Whisky Advocate

Whisky producers: Surprise! Your new whisky isn’t the best thing since sliced bread

September 29th, 2010

Yet so many times they think it is.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many talented whisky-makers out there. I have great respect for what they do, and they’re putting out some very nice, enjoyably diverse whiskies. But they have to be pretty naive to think that every whisky they put out is a classic.

Still, many producers, distributors, retailers and marketers in the industry feel this way. They get upset with me when I don’t give them a great rating.

In some ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been conditioned to believe all their whiskies are great. These days, it seems like even “average” whiskies can win a medal (for a fee!) and there are recognized voices in the industry reviewing whiskies whose ratings average over 90. It’s no wonder that they get upset when I only give them an 86 (gasp!) which, in my view, is a very good whisky.

But, the really smart whisky producers take off the rose-colored glasses. They learn from constructive criticism, rather than dismissing it or being upset by it. They actually go out and try their competitor’s whiskies–especially the highly rated ones–in attempt to understand how they can improve their own product.

In the long run, it’s the producer who is constantly striving to create the perfect whiskey, although deep down inside they know that such a thing may not exist, who usually comes out on top in the long run.

128 Responses to “Whisky producers: Surprise! Your new whisky isn’t the best thing since sliced bread”

  1. Serge says:

    John, very, very much agreed with everything you wrote (including in your two previous posts). I too have the same problems regarding scores, we’re being ‘pushed’ towards the 100 mark by the very high scorers. What used to look very good (like you said, a 86) may now look like a ‘so-so’ score (if not a no-no!) which is a shame. We need air for the greatest old Ardbegs, Bowmores, Springbanks, Broras or Highland Parks (or Willets!) for crying out loud! Maybe someone should come up with a ‘conversion table’ or something…
    Anyway, as long as people use a ‘MA 86’ quote (Malt Advocate 86) I guess we’re still fine, but drop the ‘MA’ part (or ‘John Hansell’) and it all becomes extremely difficult and blurry.
    As for most distillers’ views on their whiskies, all the press releases or even interviews are exactly the same anyway, only the accents change (hard Glaswegian, Southern USA, Chinese, Australian… ;-)) Tell me about innovation and experimentation…

    • John Hansell says:

      You got that right, Serge!

    • mongo says:

      i’d never looked at whiskycast. talk about grade inflation, man! i guess i hadn’t missed anything.

      • mongo says:

        the real issue here seems not to really be the whisky producers but the whisky reviewers and raters. i realize very few whiskies could be reviewed without free samples (or could be reviewed by a handful of people, which would also be a problem) but it creates a cycle of dependency and mutual back-scratching that is terrible for the average person.

        • Serge says:

          Very right mongo. Without ‘free’ samples, only very wealthy bloggers or journalists could review interesting whiskies on a regular basis.

      • Serge says:

        mongo, I think it’s all a matter of calibration. I believe whiskycast started scoring whiskies not so long ago, and maybe he simply calibrated on some well-known writer, which wouldn’t be completely illogic in my view. Different schools (Emjayists and Jayemists?)… Maybe also a matter of very high enthusiasm!

        • mongo says:

          when your list of whiskies graded in the 90s is much longer than your whiskies from 70-84….at best, yes, it’s enthusiasm.

          • DavindeK says:

            Perhaps there is also an element of what we see in some of the better competitions. Bottlers send only their best whiskies to be reviewed so it is not necessarily a representative range of scores.

          • mongo says:

            hmmmm johnnie walker gold label is at 94 or 95 or something on that page. but i don’t want to make this about just one reviewer–the problem is endemic. it’s also inescapable at this point. unless you’re a serge or john it’s not feasible for a reviewer to begin anew with a different scale where whiskies with scores below 90 are seen as failures. but even so, some limited sense of proportion would be great.

          • Serge says:

            I can think of a few whiskies that I could mail to our dear friend and that would certainly lower his median 😉

    • B.J. Reed says:

      since I am a college professor I see all aspects of grade inflation – Today’s B was often yesterday’s C and there is a sense of privilege and entitlement around grading. I think the same thing happens with giving grades to whiskies. Keeping independence and credibility is critical. When a distillery highlights another “gold” medal for their whisky I am highly skeptical –

      John has to stick to his guns on this one because the Malt Advocate’s credibility is based on the fact that the grades/assessments/reviews of whisky are as objective as the reviewer can be and not influenced by external factors.

      • mongo says:

        b.j, we’re in the same profession, and my concerns about grade inflation too are tied to what i see in the classroom: students who behave as though a b or a b+ are terrible grades. it’s not merely a matter of entitlement (though grade inflation reflects and feeds that) but also of the importance of being able to make meaningful distinctions. yes, these are all subjective matters but enthusiasm needs to be tempered a little: : the bowmore 15 darkest is a decent whisky but if it’s only 6 or 7 points from perfection (as whiskycast would have it) i’m not sure what that says about perfection (or the whisky that’s 3 points closer to it–oh wait, that’s the johnnie walker gold).

        i’m not sure what whiskycast’s reach is but ratings from recognized sources have a big effect on what gets stocked at liquor stores. i’m not talking about specialty stores with broad inventories but on the smaller stores which most people have the most direct access to.

    • End of the day you just have to spend a wee bit of time getting acquinted with the reviewer and also keep in mind that his (her) scores are relative and can really only can be compared to the reviewers own prior ratings.

