Saturday, 9 November 2013

Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2013 Review

Christmas before last, the [then] soon to be Mrs Cake bought me my first Whisky guide; 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, which I have referenced on this blog previously, and even dissected in great detail. You may remember (or be interested to know, if you don’t want to read any of my previous pieces) that, while I found the contents of that book fascinating, I was finding its recommendations to be disappointing. It left me wondering where to turn for advice when it came to buying a new bottle (this was long before getting involved in the local Manchester Whisky Club), so when the missus asked what I would like for Christmas last year, I said a new whisky guide. She duly obliged, and what she came up with was Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2013.

I’ve dipped into this many times already, and wow, he sure has a lot to say. And boy, does he like whisky. I mean, I like whisky, but leafing through these pages that contain reviews (some brief, some less so) of over 4500 whiskies, I started to think that maybe I don’t like whisky all that much after all. Why? Notwithstanding that I would be bored of anything if I’d had to try 4500 varieties of it; the first thing is Jim’s scoring system.

He scores each whisky out of 25 for nose, taste, finish and balance, and combines these scores to give a total out of 100. I’ve been wondering why he scores them out of 25, and can only conclude that this is for the express purpose of combining to make a score out of 100 and when you think about it, when you have over 4000 contenders, awarding up to 5 stars just doesn’t seem adequate. Similarly, scoring each component out of 5 to make a total score out of 20 wouldn’t do; more separation is necessary.

Where this logic falls apart though (apart from the idea that four different components should be weighted equally), is that from what I’ve read so far (that’s all the section on single malt scotch, blended scotch, Irish whisky and selected highlights of the rest), the lowest score any individual whisky achieved was in the mid 50s – and that was an anomaly, most of the others are in the 80s and 90s. The next lowest is something like 68*. 

Now, 68% isn’t going to get you an A in your GCSEs, but it will get you a good second class degree and it isn’t that bad – in fact, you’d be disappointed you hadn’t gotten a first if you’d been averaging 68. It works out to an average of 17 out of 25 for each component, and I think 17 out of 25 is pretty good. If you scored that in each round of a pub quiz (probably the only other thing I can think of that could possibly be scored out of 25), you would probably win. I don’t see then, how there can’t be a whisky that’s so bad it only scores 32. Even Aldi’s Higland Earl, about which Murray says, 'I would have scored this higher if it had been labelled grain whisky; the malt is silent' scores 77.

Murray has written an editorial at the beginning, in which he bemoans the practice of using sherry casks that have been sterilised with sulphur candles. Apparently this has been going on for 20 years, and for some reason few people in the distilling industry are aware that it is ruining whole generations of scotch. Murray is well aware of it though. He can smell and taste the sulphur, and he says that there are a number of whiskies, aged in sherry casks, that have been ruined by this practice – ruined. Yet he won’t score any of them below 50 out of 100.

I’m not saying he’s making this shit about sulphur up. I believe him (though I’m yet to experience it myself). I just think maybe his scoring should be more reflective of that. Is it a bad whisky? Yes. So shouldn’t something that is actually bad be scored say, less than 50%?

Some time ago I received a particular bottle as a present which shall remain a secret so as to protect the feelings of the generous donor. I tried my very best to like it, but seriously, it was the worst whisky I have ever tasted. It tasted metallic, and that metallic taste just dominated everything.

I was keen to see what Jim Murray thought when I received his book, so it was one of the first things I looked up. I could see there are actually a lot of bottlings by this distillery, and many score in the high 80s and into the 90s.

Pretty good, but I can see that the one I had tried scored in the middle 80s. Surely that couldn’t be right? That’s actually better than a number of (to my mind) finer whiskies that I’ve enjoyed very much – like the Glenfarclas 10.

What’s more, it’s one of the Sherry Cask editions that received the lowest overall score of 50 something. So mine was supposed to be nice. I’ve checked, and sulphur isn’t metallic, so that’s probably not what I was tasting. So what does this mean? Presumably it means this distillery’s output  isn’t to my personal taste, and perhaps I should follow my original intention to avoid purchasing any further bottlings, at least until I’ve tried one that I like.

Murray goes on to say that many people can’t taste or smell sulphur anyway… perhaps I’m one of them? Though I’m sure I’ve smelled sulphur at some point in my life previously – it stinks doesn’t it? Like rotten eggs?

