In the second part of our exclusive interview, Jim Murray explains his strict rules for choosing his World Whisky of the Year, his response to critics of the Whisky Bible, and his retirement plans. You can read part one here.
How do you go about tasting for your Whisky Bible?
It averages out at 1,200 [whiskies]. It’s a good day if I’ve done 20, I’m concentrating so hard. I’ve had a number of girlfriends from different countries, and come the evening, they go quiet, because they’ve spent all day translating in their head. I’m a translator – that’s what I do with whisky. I listen to the whisky and I translate it into English.
When it’s something like the World Whisky of the Year, I taste it at three different times of day, always at the same temperature. And before I start, I always test my taste buds with something I know. If I’m not getting the right response, I’ll leave it for 90 minutes or two hours and come back and taste it again. If I fail a third time, I won’t taste that day.
If any of my staff have anything remotely like a cold, they come nowhere near me. If I pop over to the pub, the landlord will tell me if someone has a cold and I’ll walk out. I don’t even have sex during this time because from kissing you can pick up something, so it’s really miserable. But I will not taste a whisky if I don’t trust my taste buds.
Also, no cooking in this place, none whatsoever. If I have hot food, it is brought in and I eat outside. Nothing with spices. I eat the most bland food – fish, boiled potatoes, nothing with lingering flavour. If I go to Kentucky to taste, I hire a suite and I have one bedroom and a separate room [for tasting]. The staff are not allowed to go in there and clean, so I have a controlled area. Here, cleaners can’t come in and polish while I’m working. It’s control, control, control.
Have your tastes changed over the years?
Not at all. I still don’t like whiskies which are too much of one thing, and that includes peaty. Or, if you can only taste the sherry and nothing else, even if it’s clean, then you might as well buy a bottle of sherry. The reason [Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013] won was because it was the most extraordinary ‘intertwangling’ between the oak – big oak – and the most gorgeous sherry. It was the closest thing to Macallan of the mid-1970s.
Scotch whiskies haven’t won your top award for a while – why not?
They’re not winning because there are whiskies out there that are better. It’s like joining the European Cup. You may be absolutely brilliant in your country but then you play against other teams and suddenly you melt. You just haven’t quite got what they’ve got to lift it, and Scotland’s been a bit like that.
Scotland has two problems: they’ve got the sherry-cask problem and they’ve got a problem with older bourbon casks, because older bourbon casks get worn out. In Kentucky, they were saying ‘Why are we spending massive amounts of money to get this wood in absolutely fantastic condition but we can only use the barrel once?’
And by the time it gets to Scotland, a lot of the good has been sucked out of it. Instead of it lasting three fills, by the time it’s getting to the end of the second, you start picking out a milky note where the chemicals that once upon a time would have been way back further into the wood are being leeched out far quicker, so the Scots are a bit unlucky from that point of view.
There’s a problem with [Scottish] blends, because the distillers have closed down so many grain distilleries that they are now much of a muchness. Absolute insanity. So, why aren’t they winning the prizes? Well, if they hadn’t closed down those grain distilleries and they hadn’t polluted so much of their whisky with sulphur, maybe they would be winning them, so they’ve got themselves to blame in some respects. But let’s get something absolutely straight: there is fantastic Scotch whisky; it’s just not winning the World Whisky of the Year.
Talk us through the Bible front cover…
It’s Doctor Who! The 2017 edition marks 25 years of me being in the industry, so there’s a picture from about 23 years ago and an up-to-date one. The yellow eyes? A bit of fun. At the end of the day, you want to sell books, and if people do a double take, you’ve grabbed their attention. And people who know me know I’m a massive practical joker.
What do you say to critics of the Bible?
I get a bit cheesed off when people say I give an award for this and that because I’m on the take. These people don’t have a clue what I’m about; I believe in total honesty. When I gave World Whisky of the Year to a Canadian whisky [Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye], people said I did it for publicity. Selling books in Canada is virtually impossible! If you sell 5,000 books in Canada, it’s a bestseller. If we gave the award to a Scotch whisky company, we’d make far more money. So you get these idiots coming out with no idea about the reason why you give the award. There’s only one reason: because it’s the most complete, the most beautiful whisky I’ve tasted that year, wherever it’s from. The only criteria I look at is quality.
You were good friends with the late whisky writer Michael Jackson…
Michael was a beer guy – and a dear friend. We were both ex-Fleet Street; we had certain things in common and lots of things we didn’t have in common, but he was a terrific writer. He had a meeting with his publishers about a new book, and his editor said to him ‘What do you know about whisky?’ and Michael said he knew virtually nothing. But he could see that the amount of work he was getting from beer was drying up so he said: ‘I can learn.’ He fell in love with it [whisky], but it was never his passion. If I put a pint of Chiswick Bitter in front of him, his eyes would absolutely sparkle. If I put a Lagavulin – which he loved – in front of him, he would smile. But his eyes never sparkled, and that was a huge difference.
And what about the new crop of whisky writers – or rather, the lack of them?
When I first became a full-time whisky writer in 1992, there was virtually no internet; you had to do all your research the hard way. When I did Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky, I had to do old-fashioned journalistic legwork to find out where all these distilleries were, so I went out and found them.
But now you get people on the internet who have probably been to three distilleries and get a bunch of whiskies sent to them and claim they’re experts. I don’t get that. I can’t get my head around what they’re thinking. I couldn’t get anything around their egos because there’s probably nothing big enough. I don’t read anything [on the internet] now, because I don’t want anything to influence what I think about a whisky. I used to, but I got so frustrated with what I was reading.
I think probably the most honest is Dominic Roskrow. I don’t always agree with what he says, which is great, because we’ve all got our own views on things, but you know that his passion is absolutely there and I admire that. Who’s the next Jim Murray? I don’t know. I’ve been looking, though.
No plans to retire, then?
As a Fleet Street journalist, I’m used to getting my head down and working solidly until the job was done. I’ve got no plans to retire, none whatsoever.