      You, me and everybody else, we all got our own preferences in whisky, but we also all have our very own scale. They may look alike but they aren’t

      When I read Oliver Klimeks ratings it seems like he doesn’t like whisky at all, but the truth is more that he rate whiskies somehow old fashioned 🙂 If you get my point – heis scaled hasn’
      t been target to inflation


  2. John, this attitude of the distillers is also present in their organization International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).

    What I find to be a joke is the way the IWSC hands out medals. In the category/class “Scotch Whisky Blended No Age Statement” the normal convention of silver for second place for one entry and bronze for the third place entry do not apply.

    I counted a total of five (5) bronze winners and thirteen (13) silver medal winners! What gives? I always thought silver medal meant second place bronze was third and only one entity in each position. Not so with the IWSC.

    Such ‘winners’ include:
    Tesco Special Reserve – Bronze medal
    Queen Margot Scotch Whisky – Bronze Medal
    William Lawson’s – Bronze medal
    J & B – Bronze medal
    Ballantines Finest – Silver medal
    Vat 69 – Silver medal
    Hankey Bannister – Silver
    Haig Gold Label – Silver

    Here’s the link:–blended–no-age-stated

    I counted a total of five (5) bronze winners and thirteen (13) silver medal winners! What gives? I always thought silver medal meant second place bronze was third and only one entity in each position. Not so with the IWSC.

    Bottom line: When a whisky label declares it has won a medal at the IWSC, I know it is meaningless. It is not the Olympics of scotch whisky that they lead the consuming public to believe.


  3. I should clarify the first sentence in my previous post, where I stated that the IWSC is an organization of the distillers. That is not technically correct. What I should have said was that the IWSC is an industry dominated organization.

  4. DavindeK says:

    Wow John – another nail hit on the head!

    In fairness to competitors, my observation is that some only submit their very best whiskies for competition. They do the elimination rounds themselves, so a large number of entries really are deserving of a medal.

    Medals are often awarded based on their score so they are rated against a standard rather than against each other. This is a good way to control for changing quality of entries from year to year.

    Score inflation is a real, real problem. Scores have become so meaningless that I now convert mine to stars before publishing them. It almost disgusts me to learn some whisky has just scored 97 points then find out later the so-called expert who awarded the score is consulting to the producer. Did I say ‘almost?’ I shouldn’t have.

    Thanks for directing us to your scale, and please stick to your guns. On my scale, 75 points – Glenlivet 12 – is damn good whisky.

  5. David D says:

    I think this point is a little more pet peevish, but I understand the frustration because if I had producers getting upset at me for being honest I would be annoyed too. That being said, I think because the MA chooses to review whiskies based on the point system, it’s inevitable that people are going to be upset and for good reason – their livelihood depends on it. It’s not like they just get upset because of blind egoism. Ever since Robert Parker became a household name in wine drinking homes, a 90 point review from him has, tragically, become almost a necessity to sell your wine. However, because most wine makers produce multiple wines, of various levels, from different grapes each year, usually one or two of them get a nod from somewhere. Plus, every vintage is a chance to start over. For whisky makers, however, they’re spending a long time waiting for each product to age. There is so much more invested in the process. However, while I agree that no one should take it easy on them or pull punches with their criticism, they know how fixated the American public has become with points. It’s like Yelp, one bad review is all it take.

    • John Hansell says:

      I doubt that I am powerful enough to ever cost anyone their job. Now, if a whisky company kept putting out whiskies that many (or most) reviewers continue to dislike, that would be a different story. And I would certainly not want this to happen.

  6. Rick Duff says:

    I’ve learned a lot from wine ratings over the years.. like Wine Spectator ratings.. about the only ones I believe.. and maybe Robert Parkers.. all others I assume are inflated.
    Re: Multiple medals (bronze, silver etc..) this comes out of the wine world too.. basically 90’s produce gold medals, 80’s silver, 70 bronze. A 98-100 score would wine a double gold. My favourite wineries actually don’t submit samples to Wine Spectator though.. which I respect even more.

    Conclusion: medals are BS.. and find a few reviewers you can relate to and trust them. There are some very famous ones that I automatically discount as their tastes don’t match mine.

    Also.. with the inflated ratings.. I’m not surprised these guys get upset at a less than stellar review. They’ve got a lot of time & effort into these.. and obviously love them themselves. Also if they are part of a big company.. their future employment may rest on achieving certain rating numbers.

  7. Glen F. says:

    Is there a point to ratings? I try as hard as I can to ignore them because a number is a poor bit of information regarding something as complex and interesting as whiskey. I feel the tasting notes are much more useful.

    • Serge says:

      Very true Glen. I think individual ratings (scores, stars, thumb’s up, glasses…) are useless without detailed tasting notes. A rating is usually only a summary of detailed tasting notes. What’s more, the reader should always try to know a bit about the taster (experience, taste, position). I agree it’s all sometimes boring and extremely imperfect.

      • JohnM says:

        Aren’t detailed tasting notes in themselves pointless? Sure nobody gets half the armoas or textures that someone else does. There are a limited number of flavours that can really be picked up, the rest are just from the experiences of the taster and will have little in common with other tasters.

        I think the best tasting notes are simple ones – beyond that they just become entertainment. And as for the rating system out of 100, it can’t be done accurately. That’s not to say it’s not useful, though, and of course I respect the opinions of you raters who do it.