I suppose I still have to find out whether I’m susceptible to having my whisky ruined by sulphur. I don’t think I’ve tried many that have been aged in sherry casks, and I haven’t been able to detect it in the few I have tried. Some distilleries don’t use casks contaminated in this way anyway, but it seems the only way of knowing which ones do is by reading Jim’s book, so while it’s tempting to avoid any sherry cask whiskies, those have been the ones I’ve been enjoying in random samplings so… I don’t know what to do. I’m certainly reluctant to spend more than £40 on a sherried scotch anyway…

So as I said, Jim seems to love his whisky far more than I do. If I go to a tasting and try 6 different whiskies, instead of coming away with an idea of what I might buy next time, I come away with a list of 6 whiskies I’m not going to spend my hard-earned on. He’s a real enthusiast, with some refreshing viewpoints, occasionally witty, and he doesn’t come across as a whisky snob. What gives me that idea? He loves blends. In fact, he claims that he judges blends by stricter standards than single malts, since he thinks that in blending you should be able to achieve so much more.

I’m not sure I’m inclined to agree, since most blends include a hefty proportion of grain whisky (50 or 60%), that from what I can tell has a harsh taste that has somewhat tended to stand out  - or at least lope about conspicuously in the background - in many of the blends I’ve tried (I haven’t tried any particularly expensive ones as yet).

Jim should know better than me though, and that doesn’t bother him. He’s clearly a fan of the grain whisky too (he’s included a section for reviewing grain whiskies, and they also score well), but he’s especially a fan of the blend. Bells, Teachers, Aldi’s Highland Black, The Black Grouse… they all score really well – especially the Black Grouse, which manages a stunning 94.5. I certainly wasn’t that impressed by it, but clearly I must be an idiot

He reviews just about everything, and that’s part of what makes this book so accessible. If you’re something of a newcomer to whisky, and you pick up 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, you might find you’ve tried two or three, so you don’t have much of a reference point for the rest of the book, but you do have a lot of catching up to do. Because Jim Murray reviews everything (a further 1350 new whiskies were tried for this edition alone – did he try four a day for a year? And if so, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the reliability of the review?), there’s already a whole slew of things in there that you’re familiar with, and you can while away a good deal of your Christmas holiday downtime just flicking through it.

There is no price guide however, so you can’t really use it to plan your next purchase in advance, unless you happen to be accessing the internet at the same time. That also means that all whiskies are judged to the same standards, which is good in one way, but less so when you want to consider value because, let’s face it; it makes a difference. No, this whisky isn’t as good as that one, but this one was £13 while that one costs £100. I’m yet to determine whether any whisky can justify an astronomical price tag when I could buy one of my current favourites for £35 to £45.

You might find, like I often did, that Jim doesn’t rate your favourite whiskies as highly as you do, but you know, that’s fine. It’s actually refreshing how he’ll review something like Lidl’s own brand scotch, and score it really well. It gives you the confidence to buy that staggeringly cheap blend, and actually think that it might be ok because someone of his standing is willing to try it, review it with the same attention that he devotes to premium brands, and score it well.

But this is also the problem, though perhaps only for me. I don’t fall in love with every whisky I try. Perhaps I’m setting my standards too high, but if not disappointed, I’m often non-plussed when I try a new whisky, and all I’m doing is searching for that special and sadly rare liquor that I’m going to savour to the very last drop and perhaps even pine for when it’s gone – or want to buy again instead of trying something entirely new. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Sometimes I feel I’m not even enjoying my glass of scotch, so I certainly wouldn’t be scoring nearly everything in excess of 80 out of 100 (that’s 4 out of 5, which if we were talking books, films or music would signify an excellent score – assuming you reserve top marks for the very select few, as I would).

Don’t think I’m having a go here, because this book is fascinating, but rather than answering all the questions, it leaves me with more.

Get this; it’s supposed to be a whisky bible, so you’d think therefore, that it will be a reference text you can rely on. But no. The impression I get from reading it is that Jim’s opinion of whisky can vary greatly over time – even on something as standard as a bottle of The Famous Grouse. He might say something like, “this has improved greatly since the last time I tried it…”

Now I know the quality of whisky can vary to some extent from one bottling to another, but you’d expect a blend to be pretty consistent. My enjoyment of a whisky can vary from one tasting to the next –from the same bottle. So Jim is clearly well able to rely on his tasting faculties, and treat his conclusions as absolute.

If I tried a glass of the Famous Grouse on one occasion and thought it average, but tried another one another time, and liked it, I’d assume it was something to do with myself or the specific circumstances. Jim just says, “this bottle is better than that one I had last time” – presumably because the method described in his tasting guide is so infallible.

