Whisky Advocate

My chat with Jim Murray last night about whisky ratings

August 14th, 2009

Jim and I have mutual respect for each other. And, for the most part, we generally agree with each other when it comes to whiskies we like and whiskies we don’t like.

But there’s one area where we diverge. It our ratings of young whiskies. And when I say “young” I mean whiskies (and whiskeys) anywhere from new make spirit (not even whisky yet) to whiskies up to 8 years old. (I’m excluding bourbon and rye whiskey from this discussion, focusing more on single malt whisky.) Jim is clearly more generous than I am.

I brought up the topic with him last night after dinner (and over a beer). You see, we’re both here in Kentucky visiting Buffalo Trace distillery and attending Elmer T. Lee’s birthday party later today. We had dinner at the distillery last night with key distillery personnel and a few other writers.

So, Jim and I had a good chat about this. We actually agreed more than we disagreed about the topic.

We both agreed that some whiskies actually mature at a younger age (some at a very young age) and reach their peak before getting anywhere close to 10 years old. A lot of it is because of the climate. And sometimes it’s the distilling process.

Take Amrut, from India, for example. They put their whisky out at 4-5 years old. Stranahan’s here in Colorado is but a few years old. Penderyn, from Wales, is also only several years old. We both agree that these whiskies will be peaking well before 10 year of age.

We also agree that these whiskies are balanced, and balance is very important to us. But what I don’t see–that Jim does–is the depth and complexity in these whiskies like I see in a great 21 year old Springbank or one of those classic old Broras. Or the Parker’s Heritage Collection 27 year old, for that matter.

Yet, Jim rates these young  whiskies roughly the same (within a few points) as many more mature examples, like the ones I mention above. In fact, I believe in the most recent Whisky Bible, he rated Kilchoman spirit in the mid-90s, and that’s not even a whisky yet.

He sees depth and maturity in these whiskies that I don’t. Just because a whisky is peaking at 4 years old, doesn’t mean to me that it is just as complex as an 18 or 21 year old whisky.

Jim also told me that his respect and admiration for young whiskies stems from back when he first started getting into malt whiskies, back in the ’70s, when he said most of the whiskies available were 8 years old or less. I didn’t start to appreciate whisky until the 1980s, and there were plenty of older whiskies available by that time. So maybe our roots have a bearing in all this?

By the end of the evening, we agreed to disagree on this one point. With mutual respect. As it should be. And since Jim has reviewed far more whiskies than I have, I’m happy to defer to Jim and just say that he see’s something in these young whiskies that my “less experienced” palate doesn’t. That’s fine with me.

It is also another reminder to you to find a whisky reviewer that you feel comfortable with, and whose tastes line up best with yours, regardless of who that person may be.

What do you think about all of this?

I’ll be with Jim all day again. The topic might come up again later on tonight. If it does, I’ll add more to this thread.

25 Responses to “My chat with Jim Murray last night about whisky ratings”

  1. I have to say I think I am in the middle between Jim and you. If I ‘rate’ a young whisky, it might sometimes get a higher score than an older (and better) one.

    For example, when I taste an old Ardbeg and I find it disappointing I might score it lower than an unexpectedly good young Caol Ila. Although when tasted next to each other, I might give entirely different scores.

    So, for me, it is also an emotion or an expectation that I have of a whisky. I guess this is the biggest drawback of not tasting blind 😉

  2. Rick Duff says:

    I think you said it best when you mentioned well balanced. The most important aspects in a whisky is balance and depth of flavour. This can be achieved in a young whisky as well as an old. I think age tends to help with this, especially in depth of flavour, but it’s not exclusive to age. Try Woodford Reserve new make spirit if you can.. it is awesome. It is actually pretty well blanced and has a depth of flavour most new make doesn’t seem to have.
    Take Tequila too.. Anejo (aged) doesn’t always rate higher than Resposado (rested – around 6 months in the barrel) or Blanco (no time in barrel.) In fact, most of the highest rated Tequilas are resposado and not anejo. (I apologize if I spelled those wrong.) I guess what I’m saying is that I do think young can be as good (or better) than old in Whisky.. BUT.. it has to be balanced.. just as you say.. and have a good depth of flavour.

