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Archive for January 9th, 2010

Hi. My name is Jeff, and I have a bias toward whisk(e)y distilled from peated barley. I also keep notes about the whiskies I drink and publish them, along with ratings, in a publicly accessible blog. Are these two statements at odds with each other? There are a growing number of whisky blogs with tasting notes. Some have ratings, some don’t. I never really thought of one approach as being right and the other being wrong. I just figured this was a case of communication preference on the part of the authors.

This blog post is really a follow-on to my recent post pointing out my new Google Docs ratings spreadsheet (link in the side bar). There are a couple of things that prompted me to continue the ratings discussion here. First, I’m still getting over a cold that has kept me from posting whisky tasting notes for the past 7 days. Second, I was just revisiting my trusty Malt Whisky Yearbook 2009 and read the following quote in the “Classifying Whisky” article by David Stirk:

Because scores are personal and very biased it is actually an arrogance to print them as it is the author stating: ‘This whisky is better than that whisky. Why? How dare you ask! Because I say so!’

Wow! Talk about forcing your personal bias on others (and putting words in their mouths). I decided to go to my favorite whisky ratings web site, WHISKYFUN.COM, and see what Serge has to say about his scoring system. I found a link in the sidebar to one of his E-pistles from Malt Maniacs #102 titled Serge’s Simple Tasting Tips. This is a great article on the topic of doing “serious” tastings. On the subject of scoring, he had this to say:

This is rather controversial matter… Some aficionados hate scores, some others will score even orange juice.
I do use scores myself, mostly because it’s the best way to remember to which extend I once liked a whisky without having to read my notes. But a score is not a judgment, it’s just a summing up of various feelings and likings.

Obviously, Serge isn’t trying to make a universal, objective statement with his ratings. His description very well summarizes my own feeling about doing ratings. It’s a way of summing up and tracking my whisky preferences over time. Why a particular score? There are corresponding notes explaining why, and I have yet to read or write any tasting notes that are likely to be paraphrased as “Because I say so!”

Let’s go ahead and assume that the majority of whisky hobbyists feel the same way as Serge when it comes to scores. They’re personal opinions at a point in time, and they’re likely to reflect any bias of the author. If we recognize that there is a bias, is it still appropriate to share our personal scores with others? I think so.

First, there is the obvious case where you find somebody whose preference seem very similar to yours for a particular kind of whisky. Once you’ve established such a connection, doesn’t it make sense to be interested in that person’s personal evaluation of whiskies you haven’t tried before?

As for bias, the key is getting to know a person’s preferences and taking them into account when you read their scores. I’m always on the lookout for “interesting”/different whiskies. One way such whiskies come to my attention is from an uncharacteristically high rating by a whisky enthusiast for a distillery not typically associated with their preferred tastes. Maybe I’m just too much of a whisky geek, but that kind of thing gets my heart rate up a little bit and makes me want to research that expression further.

Perhaps Mr. Stirk’s remark about arrogance in whisky rating is aimed more at the professional reviewer, such as Jim Murray. Admittedly, Mr. Murray comes across as a bit more “confident” than most others in his analysis. He states in his Whisky Bible that he’s honed his skills and ability to recognize certain traits in whiskies over 30 years, implying that he really DOES have a more objective viewpoint than most other whisky drinkers. Hey, I’m willing to give Mr. Murray the benefit of the doubt, and I appreciate the amount of time he’s invested into learning about and appreciating whisky. That doesn’t mean I have to treat his ratings differently than I do any others. It’s another source [with its own set of merits to consider] that I’ll compare against my own tasting impressions in order to help me pick my next bottle. I’m glad to have one person’s take on several thousand expressions available in an easy to browse reference.

Finally, I have this to say about ratings. If you’re looking for help picking a whisky, don’t forget to look beyond the number of stars, or points out of 100. Try to get familiar with the author so that you can apply a filter to their scores based on bias, experience, and relative consistency with your own findings. If you’re dead set against scores, then ignore them and focus on the corresponding tasting notes. No need to get your panties in a bunch. Just take what you will from a whisky review and enjoy your next dram.

Cheers,
Jeff

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