-filling them to continue their journey to the next person. If you are sending these through any kind of shipping method (Canada Post, UPS, Uber, Skip the dishes etc.) a lot of people will use parafilm to secure a seal around the lid in the off chance the lid does actually leak. Using this seal also acts as a tamper proofing for your samples that you send out. The other thing to keep in mind is that there is some clouded grey area about actually sending whisky samples through the mail. For this reason, a lot of people will add stuff to their packages to “mask” the sound of liquid sloshing that may be heard from the package. I have seen popcorn seeds, candy, nuts, dry pasta, etc. Again, using quality glass and lids will help ensure whoever you are sharing with, receives the same exact product that you sent to them.
If you have never sent or received samples from fellow whisky enthusiasts, now is the time. It's become an integral part of the ever growing whisky community in Canada and around the world. The sharing of whiskies is just one of the amazing ways to connect with the community as a whole and I look forward to exchanging some with YOU.