  3. Harvey Fry says:

    for me the KEY is tasting BLIND &/+ IN A SETTING WHERE THERE ARE AT LEAST 2 OR 3 (if possible even more) OTHER EXPRESSIONS +/& with one or two other enthusiastic/knowledgeable people…just enough to allow a continuous conversation &, as is appropriate, revisits with an eye to developing aspects &/or ideas that somehow seem to pop up outta the other side of the brain.

    then, IF the new thing seems to you to be good/striking enough to warrant further effort/investigation, there should be subsequent BLIND tastings AGAINST DIFFERENT things, if possible chosen by someone other than yourself. after you’re satisfied you’ve sufficiently tested & given it the perspective it deserves….after you’ve got a real good handle on it….THEN, is time enough to say what you think/give it a more or less firm rating.

    not very many things are good enough for this kind of determined process. BUT, when you find one that IS, you should give it whatever time it takes & LET THE CHIPS FALL WHERE THEY MAY= be absolutely honest…DO NOT second guess yourself, DO NOT make adjustments for anything.

    one of the most wonderful prospects is sequences of releases that allow for subsequent tastings & continuing comparisons…like the Ardbeg Very Young, Still Young, Almost There & Renaissance…or the PC 5 theough 7 & now
    the just released 8, Ar Duthchas.

    ALL of this is good + fair for the whisk(e)y & even better for your evolving personal system^ over time, more than a few of my persistent prejudices have been grudgingly modified by continuous subjection to this practice. BTW, in between the blinds, it doesn’t hurt to take a few solo trips with the new thing.

    John, if you read this in time to ask him, i’d be very interested in both of your further thoughts on the subject. what could be better than having your own reviewing method reviewed by two of your favorite reviewers. if Serge could weigh in too, i’d be happy as Bacchus in a swimming pool fulla very old Ardbeg!

    & thanks= this is the kinda subject that makes your blog so special!

  4. John, could you ask Jim how he rates Ardbeg’s most recent young whisky, Supernova? Since you scored it 89 and found Renaissance to be better balanced, it would be interesting to compare your reviews/scores!

  5. bgulien says:

    Thomas, you asked the same question, I would like to ask.

  6. David Stirk says:

    Hi John,

    I am sure you and Jim talked about it on the night but in your blog you didn’t mention the all important oak factor. Regardless of the new-make spirit, the condition of the oak makes an enormous (arguably the biggest) difference in/on the speed and type of maturation. I believe that there are some distillates that age better than others and some whiskies that can be fantastic when young but the age/condition/previous contents of the cask is the real determiner.

  7. Great post, John.

    We’ve had disagreements ourselves on what constitutes over-rating. Especially with something as personal as palate.

    There are some young Laphroaigs that I think are killer – like the ones that Binny’s in Chicago bottles at 7 years. Literally blow your mind good. But at the same time, I think the reason I like the Caol Ila 18 so much is because all the notes are there, just subdued, doing this intricate dance of complexity for me.

    Maybe it depends on what your definition of ‘complex’ is? I think that young whiskies can be rated just as highly as long as there are multiple stages of nosing and flavor like a more aged whisky could have. However, younger whiskies might have a harder time achieving this because of overpowering notes that haven’t had a chance to simmer down.

    Regardless, I have to say it’s extremely enjoyable to read about these types of discussions that you and others have, especially when those like me, who might not agree with all your tastings, definitely have a ton of respect for you and Jim.


  8. John M says:

    Glen Grant ages particularly well, and I think there are some great young Laphroaigs. I tasted some young Bowmores at the distillery and they were brilliant.