        • Serge says:

          @JohnM, I understand your points. Actually, there’s an ‘official’ vocabulary that the blenders use but I don’t use it because that would be pain in the neck (my neck for starters). What I sometimes try to do is put the main aromas that everybody knows and then more ‘esoteric’ (or personal) aromas between brackets. Like herbal tea (chamomile and a bit of rosehip). I agree it’s a little too personal unless all readers are globe-trotting gastronomes but on the other hand, reading some notes by other tasters made me discover many new aromas that I didn’t know before, and that was great. For example, I didn’t know what that bloody hessian was until a friend explained it to me… Or marmite, I didn’t know marmite! How could I live without that? Same with many fruits or vegetables but you have to be curious. I’m afraid that using only common denominators would lead to even poorer tasting notes. And think of Japanese or Chinese readers! And maybe all tasting notes for some young Laphroaigs would then be just… the same (copy-and-paste and basta! ;-)) Peat smoke, seaweed, lemon, pepper and antiseptic. Next… 😉
          And yes, you can’t rate out of 100 very accurately, but you can improve that accuracy a bit with various measures. Frankly, anyone can be sort of accurate (say +/-3 points out of 100) provided one does it right. Same glassware, same place, using reference/benchmark whiskies every time, check senses and stop when not okay, always do comparisons with similar whiskies or same distilleries and so on. It’s never perfect, it’s never totally accurate, but anyone can do it say ‘properly’.
          Let me explain what I mean by ‘benchmark whiskies’ a bit more (shouldn’t I do that on my website?) Imagine you use Laphroaig 10yo, that you score 85 repeatedly. On Monday, you’ll try an Ardbeg xyz that you’ll like a notch better than the Laph that you just retasted. You’ll score it 86. On Thursday, you’ll try a Lagavulin xyz against your Laph 10. You’ll like the Laga a little less than your benchmark laphroaig 10, and score it 83. If you did it right, your scores for the Ardbeg and the Lagavulin should be relatively coherent, even if you did not taste them head to head. Only problem: this kind of set-up involves buying a lot of Laphroaig 10 ;-).
          Oh well, we could go on for ages…

        • Bill H. says:

          I like detailed tasting notes. The simple tasting notes of a certain prominent reviewer don’t often distinguish two whiskies from the same distillery, let alone from markedly different ones, and say little to nothing about their relative quality without the numbered rating and a peppering of exclamation points. I think like with reviewers of films or music or books we like and trust, the whisky reviewers we follow are those who speak to us and our own tastes where others don’t. Something about their valuations and the terms they use in communicating them (a difficult analogical task) rings true, and after becoming acquainted and more or less agreeing with their vocabulary for the things you’ve actually tried and liked, you get to where you can work analogously from what you have tried to imagine just what this whisky under review that you haven’t tried must taste like. Those are the reviews I start to trust as guides to what to buy next.

    • If the review doesn’t contain the words “sulphur” or “sour socks”, any whisky will be interesting to me 🙂

      In ratings, I basically look for whiskies that is recommended as good. Seing that quite a few of my favourite whiskies got around 85-90 (even 78 in the bible) from various reviewers learned me not to follow ratings blind

      I’ve always felt that I got better advice asking friends “Did you have anything good lately ?”. Doing the same on whisky fairs (especially fringe and Limburg) lead me to some really amazing whiskies.

      Reviews can be eyeopeners thou. When whiskies like Kuraizawa and Amrut got numerous great reviews I got curious. I had to to try them/buy bottles. I haven’t been dissapointed yet, but the fact that I never rely on just 1 reviewer might be a reason

      I always point this out as an example: When JM rates Ordinary Jameson mid nineties and 12yo Cardhu 90 I think something is wrong. It’s average whisky at best, and I will claim that against anyone who says taste is subjective. The is something wrong in the state of Denmark !


  8. JT says:

    At the risk of rocking the boat, I’d like to suggest that Malt Advocate contributes to the problems associated with inflated ratings.

    Since I’ve been reading the blog, I can’t remember a whisky that received anything below a ~ 75, which John suggests is an ‘average’ whisky. A score in the 80’s represents an ‘good to very good’ whisky and the 90’s is an ‘outstanding’ whisky.

    …but what about 0-70? Is that end of the scale reserved for Uncle Jim Bob’s moonshine? Why have anything below a 70, if it’s never used? Why not just give whisky’s a grade of 0.1 through 3.0? In reality, this is how I interpret the ratings on MA anyhow.

    The point is that the folks producing/promoting whisky are ‘spoiled’ by the litany of ratings systems that do not adequately discriminate between two different whiskies! As a correlate, if a professor were to give grades to his/her pupils with the lowest grade being a “C”, the students would learn to expect inflated grades; receiving a “C” would be a slap in the face because that’s the lowest end of the grading system. On the other hand, if an “F” is the lowest grade a student could receive, suddenly a “C” doesn’t feel so bad.

    The problem is that the die is cast. MA’s ratings are what they are (as are other systems)–changing the ratings now would require a revamp of previously-generated ratings, as well. Truthfully, what this industry needs is a Simon Cowell–someone who isn’t afraid to blast a bad whisky when need be… If MA handed out a 47 or a 55 once in awhile, the whisky industry wouldn’t be so offended at the 84 they just received for their latest-and-greatest.

    Just my opinion.

    • Lawrence says:

      Just because ratings are published in a certain range that doesn’t equal or lead to score inflation. The two are mutually exclusive.

      • JT says:


        If a 70-something is a ‘good’ whisky AND is also the lowest grade assigned by a rater, how does that not equate to score inflation?