When Jim says in his review of Johnnie Walker Red though, that he had one at an airport and he was overcome by peat, and that it was the earthiest he had tasted in decades… are we to assume he followed all the preliminary steps of his tasting guide, or was his impression open to the same chaos elements that are present when you don’t drink a strong coffee first, find a room with no distractions, haven't recently washed your hands, or have a glencairn glass (does he request one even in airports?) to hand?

Regardless of instances like this, how can you rely on Jim’s recommendation when you might be buying a bottle from the batch he didn’t like? How are you supposed to know?

Another problem is that sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you’ve got a particular bottle. Case in point; Bladnoch 10 yr old. He scores it brilliantly, which pleased me because I’d acquired a quarter of a bottle. On closer inspection though, he specifies that it’s a ‘Flora and Fauna’ bottling, which my bottle didn’t give any indication of being. Then I noticed that he had specified that his was bottled at 43%, while my bottle stated 46%, so clearly they weren’t the same. How different are they? Well, I don’t know, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because the bottle I’ve got is very classy; delicate and sweet (just how I like my women).

A look at The Whisky Exchange provided an answer – my bottle retails at around £35, while the ‘Flora and Fauna’ bottling, which is the last Diageo bottling is listed (at time of writing) at £75. It would be nice to know without having to do further research though – I’m used to books giving all the information, not just part of it. I’d also like to know, given that the Flora and Fauna bottling that Murray is reviewing gets 94 out of 100, what mine would score – but I’m not going to buy the 2014 guide to find out (I’ll just have a quick look in Waterstones…).

Examples like this are endemic throughout the book. Is this the bottle I’ve got? Is this the bottle I’m considering buying at my local whisky specialist? Is this the particular bottling I picked up at that distillery? He doesn’t provide quite enough information to be able to make you sure (see also Suntory Hakushu 12, later).

Again, I’m not denying Jim’s credentials. He certainly drops enough knowledge and has a lot to say. I don’t think you can fake that, it just means I can’t necessarily rely on the information in the book from one year to the next. What if next year, I buy a bottle of something based on Jim’s recommendation, but it turns out to be terrible, only I didn’t know because Jim’s review wasn’t current enough, or I got an older bottling, or perhaps he changed his opinion in 2014’s guide?

So as I say, extremely interesting, but perhaps a bible to be treated with the same reverence that a modern, non-church-going Christian would treat their Bible. That is, Adam and Eve? I don’t think so. Don’t be getting all Westboro Baptists’ Church about this.

Jim is drawing on 30 years of tasting experience, and he does point out that his scores are very personal, and based upon that. He obviously has a deep familiarity with many of the distilleries and brands that he is reviewing, and bases his score around what he has come to expect from any single producer – so there is ultimately little chance that you would agree with all that much.

To be fair, it doesn’t make the book any less useful or interesting, so I’m just going to have to take it for what it is, and get on with it.

Now, I still haven’t quite seen the point in adding water to whisky, as I know a lot of whisky experts tell you to do – except in the case of cask strength expressions, of course. I understand, and from experimentation with Caol Ila’s cask strengthvariety, agree that the strength of the alcohol is likely to overpower the subtle flavours and aromas in the whisky. One thing that strikes me as strange then about Jim’s book is that he asserts that he tests every whisky, as it is. He doesn’t add ice or water, and the rationale is that there can be no discrepancy between what he is tasting and what you are. That’s great until you think that he must be reviewing the cask strength whiskies under those same guidelines. So how can he provide a sound review of a cask strength whisky – some of which are more than 60% ABV, and intended for the addition of water – when most of its subtleties and nuances are being masked by strong alcohol? Well, presumably he can’t.

He could add half a measure of water to a double measure of cask strength whisky though, and specify that he did. But no. Surely, if his reviews are supposed to hold water (so to speak), he needs to try several stages of dilution and then comment on the overall quality, so that it doesn’t matter whether you add the same amount of water as he does. It’s just one of those things that you’d think a whisky aficionado would have to address – what’s the point in me reviewing this if I’m not allowing it to develop fully?

I suspect that Jim is experienced enough to be able to provide a full review of a whisky from one taste, whereas I would have to drink the whole bottle before giving a definitive (and admittedly less detailed) review.