  9. John Hansell says:

    Great comments, guys. I didn’t get a chance to ask Jim the questions you were curious about. It was a busy day. Maybe he’ll start a blog someday where you can interact with him?

    I’ll offer more thoughts later, when I get some free time. Thanks!

  10. Serge says:

    @Harvey, you are right, blind is the ultimate way but there are various kinds of “blindness” so to speak and all aren’t easy to organise in my view (again, so to speak).

    1.) You know what’s on the table but the samples are ‘shuffled’ and you don’t know what is what. We call that “semi-blind”. Works well with whiskies that are similar (style, strength) but try a whisky at 60% vol. before one at 40% vol. and your session is over.

    2.) All blind: you know zilch about the whiskies. Always very enlightening but you need assistance in picking the samples and creating the ‘flights’, for the same reasons as in 1.), that is to say strengths, styles and so on. Trying for instance Glenkinchie and Ardbeg 100% blind within the same flight/session is just impossible without assistance in composing the flights.

    As far as I’m concerned, I try all 100% blind at the Malt Maniacs Awards for instance (it’s the rule) but one MC has composed flights or it would be impossible.

    Other than that I use ‘benchmark’ or ‘reference’ whiskies, that is to say popular whiskies that I know well, such as HP 12, Laphroaig 10 and so on. Very useful for resetting your senses and scoring system before starting a session. And then I always taste whiskies that are somewhat similar, that is to say at least same distillery, possibly same age or vintage or even same wood type. I believe it works much better than trying one whisky alone or mixing styles, which I never do except in casual conditions. On the other hand, you need much more organisation.

    On the young/old debate, I agree with John. Some whiskies age quicker to age, depending on the wood and style, but of the three main effects of wood maturing (adding flavour, filtering the spirit, creating an interplay spirit/wood/air), only the first two can work very quickly, especially the first one. The ‘interplay’ needs more time and I would say using very active wood is like using surround/deep bass settings on a stereo. May sound sexier but the music isn’t really any better.

    In other words, if you set the ‘flavour-adding’ factor on 10 (or 11, would say Nigel Tufnel) because the ‘interplay’ is on 2 and you can’t set it higher because you have to sell and can’t wait, you may get an appealing ‘woodbomb’ (you know, vanilla, coconut, ginger…) but you won’t get complexity and sometimes not balance, unless what was in the cask in the first place was already very complex. We have good examples with sherry casks, especially small ones (re-coopered).

    Yes, this is already much too long.

  11. What I would really like to know from Jim Murray is that if his mid-90 score for the Kilchoman new spirit really means that he enjoys is as much as say a 40yo Macallan or Bowmore. Or does he give this score to show that the spirit has the potential to become such a great whisky in he future?

  12. Red_Arremer says:

    Formal tasting is the most exacting and finicky experience that one can have with whisky. It’s very hard to believe that any new make could serve a formal tasting as well as an well aged whisky.

    That said, formal tasting is not like a methodical assesment of the capabilities of a car engine. It does not empower people to predict how a whisky will perform under “normal conditions.” Perhaps under any number of normal conditions (watching television, walking, etc.) some people might prefer some new make to some well aged whisky.

  13. H.Diaz says:

    John, did Jim happen to mention his years in the making website? Any new word? Thanks.

  14. Davindek says:

    I think there is a big difference between 8yo whiskies from the 1970’s and 8yo whiskies today, with the 1970’s versions being generally quite spectacular by comparison. I do think though that subtlety, delicacy and elegance are quite under-rated by a lot of people who prefer the bolder, in-your-face flavours of older malts.
    On balance, I just don’t understand why people insist on balance. They must have a different definition than me. I can’t see how a whisky can be both a peat monster and balanced or a sherry monster and balanced. I prefer the extreme single malts over a well-balanced but bland vatting any day.

  15. John Hansell says:

    More good questions. Very nice! Jim and I really didn’t get a lot of time to explore this in as much detail as we could have.