        • Lawrence says:

          Hhhmm, just becasue it was reviewed does not mean it’s been published. There’s only so much room in a magazine…I’m sure that there have been lots that have been reviewed but not published. In the magazine the section is called ‘buyers guide’ with a slant to the better whiskies that were reviewed. This is not score inflation.

          • John Hansell says:

            You are dead on. I taste ho-hum whiskies that I would score in the low to mid 70s, but I have only so much space in Malt Advocate to alot for the buyer’s guide and I think you would rather want to know about the ones I like, right?

          • Rick Duff says:

            I’d personally like to see the ones you don’t like too.

          • pj says:

            I kind of agree with the “if you can’t say anything nice…” style of reviewing. I think Ralfy does the same…

    • Serge says:

      John, I hope I’m not squatting this page too much but I feel that these issues and what all other posters have written so far are extremely important (thank you all).
      @JT, I can certainly understand what you mean and I’m feeling more or less the same as for my own notes/scores. That’s why I even tried a bunch of cheapo whiskies a few weeks ago (had to buy full bottles), just to check if crap was still crap to my old olfactory bulb. Luckily, it was. The fact is that we fairly ‘moderate’ scorers (well…) use more or less the RP/MJ scale. It’s a scale that should work both for, say a 1964 Bowmore and the worst Outer-Mongolian whisky that was distilled from old rotten molasses and then seasoned with yak dung.
      What I’m feeling today is that there aren’t that many ‘1964 Bowmores’ anymore, but that there are now truckloads of good, extremely loyal malt whiskies, probably thanks to better wood management, at least partly. I could taste dozens of 1996 or 1998 Laphroaigs, all taken at random, they would all score between 86 and 91 just because they’re all perfectly made in my opinion. Same with many currently producing distilleries. Boring? Maybe, but that’s the truth (as I see it). And that phenomenon just lifts the general averages, I think we cannot do anything against that unless we’re willing to adjust the scale to some kind of ‘global state of whisky quality’ but that would create some huge inconsistencies with our older scores.
      Having said that, it’s also true that as Davin suggested, very few distillers and bottlers will mail you their lower range bottlings. As a blogger, if you want to try them, you’ll have to buy them or try to pick them up at festivals, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The only other solution you have is to order miniatures on the Web (or full bottles, after all the prices are more or less the same). Or order them in bars and pour them into sample bottles, which I sometimes do but you have to make sure the bottle wasn’t opened for months under extreme conditions. Or we build kind of a tasters’ collective with some funds, which would buy the ‘crap’ and share it among ourselves. Right.
      In short, whisky that would score below 60 does still exists, no question about that, it’s just that ironically, it’s much easier to get samples of much better whiskies. And let’s be honest, we’re not all masochists.

      • Michael says:

        Serge, it is important to hear your opinion. Thank you.

      • Texas says:

        Agree 100% with what Serge says here. I think the basic fact is most companies turn out decent to good products and technology has made that more reproducible. I just don’t think there are that many sub 70 whiskeys on the market. If there are, the makers are likely just going for low cost and in that sense reviews don’t matter.

        I appreciate that Serge went back and reviewed some of those bad old supermarket did give the reader an idea of what the bottom of his scale is like. John did this in smaller way with Early Times and Old Crow reviews.

        I would like to see John take a few weeks and review a bunch of say $25 or less bourbons and ryes.

        • John Hansell says:

          Yes, like I mentioned somewhere else on this thread. the reason why I don’t rate many whiskies from in the 60s and lower is that the whisky companies are now smart enough to not even put them on the market. There are exceptions, like this one.

        • I find this a fascinating way of looking at things, and of course it relates in large part back to one of John’s earlier posts concerning the vanishing Great and the omnipresent Good on the spirits shelves.

          When considering the extent to which whisk(e)y is now of more uniform standard and quality when compared with previous eras, we MUST look at the sample our arbiters have on which to base their opinions from NOW. The producers, anxious to create a buzz about their brand, send them (John, Serge, Jim et al.) their more premium offerings which, as John has admitted, increasingly often receive positive marks. These whiskies are now, to the delight of the producers, what many people go out and purchase. Our sphere of awareness and therefore (I would expect this would apply to many drinkers) our tastes have been “premiumised”. Whisky’s aura and consequent price-point only compound this: “I am buying something that this guy says tastes nice, plus it affirms my lifestyle aspirations.” These two natures of whisky can become blurred very easily: “it is rare and original, it is desirable, it is/tastes good.”

          Producers still have stocks of, shall we say, plainer spirit but I suspect these are in the supermarkets of emerging whisky-drinking demographics and territories. When they develop their own culture of whisky appreciation and connoisseurship care of assiduous education and marketing by the whisky companies, the producers will ply them with the more premium products.

          We have become too discerning for our own good, perhaps, having experienced some great things from within a certain price-bracket/wood finish/peating level, and the sales and marketing folk can lead us by the noses (Managers Choice. It may have backfired, so caustic was the online backlash, but it got a result). Of course, once we are actually in a position to use our noses we can expose them. However, by that stage you may have already purchased the bottle and it is far too late to get your money back…

  9. Michael says:

    I am completely amazed by some ratings. I have followed two reviewers (may be three) very closely and (after comparing my tasting results) I only trust them and buy whisky based on their reviews. I do not even look at some others any more (once again scores of 96 for basic, blended whiskies come to mind).

    • Texas says:

      Yep it’s important to find a reviewer who seems to share your tastes. Serge is almost always 100% dead on with my tastes with Scotch, while John is on the same page as me almost all the time with bourbon and ryes (Scotch not as much).

