I don’t particularly want to write a serious piece about this annual festival of inanity but I think the repetitive nature of these Jim Murray ‘Whisky Of The Year’ announcements and all the predictable blether they entail is becoming tiresome to satirise. The most glaring issue with the whole debacle is that there is no such thing as ‘the best’ whisky in the world, or even the best whisky of the year. The broad olfactory church of our collective palates ensures a vibrant and healthy disagreement over such matters between beginners and world class experts alike. Variety remains – at least for now – the spice of life and whisky.
Apart from this glaring flaw that too few seem willing, or able, to challenge Murray on, there is further devilment in the nitty gritty of the whole thing. Firstly, it is clearly a publicity stunt. Murray crowns some unlikely dram his whisky of the year, one that is certain to cause contention, debate and – most crucially for him – comment in the press in the hope that it will create a knock on effect on sales of his book. It’s a cynical marketing stunt that debases the whole point of his book and further cheapens the arena of serious whisky writing and analysis. Sadly the UK broadsheets seem only too happy to acquiesce and fill up a few inches with the juicy prospect of ‘Is Scotch On The Rocks?’ or some other turgid prattle.
The crux of the matter lies in his scoring. The 100 point scale is not without its critics but I am a fan of it and use it myself when writing tasting notes. I don’t want to dissect the arguments over its use here but I will qualify why I think it is a useful and worthy device. At its core the 100 point system is a communicative device that is very useful when proffered in tandem with a detailed tasting note. The best and most consistent use of the 100 point scale in whisky has been by Serge Valentin at Whiskyfun. Serge is clear in his notes why he likes or dislikes a whisky. Over the course of reading numerous entries a picture of his whisky preferences swiftly emerges – he is renowned for his enjoyment of distillate driven spirits such as older examples of Clynelish or Bowmore and is not enamored with whiskies that reek of wood technology or excessive wine cask finishing. This added layer of extra-textual knowledge when possessed by the reader arms the notes and scores with greater resonance and depths of information. As does any reference in the tasting note to a score given – either positively or negatively – for reasons that are technical over personal. Over time a level of consistency begins to build to the point that the score in and of itself becomes meaningful and weighted with relevant information. A reader can take note of the score in conjunction with the tasting note and – in light of their own preferences and how they compare with Serge’s – make a pretty good assessment of how much they might enjoy that particular dram.
It is this level of consistency which Murray’s work is utterly lacking. His apparently arbitrary scores for all manner of different styles of whisky that bear little or no correlation leave the reader with no real impression of where his personal preferences lie – apart from his oft touted tantrums about sulphur. The net result being the scores offered contain little or no real information or value. Apart from their usefulness as leverage devices in the generation of publicity and media hot air.
I admit I have not tasted this year’s winning whisky. I have however tasted a number of Canadian, American and European Rye whiskies and I find them somewhat inconsistent but the best of them can be excellent indeed. Even if I do not find some to my taste though, I can take an organoleptic step back and judge them within the framework of their technical merit. Their level of complexity, the relationship between distillate character and oak influence/flavour, their overall balance and so on. My struggle with these kinds of whiskies – and I mean in this respect all younger cheaper whiskies from all countries – is that they just cannot by their nature access the upper register of the 100 point scale. One of the great assets of the 100 point scale is that it allows room for all whiskies of all levels of quality. From utter swill to unequivocal masterpieces, they all have a place within its boundaries. I would argue that the kind of product Murray has just crowned simply cannot achieve a score of 97 without rendering the whole scoring process meaningless. It is not to say a truly great Rye whisky of sufficient craft in production, maturity and bottling care cannot achieve top scores but basic products of any style generally just cannot.
Coincidentally won just before a rather high profile re-branding. Something which only adds further layers of stink to the whole ‘awards’ process.
The same argument can be made with the Old Pulteney 21 year old he crowned whisky of the year back in 2012. At the time I made the effort to secure a sample and found it to be worth 89 points in my book, undeniably a delicious and very worthwhile dram that I have purchased in the past and in all likelihood would do again. But there is a massive chasm between 89-91 points and 97-99. Once you get past 92 on the scale each increasing point takes on a massive weight and resonance – beyond 95 and you are into masterpiece territory and very few whiskies get there. It needs to be an incredibly sparsely populated region of the scale otherwise you render the rest of the scale meaningless – just as you should find very few spirits inhabiting the 0-10 points sector of the scale. Murray has scored so many whiskies of wildly differing character and origin from 94-97 that there is just no merit to his scores any longer – or any real avenue into some deeper understanding of his own olfactory values or preferences. You can of course fall back on the old argument of personal opinion that I alluded to at the beginning of this article and you would be fair to do so but I believe that is an argument you can only pursue so far. The notion that a young, budget level rye whisky might sit alongside the likes of the 1967 Samaroli Laphroaig, or the very finest Willet’s Bourbon or a 1967 Karuizawa does a disservice to serious and well-intentioned communication about whisky.
There is much speculation about what Murray’s motives for this might be beyond the self-evident publicity stunt. Is it a rouse to get back ‘in’ with Diageo, is it a further snub to Scotland – a country where it seems he is increasingly considered irrelevant and rarely welcomed? His absence and separateness from the mainstream whisky world is striking. A lot of people don’t like him, they find his views and attitudes ridiculous, or his rules and regulations for tastings laughable, or they simply find him unpleasant. Personally, I find him curious, I disagree with much of what he says and find his Bibles to be stiflingly arrogant but perhaps, upon reflection, the whisky world is a little more interesting for his presence. I would love to interview him one day but I doubt he’d stoop so low. The basic concept of his book is a good one, it’s just such a shame that it is so inconsistent and meaningless that it does a disservice to whisky writing where it should be a beacon.
One of the more positive arguments for Murray is that he brings new people into whisky, and while fresh interest is important it does not mean we should settle for it being him, or the way he chooses to do things being the voice that calls them forward. Someone commented on facebook on the last Whiskysponge post on this topic ‘Haters gonna hate’. This response seems to me very much part of the problem here, Murray’s cynicism begets cynicism. His book is a source of contention and frustration amongst people that hold whisky closest. I – like so many others who vent spleen about his writings on social media – only do so because we truly love whisky and would like to see it better celebrated and more accurately represented. Likewise Canadian whisky deserves not to be used by Murray as a flag with which to fan the flames of his own publicity. It deserves a more honest and passionate route to wider appreciation and discovery – not as an incidental bit player in some wider beige, commercial machinations.
Canadian Whisky no doubt deserves better.
Anyway, the whole thing will now begin to simmer down and we can all no doubt look forward to revisiting and re-hashing this tired old debate in a year’s time. In the meantime we can all take solace in the whiskies we love with the people we love to share them with. The very liquid that sloshes through the veins of this somewhat pathetic story is precisely the liquid that will wash away the miles of digital ink it annually accumulates.
As for Whiskysponge: normal pisstaking will be resumed imminently.
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