My Take On This Whole Ratings Hoo-Hah

Right, a quick disclaimer first: I’m stuck at home with a rotten cold (that won’t go away, curse it) and a slightly light head after our triumph at last night’s International Spirits Challenge awards bash – where we picked up Best Spirits Retailer (Huzzah!).  The trophy is very cool – it’s a massive Glencairn.

Check it out - ISC champs!!

Check it out - ISC champs!!

Anyway, I’ve watched Sky Sports News until the same stories came round for the third time, changed channel, paid scant attention to an episode of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes that probably deserved better, lost track of a film while checking my email etc etc.  In other words, I hate being ill.  So apologies if this post doesn’t contain many photos (it’s fiddly on WordPress and I can’t be bothered); and if I come across as a bit grumpy and this post turns into a long rant.

Forgive me.  Consider that this was a man who was so bored at one stage this morning that he nearly watched Bargain Hunt, and feel a moment of sympathy.

To business, then, if anyone’s still reading.  Over on What Does John Know this week, a debate kicked off after the announcement of the malt gongs in Angus W. Apfelstrudel’s Whisky Torah The Gospel According to St. Jim.  As is customary at this time of year, Ardbeg received World Whisky of the Year from the whisky world’s Jeremy Clarkson [Edit: Actually, this year it was 'only' Scotch Whisky of the Year, but you get my drift]. As is equally customary, this has prompted furious knee-jerking and splutterings of outrage from the self-righteous know-it-alls that clutter up the comments pages, accusing His Holiness of being a corporate shill because he has given his top award to a company that he has done consultancy and promotional work for.

At the same time, those of us with more than the cursory number of braincells required for a functioning pulse are engaging yet again in the wider debate on the merits, or otherwise, of rating whiskies.  This is a circular argument that breaks out sporadically every few months.

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That ratings argument, yesterday

There does seem to be a lot of bile directed at Jim Murray.  Leaving aside anyone’s personal feelings about the man, let’s consider the following salient points:

  • Er, it’s Jim’s book.  He can write whatever he likes and he can give his gongs to whichever whisky he likes.
  • Is it really surprising that a professional whisky writer has done consultancy for a big whisky company?  The man has to make a living.  Believe it or not, there’s not a great deal of money in printed media unless you’re Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling.
  • Should Jim perhaps exclude all whiskies that he has any prior connection with from the Bible?  It might be quite a thin book if he did.
  • No-one is putting a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them to read Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.  Moreover, those people who do read it are not morally obliged only to drink those whiskies awarded 90 points or more and can make up their own minds.
  • A lot of the people who do buy and read the Bible do so more for the OTT comments, subtle and not-so-subtle digs and lascivious boasting about his pretty young ladyfriend than the actual ratings.
  • Many of these readers also have brains of their own, know how their palates compare to Jim’s and adjust the scores accordingly.
  • Despite the title, the Whisky Bible is, at the end of the day, a guide.  It’s not actually Gospel.
  • If you don’t like it, you are free not to buy it and equally free not to pay any attention to it at all.

I hold no brief for Jim Murray, and I don’t sit down and read the new edition from cover to cover.  But it’s still on my desk.  It’s a useful reference work.  A lot of people I know can’t be bothered with him and accuse him of being thin-skinned, pompous and egotistical.  He’s also been accused of acting like he invented Ardbeg, pure potstill and rye whiskey.  I’m sorry, but so what?   The amount of graft he must have to put in for the Bible is mind-boggling and a lot of people find it very useful.  Ergo, the Whisky Bible is a good thing.  If you don’t like it, it’s your God-given right (see what I did there?) to simply ignore it.  Move on, life’s too short to get pissed off at something that does you no harm, and too long to hold a grudge.

Next, the broader ratings debate.

*Sigh*

Why do people get so wound up about this?

The Whisky Bible ratings debate (Blogger kneeling)

The Whisky Bible ratings debate (Blogger kneeling)

Now, I’m not one for rating whiskies myself, for myriad reasons which I can’t be bothered to go into here.  Personally, I prefer to simply describe my own experience of a whisky and hope that anyone reading will have a fair idea of how I feel about it by the end.  I also hope that they understand that what I’ve written is just my experience on that particular day and that they won’t hate me forever if they rush out and buy it and then don’t like it.

Yet despite all of the above, I don’t go onto other people’s websites and think “Oh Hell, he’s only gone and given it a bloody rating!  Now my day’s ruined!”.  I just don’t understand how this can be an emotive issue.  Nonetheless, from some of what has been posted on WDJK and elsewhere, it would appear that some people do take it very seriously.

