I wear many hats. I’m Malt Advocate magazine’s Publisher & Editor (and owner). My wife and I own and run three WhiskyFests. I also host whisky tastings, consult for the whisky industry, and write a lot about whisky for Malt Advocate and other publications.
My most difficult job, however, is rating whiskies. Tasting whisky isn’t hard. (It’s quite fun, actually.) Writing tasting notes isn’t difficult either. Scoring whiskies isn’t hard either, because once I nose and taste a whisky, I know what I like about the whisky or don’t like about the whisky (and why).
The tough part is dealing with the aftermath when I give a whisky an inferior rating, which I often do. By inferior, I mean rating a whisky in the 70s or lower. You might think that a rating in the 70s is something that shouldn’t upset a whisky producer, but it often does. To me, rating a whisky in the 70s means, and I quote from my rating scheme definition in Malt Advocate: “Average. No unique qualities. Flaws possible.” It’s not the end of the world.
But, many whisky companies seems to believe that all their whiskies are great, and they don’t like anyone telling them that one of their whiskies has flaws. I’ve lost a lot of advertising over the years because I gave whiskies low ratings, and it’s the main reason why most magazines that rate alcoholic beverages on a 100 point scale only publish ratings at 80 points or higher. (A leading wine magazine and a leading beer magazine immediately come to mind.)
The responses I receive from the producers are quite varied, but many lead to the same opinion: they don’t want to believe me. Here are a few examples of responses I will get.
Other people have tried it and they liked: Maybe they just didn’t have the guts to be honest with you. Or maybe they are looking for just one thing in a whisky. I know people who will like any whisky, as long as it’s really sherried. I know a guy who only likes woody whiskies, and he spends a lot of money on old whiskies.
Do a re-taste: I don’t need to do this because before I score a whisky in the 70s or lower, I automatically re-taste on a different day prior to publishing the rating, just to be certain. And if I don’t like a whisky, I always explain why I don’t like it.
Joe Schmo in some other publication gave it a good rating: There are many legitimate (and illegitimate) whisky writers rating whiskies right now, and if you look around long enough, you’ll probably find someone to say something nice about your whisky. I’m just one person, with one person’s opinion. There are many other opinions out there.
It won a medal: With competitions out there awarding medals to nearly 90% of all entrants (for a fee, or course) you should be able to win a medal somewhere. And if you don’t, I would be very concerned.
The bottom line here is that there are great whiskies, good whiskies, average whiskies, and bad whiskies (just like everything else in life). They can’t all be great. I just wish that more people in the industry would acknowledge this.