  10. DavindeK says:

    JT, there are many variables here:

    Among the larger producers, there are so many quality panels and reviews that a whisky that would score below 65 never makes it out of the building.

    In Canada and the US this means very few really crappy whiskies are ever released. But in Scotland there are so many, many independent bottlers who will release just about anything (and many more who are very quality conscious) that some real crap does get into the shops from time to time. However, these small operations don’t have the budget to send these whiskies out for review.

    Some major producers also focus their marketing efforts on the whiskies they believe will bring them the best profile, so don’t submit the lesser brands or bottlings for review whether they are good or not. That new Bell’s for example was fantastic and it just flew right under nearly everyone’s radar. A reviewer can hardly keep up with all the new releases, so there are lots of new ones we just don’t hear about.

    Still, from time to time, something ghastly does make it through, and for those we need a scale that starts at zero.

    The real problem is at the other end. I was lucky to start scoring in the Michael Jackson era so calibrated, as Serge said, against a man of integrity. Now that experts use insanely high scores to curry favour with producers and earn consulting engagements, score inflation has gotten right out of hand. If someone really has scored a representative sample of whiskies their average score should come out around 75-80. I don’t claim that I have.

    I think the best thing is to find a reviewer you tend to agree with and follow them and don’t be overly influenced by the others. Read the notes, but don’t fixate on the scores. I liked Jackson a lot, but did not agree with him on Macallan or Glenfiddich, yet his comments helped me find some good ones.

  11. JT says:


    If a 70-something is a ‘good’ whisky AND is also the lowest grade assigned by a rater, how does that not equate to score inflation?

  12. Paul M says:

    Just because a whisk(e)y is not highly rated (90 and above) doesn’t mean that it’s not an enjoyable drink. A good review will have an accurate description of the nose, taste and finish which should help us consumers know if it agrees with our individual taste. It’s kind of like a movie that get mediocre reviews because it’s not artistically four stars. They do well at the box office anyway because they are entertaining.

    What’s so bad about being a good everyday dram anyway?

  13. Rating systems will always be open to abuse unless everything is rated totally blind and some/many competitions don’t work that way.
    Point systems I personally don’t like because of all the reasons stated above, they can’t be compared against each other, the lowest ratings still sound high, they can be manipulated etc.
    Medals – yes too many in most competitions, not just IWSC,
    Number of competitions – yes too many.
    Cost of entering competitions – getting greater all the time and that is why we are reducing the number of competitions that we will enter in future.
    Cost to supply reviewers is increasing as they become more prevalent in print and on the web, there is a growing band of bloggers and writers who will want to review all your products, as long as you furnish them with a increasing number of samples. Will we continue to supply, yes but being a Scotsman, we are continuing to be selective about who receives what.
    At the end of the day the producers (me) wants to convince the consumer (you) to buy my whisky (Glenglassaugh) with the minimum of marketing outlay but realise that we need publicity and the use of good reviews and medals won can help persuade some people to try and hopefully buy.

    Another good topic John

    Stuart Nickerson
    Glenglassaugh Distillery

    • Michael says:

      Interesting comments but I still do not know how you want whisky to be rated and judged. Most who buy their whisky would not experiment with tens of bottles. I find reviews (at a couple of Web sites that I trust) extremely important and valuable.

    • DavindeK says:

      Yes, exactly – scores based on blind tastings are by far the most defensible, especially in competitions.

      • Serge says:

        Very right Davin, and we mean ‘100% blind’, that is to say when you know zilch about what you’ve got in your glass, not even the country of origin (and not that it’s a NAS Islayer at 43% or even a 20yo and over at cask strength from the Isle of Skye). Okay, 95% blind, 100% would require blue or black ISO glasses.

      • Michael says:

        Blind testing is the best but it still amazes me how much scores can differ between different reviewers. The recent spreadsheet of Malt Maniacs Awards 2009 blind testing is a classical example.
        I know preferences of a couple of reviewers and I can read their scores better (and align with my preferences) then others.

  14. Brendan Hickey says:

    Looking at the ratings in the Buyer’s Guide, Fall 2010 Issue, the range is 76-95 with an average of 87. The most common ratings were 85 and 89, with 5 each of the 41. John’s own ratings line up with what he says here.

    That being said, though, ratings seem to be so skewed that I would not buy a bottle of a whisky rated at 86 unless I had tried it first, not when it competes with all of those higher-rated bottles. Ratings in the 80’s often come across as a nice way of saying “mediocre.”

    The other part here, with no offense intended, is that I can only get MA for the low price of $18 per year because of the advertisements bought by the same distilleries with products under review. I thought that it took courage for John to rate one whiskey at 76, a score which will not sell any pretty, pricey full-page ad space to that distillery in the next issue.

  15. JohnM says:

    As for Mark Gillespie, I think he’s a good guy and wouldn’t question his integrity. It’s his own scale, so you judge it on it’s merits. Sure scoring something too high is no worse than scoring something too low.

    • Serge says:

      Fully agreed (what’s my problem today, I agree with everybody!) Mark’s a friend and I’ve seen him taste whisky just two days ago in Paris. He’s doing it right, it’s just that he’s… extremely enthusiastic. Don’t we need more enthusiasm in this world?

      • Chap says:

        Serge, what would happen if you managed to convince a distiller to make something to your spec? Have you ever thought about what that profile would look like?