I suppose the ultimate indicator of how good a guidebook is, is in the results of using it. Did you agree with its recommendations? I have had chance now to dip into it and use it for research when I know what kind of thing I’m looking for, and just require something to give me a definite push one way or another, and as I said, because it’s scope is so extensive, I’ve already formed opinions on some of its subjects, so let’s break this down to specifics. Here’s some comments on some of the whiskies both Jim and I have tried:

Laphroaig 10/Quarter Cask
Laphroaig 10 was one of the first whiskies I ever tried, and I immediately fell in love with it, but the Quarter Cask I actually felt was lacking in everything that made the 10 so great. Jim scores the 10 year old 90 (while noting that it is a favourite of Prince Charles), and the Quarter Cask 96.

Caol Ila 12/18
12 is one of my absolute favourites – sweet, smoky and luxurious – and as such provides a benchmark for the opinions of anyone that reviews whisky. What I’m essentially saying is if you don’t rate the Caol Ila 12, your opinion means nothing to me.  The 18 year old on the other hand was quite a disappointment, with a bitter finish that belied it’s extravagant price tag. That currently stands as the most expensive bottle I ever bought.

In Murray’s book, the 12 scores what is in my opinion, a modest 89 while the 18 scores only 80 – with the stipulation that there is too much oil. 80 seems quite fair, and consistent with Jim’s scoring system.

Black Grouse
This one doesn’t just come recommended by Jim; it’s also in the 101 Whiskies… guide. I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. Jim calls it “a real treasure” and scores it a 94. Frankly that’s shocking. If you read that, and then see you can get it for £18, you’re going to buy it, aren’t you? Sorry, but there is no way this is better than the Laphroaig  10 and the Caol Ila 12. No way – even when you take the price into account.

Talisker 10
Another that is almost universally recommended. I think it’s decent but I’m not overly enthused. Jim rates it almost as highly as the Black Grouse, with a 93. He also tastes some Cumberland sausage in there. For the record, I think it is way better than the Black Grouse, but would still score it below a 93… were I able to put numerical values on these things.

Glenmorangie Original
I was surprised to find I enjoyed this very much. Great value. Jim calls it one of the greats, and scores it a 94. I’m not sure it’s that good, but still…

Cutty Sark
I think Jim and I are actually in synch here. Distinctly average, I felt. Not bad for the price I paid, I suppose, but not worth the price you pay in the UK. Jim says it has a ‘nipping furriness’, which I’m not going to disagree with despite not having any way of truly knowing what he means, and gives it 78.

Glenfarclas 10
I enjoyed this very much, but here it scores only 80, and is described as “sweaty” with an odd finish.

Suntory Hakushu 12
I bought this based largely on Jim’s recommendation, though that recommendation was supported by a number of online sources. I did enjoy it, but didn’t quite feel it lived up to the hype. There are three Hakushu 12s listed in Jim’s book. The only way I could identify which one might be mine was by the ABV of 43%. That is actually the best of the three, scoring 95.5. It is apparently one of the most complex and clever 12 year olds in the world, though I felt it had a slight bitterness in the finish that detracted from its oily mouthfeel and sweet entry.

One I actually sought out, based on Jim’s recommendation. I can’t understand what he saw in it. 90 points, ‘clean and cleverly constructed’. I would score it much lower and change ‘clean and cleverly constructed’ to ‘aniseedy and weird’. I rank it as the worst blend I’ve ever owned and the second worst overall whisky.

Ardbeg 10
This is an immense malt and I can only agree with Jim’s glowing opinion of it. 97 points he gives it. I have no problem with that other than that there are only 3 more points a whisky can occupy to be better than it. So it can only possibly get 3 better than Ardbeg 10.

Ballantine’s Finest
A little research I did recently for an upcoming post featuring Balantine’s Finest found that customer reviews on whisky retail sites held it in high regard while bloggers and more formal critics… didn’t. For the record, I have been enjoying the Finest very much, and would place it at 3rd in my all time blended scotch rankings. Jim calls it the work of a blender at the top of its game and scores it 96. I don’t think it’s quite that good – again, when compared with lower scores for Laphroaig and Caol Ila, and especially when he claims to score blends more harshly than single malts.

So what can you take away from this? Certainly that you can’t treat the guide as an all-knowing oracle that you could rely on to find you a delicious whisky, but you can still refer to it from time to time. It’s all about figuring out what you think for yourself anyway, isn’t it?

Jim has a lot to teach you, and will show you that you still have a lot to learn. He’s not going to reveal all the secrets of the universe but now at least now you know how big the universe is (fucking big). Go out and explore for yourself and see if you can’t discover a few things that aren’t even in the book.

*In fact, the lowest it gets is New Zealand's Kiwi Whisky which scores only 37.

That's it for this week. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Next week, I promise, will be shorter. Till then.

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