Personally, I have the greatest respect for my fellow bloggers who rate whiskies.  It demonstrates the kind of analytical thinking, dedication and scientific approach that I myself lack due to my feckless Arts-student nature.  I enjoy reading ratings reviews and will confess to the occasional thrill of schadenfreude when I see something get a slating, in the same way that I like the catty woman who reviews the restaurants for Metro (apologies to non-Londoners, but you get the idea).

But the truth is that whisky ratings blogs, just like the Whisky Bible, are not actually meant to be definitive pronouncements.  Most if not all of their authors are modest people who would probably be pretty uncomfortable with the thought of wielding that kind of influence.  But they, like Jim Murray, can’t control who reads their output, and so you get the unfortunate sheep that end up paying silly money for the likes of Ardbeg Still Young on eBay.

Personally (again), I just don’t see why folk get so worked up.  This issue has got some people angrier than a sore-headed bear that’s just dropped a bottle of Black Bowmore on its favourite tasting glass.  Even the most acclaimed reviewer, Serge Valentin at Whiskyfun, has had to go onto WDJK in the last few days to try and calm things down and explain that Whiskyfun is just his online tasting diary and not the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Why does it matter if someone gives a whisky a score or not?  Surely the main thing is to get your point across.  The problem is with the people who obsess on these scores, not the reviewers or how they review.  It’s a sad fact (and not confined to whisky by any means) that these types of reviews can unwittingly attract unimaginative idiots who swear by them and refuse to countenance drinking anything that hasn’t got a ninety-point score from their messiah of choice.

This was something that I encountered on almost a daily basis during the five mostly happy years that I spent with Oddbins (a UK wine retailer for our overseas readers).  Tim Atkin or Oz Clarke or Malcolm Gluck recommended something.  We’d have people marching in at 10 o’clock on the same day with a page torn from the magazine demanding a case of everything on the list and getting very upset if we didn’t have one of the products.  This would happen every Saturday and Sunday in some of the shops I worked at.  We’d then get people phoning up during the week, who’d only just got round to reading that bit of the paper and wanted to know if we still had a bottle of that nice pink Grenache that Victoria Moore recommended…

A typical Oddbins Saturday morning when Malcolm Gluck recommended a good cheap white

A typical Oddbins Saturday morning when Malcolm Gluck recommended a good cheap white

In my view, the whole thing boils down to this:

  • We should all be happy and grateful that we have such a bewildering array of whisky to select from;
  • We should explore those choices for ourselves, as our individual budgets allow – and we should trust our own conclusions.
  • If one reviewer decides to use ratings and another doesn’t, it’s not a hanging matter.

The underlying issue is that the whisky market is getting too faddy.  It is very easy to get caught up in the hype generated by ninety-plus scores from our favourite reviewers, and lord knows I’ve been suckered in myself more often than I care to remember.  But frequently when one comes back to a sixty or eighty quid bottle six months later one wonders what the fuss was all about.  It’s still a good whisky, but was it really worth all the drama?

Here’s the rub: there are dozens of equally worthy, time-served, reliably excellent whiskies out there. So many times when I come in from a hard day’s bumf-writing, all I want is a beer with a healthy dram of Power’s or Redbreast on the side.  Straightforward excellence. We’re spoiled rotten with all these new releases, and it has blinded us to the real, everyday brilliant whiskies that don’t cost the earth and never let you down.

It’s great to try new stuff.  Very occasionally a really sublime, show-stopping whisky is released at an affordable price, and the inevitable scramble ensues.  But a lot of the time this happens because certain sheep-like whisky drinkers panic that their lives will become meaningless if they don’t get hold of a bottle of the latest headline-grabber.  And let’s face it,  the scrambles occur a lot more often than the affordable, sublime whiskies do, meaning inevitable disappointments.

Anyway, enough already.  All of the above is an unforgivably long way of saying that ratings are useful and worthwhile for those that choose to read them, but they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.  As has been said by various voices of reason elsewhere, taste as much as you can yourself and make up your own mind (I paraphrase).  If you miss out on the newest GlenWonka, don’t get upset or feel like a failure.  There’ll be something else to get excited about next week.  And please, never forget – you’re only ever thirty quid away from some of the best whiskies in the world.

Right, sermon over.  Time for my Lemsip.

Posted in WHISKY & WHISKEY

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