        • Serge says:

          Chap, I’m afraid I’d be flat dead when it would be ready 😉
          Seriously, I’d ask them to go hire the old Brora stills, use medium peated malt (by today’s standards), slow fermentation, not too ‘fruity’ yeast, reconvert the stills to direct-firing, not cut too early, fill into active sherry wood (old style European, not American) only for two or three years and THEN into third fill bourbon hogsheads. And wait… for 25 to 30 years or maybe longer.
          And of course we’d do a lot of quality control along the process.

    • John Hansell says:

      I agree. First, let me say that Mark is my friend and what he is doing over at WhiskyCast is a great thing for the whisky industry. And I’m sure his methodology is fine.

      The point that I was trying to make is that his rating scale is different than mine (i.e. skewed higher), and this just makes it harder for whisky producers to come to terms with my ratings when I’m out there scoring the same whiskies ten points lower.

    • Lawrence says:

      I agree, Mark is an excellent fellow and I think Johnnie Walker Gold is a very good whisky.
      Mark’s a friend and I’ll be seeing him in January (for full disclosure).

  16. Keith says:

    I’m no high profile reviewer of whiskies, but I apply to that task the same guidelines I applied when i started writing about film. I absolutely refuse to employ any sort of rating system. What I see in whisky ratings is the same thing I see in other industries — every video game, for instance, is rated 9 out of 10 by everyone, because to give a game a bad review means the distributor cuts you off and all of a sudden, you are out of a job, because the magazine for which you work doesn’t want to get on the industry’s bad side.

    Reminds me of Homer Simpson as food critic — “I’m giving your restaurant my worst rating ever — eleven thumbs up.”

    The result is that stars and numbers are mostly meaningless. I only read notes and reflections now. I couldn’t care less what rating is attached to something. Heck — as a consumer, I CAN’T care about those numbers. And medals and awards — don’t even get me started. It’s like pizza in New York. Every single pizza joint, no matter how horrible and scummy, has a sign up in the window that says “Voted New York’s Best Pizza.”

    As an amateur reviewer with no following or authority, I don’t have to worry about being cut off for a bad review. I don’t get free samples. Everything I taste, I bought or had at a tasting around town. I don’t rake int he millions, either, so shelling out for a bottle can be a big deal if it comes with a big price tag. Distillers don’t take me out for dinner, invite me to the distillery, or ask my advice. That means when I review, I review with the consciousness of someone who had to shell out cash, rather than someone who got comped.

    That is not to say that free samples inevitably lead to inflated scores, mind you. I generally just, though obviously don’t always agree with, John, Michael Jackson, and a few others who write online, who i know, and whose opinions I trust and value even when they differ from mine. But for me, as a no access guy, the pain of paying money for something that ends up being bad is acute, and as such, I’m not afraid to call crap when it’s crap.

  17. Texas says:

    I am not knocking the guys that get the free samples like John, but I do appreciate the guys like Ralfy and Jason that review only what they buy themselves.

    • Michael says:

      The only problem is that most of us need tests of very expensive whiskies before we commit our cash. The cheaper ones we can buy and dump in the worst case scenario so we do not need someone’s opinion much.

      • Texas says:

        I wasn’t knocking the guys that get the samples at all, because as you say otherwise we won’t have the reviews of the really highend stuff. I was just saying that I appreciate what guys like Ralfy and Jason bring to the table.

    • John Hansell says:

      If it’s any consolation, I purchased several bottles of whisky over the past two weeks for review or for comparative analysis. I DO buy whisky.

    • One major difference between those that get samples and those that buy all the whiskies themselves, is the amount of whiskies that is rated.

      There’s a huge difference between rating 1 whisky a week (like Ralfy) and 25 (like Serge)

      A good way, and you don’t have to be a reviewer for this, is to swop samples. I have problems catching up with my samples, and I got 98% of them via sample swaps


  18. Red_Arremer says:

    John, I’ve heard quite a few different retailers scoff at you, reffering to “Hansell’s arrogance/ his moods/ his favoritism,”– You name it. They’re talking about both your principles and your ratings. Consider the following things:

    1. Truth is, many whisky drinkers perceive themselves as barely able to make sense of whisky tasting notes and, consequently, have little interest in them.

    2. Fact is, B+ whiskies aren’t good enough for busy, conformist, neo-aristocrats who think of themselves as consumers of only the finest products. And often their not good enough for slavish, aspiring whisky nerds either. And those are the two biggest groups of premium whisky consumers.

    Putting these things together, one starts to get a sense of why the importance of MA’s ratings is so blown out of proportion. You generally, don’t publish reviews of whiskies less than a C+ unless you have a point to make. Retailers would rather see you censor all reviews under 90. But there is another solution for retailers– Consumer education:

    If retailers would taste people on whisky which they were having trouble moving they could introduce another powerful element into the calculations of their numbers-conscious customers.

    • Michael says:

      A few things things here.

      Most people do not want to spend $400+ on unknown whisky just to experiment
      Most people do not want to have 30+ bottles to choose from
      Proper tasting of whisky takes a few attempts and (at least for me) total concentration that is impossible at the bars and and other tasting venues

    • David D says:

      Your second point is dead on – fact, fact, fact! However, it’s more like: if retails “could” taste consumers, not “would.” If I could open bottles in the store I would do it every day and twice on weekends. California state law says that’s illegal unfortunately.

      • David S says:

        I would also guess that (where allowed) in-store tastings are quite costly for the IB’s as they are offering limited run single casks and how many bottles do you open to sell the remaing 150? Of course these are exactly the products that I would wish to try before purchase, and that trusted ratings become quite necessary for.