    Oliver, as far as I know he doesn’t rate on “potential”, like rating the potential of a new Bordeaux vintage.

    Davindek, you make a good point. While, balance is important to me, so are many other factors–including some that can be contradictory to balance, like individuality and distinction (as is with some peaty Islay whiskies, for example.) At the end of the day, I factor in all the variables and come to a decision.

  16. Euan says:

    I have to say as I get older, my appreciation for younger whiskies has grown. And for the good of my marriage, this appreciation has not generalized in parallel to younger women. I had a terrific dram of Laphroaig 10 yo the other night, and I really savored every drop. At least for me, I’ve had to rid myself of a number of preconceived notions, first, that a whisky is only good if is old, and second, hard to find. And a third practical reason is that high quality older whiskies have tripled or quadrupled in price (or more) since 2005. I’ve had the good fortune to taste some stunningly good younger single malts. Among the most noteworthy was a 3 year old cask strength Jura that distilled in 1999, carried by the WhiskyExhange. I certainly enjoy older whiskies as well, but I don’t turn my nose up at the young ones. They often have a fresh vital quality that is absent in 20+ yo whiskies.

  17. John Hansell says:

    I agree with you Euan, on the appreciation of younger whiskies. I think that where Jim and I really diverge is with the American (non-bourbon, non-straight rye) whiskeys less than 3 years old and his ratings of Scottish spirit (less than 3 years old.)

    I haven’t had the pleasure of that Jura you speak of, but I enjoy the young Amrut whiskies from India, for example, which are less than 5 years old. Ditto the first official release of Mackmyra.

  18. Harvey Fry says:

    Serge, too long? no way= anything worth doing is worth doing WELL! much as a complex whisky demands & gets more of your time + a certain extra effort, to convey meaningful information on things that go beyond normal practice, it’s often both necessary & desirable to take the time to cover as many aspects as might result in a better understanding. in my opinion, your thoughts (above) on Blind tastings are among the best responses i’ve EVER seen on this or any other blog. THANK YOU VERY MUCH^

    in reading back over my own comments, i realize they may have been a bit misleading. though, i hold/stage/host a lot of tastings (for between 3 & 20 or so people) every month, FEW of them are BLIND in ANY meaningful way. as you say, the practical/organizational considerations usually keep it from happening. even in
    my regular sessions with 2 or 3 of the same people, we do it only when some hypothetical question needs that kind of answer….& then only to the extent necessary to address that specific interest. we all say we’d like to do it more, but even in what would appear to be an ideal situation, it seldom happens.

    for instance, last night (a few hours ago)
    4 of us tasted nine Bowmores, among them 5
    Duncan Taylor 20 somethings from those fairly famous ’82 casks that begin 850**….the ‘Fisherman’s Friend Cough Sweet’ series that neither you nor Jim Murray think/thought that much of. the thing is= of our 5 (85001, 85013, 85033, 85057 & 85060) only the last was reviewed by either of you. indeed his only comment on it was “pure, unadulterated FFCS.” we also did 2 SMWS (3.98=a 19yo & 3.97=a 22yo, both before the 5 DTs) + to begin & before eating pizza: a 10/99-09 RMW, 62.2% bottling & at the end (after the DTs) a cask #1428, 32/68-00, 46.% (cask strength) Signatory bottling. as expected 85033 was
    the big hit of the night. for the other 3 guys it averaged about 93. for me: 24-25-23-23= 95! if this is what FFCS does for whisk(e)y, we need to talk Rick Wasmund at Copper Fox into injecting a bit into some of the stuff he’s got coming down the line.

    since i’d passed on to them all of your thoughts on close or adjacent casks &, as you & John H. might (you both got e-mails) remember, considerable commotion surrounded a scramble for what were thought to be the remaining bottles of the 85033 among our Whiskey Friends around the country, this tasting would have been perfect for being done blind? but we didn’t. the night before, 3 of us did 8 cask strength Craigellachies (11 to 24 year olds= 4 SMWS & 4 other independents) all but one from the 80s. an even easier opportunity, but again, we didn’t even think of doing it.