        Which leads to a personal pet peeve about ratings and also merchants…when the IB 1972 Glen-whatever is rated very highly and becomes the next must have whisky, or at least Cask 6012 that is. The funny thing is that everyone seems to have Cask 6013 in stock (also a 1972 Glen-whatever), and many websites do not note the cask numbers at all, but sure push the rating! One must be very careful. (A big thanks to Serge for being very specific when it comes to cask info!)

    • John Hansell says:

      Red, regardless of what some retailers might say, if you really knew me, you would know that I am not an arrogant person. The arrogant whisky writers (and I can think of at least one out there) wouldn’t take the time to run a blog like this which produces no income, and they certainly wouldn’t feel the need to waste their time responding to you. That’s not me.

      And please tell me who I am showing favoritism to, because I think all the whisky companies out there have been unhappy with my “lower than expected” ratings at one time or another. Just ask them. I am loyal to none of them.(And I’m not even going to address your “mood” comment.)

      The reason why I usually don’t publish ratings below a “C+” is, as it has been mentioned here on this thread, most companies are smart enough to not put out a whisky that would score in the 60s or lower. When they do, like here, I call them on it.

    • Texas says:

      Certainly John needs no defending since he can do that just fine himself. I may not agree with some things he says but I have never seen anything he has written point towards being arrogant, snobbish, or playing favorites.

      • David D says:

        Agreed. I’m not sure why those comments were necessary.

          • mongo says:

            i didn’t think red was saying john is any of those things, more that he’s heard retailers accuse him of being those things.

          • Red_Arremer says:

            Right mongo– thanks. I don’t agree with any of the stuff these retailers are saying, but I also don’t assume that these retailers are necessarily bad folks. I was attempting to articulate the reasons that retailers get so worked up about John’s ratings.

            What I concluded was that unless consumer education is improved retailers will continue to get worked up over ratings.

            John is obviously doing all he can in this department. I think that retailers could often do a little more, and that they shouldn’t treat John like the bad guy. Though, I also understand that my recommendation about in store tastings is a tough one to follow.

            Texas, you really think all that content is somehow irrelevant or unwarranted?

          • Texas says:

            Red I had thought your comments were personally aimed at John..that you were saying these things or agreeing with them.

          • Henry H. says:

            It seemed clear in Red’s original post that he was repeating things he’d heard from retailers – and that he was doing so in order to make his point about 1) retailers blowing John’s ratings out of proportion, and 2) the need for those retailers to educate drinkers. I never once imagined that Red was agreeing with these retailers’ opinions, much less attacking John.

            Ratings, arrogance, favoritism, whim, wielding power, huge sales and jobs hanging in the balance – touchy subjects, to be sure. Yet Red’s comment was relevant to the topic raised by John, and it was in the flow of the comments made by many readers here. Sure seems fine to me.

        • Chap says:

          Concur. John doesn’t need defending, but I’ll do it anyway. Haters gotta hate I suppose, but Hansell’s good people.

  19. Michael says:

    I must say that I really admire good whisky tasters. I find that my “scores” depend so much on my mood, the whole day, which whiskies I am comparing that I am changing my “best of” list every day.

  20. mongo says:

    some of my favourite whiskies are ones serge and john have given ratings to in the low-mid 80s. i don’t say this as any kind of criticism of them. i think they’ve rated them “correctly” (though i am less fixated on an exact number than a general range). a good, solid whisky is exactly what i want to drink every day. i can neither afford to drink the all-time greats every day (or month) and nor do i want to (i like foie gras but it would get a bit much every day).

    and i realize this is an expensive hobby/obsession for all but a few of us, but i like to spend my own money from time to time on bottles there’s no information out there on. i don’t do this for very expensive whiskies, but i am willing to chance my arm on young single cask indies that might be ho-hum (or even bad) but might also be very good.

    yes, enthusiasm is good. credibility is good too.

    • Ryan says:

      You raise several good points Mongo. While ratings by folks like John and Serge often provide us handy guidance (and wallet insurance) it’s also fun trying products cold… say without consulting ratings, or trying what you called, “good, solid whisky” that has not received galactic ratings.
      Especially when suffering from a debilitating aversion to marketing with symptoms including extreme skepticism for the rising number of platitudes slapped onto labels and store shelves.
      Cold purchasing experiences have rewarded me with surprisingly pleasant whisk(e)y experiences from nearly every major international category. Sure, there are some dogs, but they are rare and finding a winner on your own is supremely satisfying.
      Individual effort reminds you how little MSRP has to do with enjoyment, and how difficult it would be to precisely grade a massive variety of products… which is what I respect John for.
      I just wish that producers would realize that (so far as many of us are concerned) not all successful marketing roads lead to Tasting Scores.

      PS I am completely incapable of producing my own whiskey. But if I weren’t, and if John rated something that I had made with an 86, I’d be thrilled! Producers would do well to remember that level-headed consumers exist, and are perfectly capable of putting ourselves in their shoes. So stop freaking-out over sub 90 tasting scores!

  21. OMG, my favourite topic comes up and I’m almost too late to add something new to the discussion (mainly thanks to Serge ;-))

    Yes, I also think this is more a problem of reviewers than of producers. And there are so many different approaches that it is almost impossible to compare them. Professional reviewers mostly taste free review samples. Some of them may have a bad feeling bout giving a whsky a bad score if the distillery offered it to you for free. Some are affiliated with the industry by consultance jobs which makes them attackable

    Others, like John, have to select the reviewed drams because of space limitations, so they have to decide which ones to skip. Of course you are more likely to skip a medicore dram than a true cracker.