    anyway, among the (completely speculative average) more than 50 different expressions i/we try each month, the undisguised bottle is handled by the person tasting more than 9 out of 10 times. o well, no matter how big time we think we are, we’re a right good piece away from doing the real work you pros do. & that’s why we read you instead of the other way around!

    again, i’m sorry for any misleading i was responsible for & thank you for responding in the incisive & thorough way you did.

    if i spent more time working on the Hardcore translations for you & less time ranting here, we’d both be better off. but this just seems to come naturally & the other takes real inspiration & even a bit of actual work. please be patient with me= i’m very close to having something i’ll be proud to send you^ as (above)= anything worth doing is worth doing well.

  19. Sean says:

    Drinking whiskey is an experience best shared with people we care about. Am I wrong to get a thrill out of a young whiskey’s freshness and intensity combined with an underlying, almost dangerous, vitality? Is it silly to stand aghast having experienced the mind-boggling freshness and plethora of layered flavor in an old Brora ? These whiskies are as different as our friends. There are those I call when I’m feeling ponderous and want to sit and chat. May not be the same person I’d call to go play a round of golf. All of my good friends are complex, just like a good whiskey, but how complex do things need to be? I’d say it depends, better have both on hand, good friends & good whiskey.

  20. Harvey Fry says:

    Sean, good for you! your’s is the kinda level headed, open minded & totally refreshing attitude we see far too little of around here. Serge, said the same thing not long ago= friends & fun are the best thing about this passion we share^ without a hefty measure of both together, too many peeps’re gonna end up like Rocky Raccoon…

    dada dada da, dada dada da……..

  21. John M says:

    When the whiskymag reviewers get a sample, I believe they’re told the region it’s from. I don’t know why. They should be tasted totally blind. I’d guess if they heard a whisky is from, say, Islay, it will have a few points advantage. Or if they knew a malt was from somewhre like Germany, they’d probably dock it a few markes before they started. It’s bred into them where the best whisky is supposed to be from. It’s natural.


  22. Red_Arremer says:

    You really think so Jon M? I think I often see it go the other way. If one has high expectations they rate harder. Low expectations or no expectations, one’s more generous.

  23. Serge says:

    @Harvey: hey, I’m not a pro! I’m just an average whisky freak who happens to try maybe a little more whiskies than some other whisky freaks and who wasn’t clever enough not to start a website seven years ago, that’s all. Not even sure about that, I know many guys who try many, many whiskies but who would just keep their mouths shut. Sometimes I think they’re the smarter people.
    @John M & Red: actually, the real trick when you’re tasting/scoring whisky while knowing what it is, or what it might be, is the people behind the whisky, not the whisky itself. Are they good friends? Are they enthusiastic about their products? Are they only in it for the money (thanks FZ)? Cupid? Engaging? Sneaky b…? Greedy? Charismatic? (and I’m not mentioning paid tastings here). It’s not easy to slaughter a friend’s new bottling, it’s not easy to praise a – well, pick your word – ‘s new whisky…

  24. Harvey Fry says:

    Serge, it’s the language. in American English, when we say pro it doesn’t just mean ‘gets paid for doing it’. one of the many other meanings is ‘done BETTER than a guy who gets paid’.

    it’s a big compliment &, after following you for a long time, i can’t think of a single reviewer/writer who better deserves my enthusiasm & praise. i’m naturally a very enthusiastic about anything i’m really into guy & i can’t help trying to communicate it to anyone who’ll listen. that i’ve for sure directed more peeps to your site than all the rest of ’em put together tells you how i feel. & now that John’s got WDJK going good, i pretty much mention it in the same breath. every day, the two of you are my first hits after i check & take care of my e-mail.

    SO, in my book you’re the best. whatever you say you are or aren’t is good enough for me^

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