    Many bloggers who rate whisky, me included, pay for all their whisky by buying bottles or samples or by swapping whisky they have bought with others. I admit that I have slighly masochistic trait concerning the tasting of exotic drams. But I still prefer to select whiskies that I think I might eventually like. I have no obligation to taste a statisically representative cross section of the global whisky production. So it is logical the the average rating will be rather “good” than “bad”.

    The only truly unbiased rating method would be to blind test all expressions on the market. And that’s pretty impossible.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      About free samples: I get some free whiskey samples, but I’m not really known as a whiskey writer, despite my association with Malt Advocate. I’m best known as a beer writer, and I get free beer samples every week. I rate them as I see fit: good, great, bad, and a waste of water. And…generally, the samples just keep coming, regardless.

      I don’t know of any person who is making their living writing reviews of drinks who is “afraid” of printing a bad review because it might cause a producer to cut them off the free sample gravy train. There are so many samples — and so little time — that cutting off a reviewer because he didn’t like ONE of your products would ultimately only hurt the producer, in that the reviewer would no longer be talking about their products. See, when ALL the samples are free (or most; like John, I still buy beer and whiskey when ones that I want to review that don’t come in the mail), “free sample” doesn’t mean that much…which is freedom from influence of a different type.

  22. Louis says:

    A couple of observation:

    1) The whisk(e)y scoring range mirrors that of test scores in school in most of the US. Since 65 is usually the pass/fail divider, almost everybody passes, and most of the range is unused. And everybody would care about the difference between a 85 and 90, while nobody cares about the 45 and 50 differential.

    2) As there are more well reviewed whiskies than I can afford, not seeing every bottle of drek reviewed does not bother terribly. Unless, a particular release was heavily hyped or is significant for some other reason.

    2b) Reviewers can cover however many or few releases as they choose or are able to. So I don’t have a problem if The Malt Advocate or Whiskycast has, for the most part, better reviewed drams, while Serge and Jim Murray cast a much wider net.

    3) Any competition that awards J&B a medal is highly suspect, IMHO.



    PS John, thanks for the spell checker.

  23. David Stirk says:

    Love all of this, especially the comments from probably the 2 writers I read the most (John & Serge). I’d like to retell a small story about my own little book which, I think encapsulates what John is bringing to the fore; I wrote with glowing and near sycophantic terms about Highland Park whisky and had tried to get the then distillery manager to endorse the book for a special edition. His reply was ‘I can’t endorse this as it is not my view, I feel Highland Park deserves much higher praise than what you have given’. He was completely sincere and I realised something quite important – I could never be more glowing about a whisky than the ‘real’ people who made it. (No-one will ever be more passionate about my bottlings than me.) What did it mean, it meant that a) my writings were irrelevant to the producers, marketeers etc., and b) I really shouldn’t care what they felt about my writing because of a).
    I think my point is John & Serge, you are carving out your own path in the whisky world, and quite frankly it is a new one and cannot be judged against anything that has gone before as it is unique; as are you both in your approach, style, preference etc. Because of this, you have to create your own rules and work by your own morales, guidelines etc. and, frankly, as you already do, ignore people like me trying to convince you of the merits of our whisky. I should stop though, ’cause you’ll never be more passionate about my whisky than I am (they’re all in the high 90s!!).

  24. So far most of the comments have been about the rating aspect. But the final part of John’s article deserves not to be forgotten. The look beyond the distillery fence can prove to be a key factor in creating better whisky. Competitors pushing each other to new levels is certainly better than snootily claiming one’s whisky is the best of all.

  25. Danny says:

    What i’m missing in this discussion is the impact of higher ratings on the availability. 90+ bottlings are most of the time single cask/limited editions. As soon as a bottling reaches this point they allmost fly of the shelves and in some cases prices are skyrocketing. As a collector this is fine but for drinking this can be really frustrating.

    I’m glad David responded here as well, i recently bought some of his bottlings (A sherried 1997 Macallan and a 1995 Imperial) and was blown away. I really loved them, they weren’t rated but I liked them, a lot. On the other hand I was lucky enough to taste some Port Ellen’s with high ratings and truth be told I didn’t like those.

    In my opinion it comes down to this, reading notes and looking at ratings is fine but the decisive factor is, and will be, personal taste.

    Ps John I hope the sample i’ve send you arrived safely, not telling you what it is just yet but now we’re on the subject of ratings Serge gave it a 95 😉

    • David Stirk says:

      Ps John I hope the sample i’ve send you arrived safely, not telling you what it is just yet but now we’re on the subject of ratings Serge gave it a 95

      – Wasn’t one of mine then!! HAHA

      Glad you liked the two whiskies Danny.

  26. Friends:

    First of all, I was on the plane today coming home from Paris, and that’s why it has taken me until now to respond.

    I appreciate all of the comments and criticism, and have taken it to heart. I truly appreciate that John considers me a recognized voice in the whisky industry, and coming from one of the true recognized leaders in whisky journalism, I consider that high praise. Serge and I discussed this very subject this weekend in Paris…and I believe we concurred that my scores are consistently about 4-5 points higher than his. Is that a sign that my scores are off…perhaps, but only by a difference of scale since the differences are consistent. If my scores showed a wider range of difference, I would consider that cause for concern.

    As those who get the monthly WhiskyCast e-newsletter may remember, I addressed this myself in the August edition ( At that time, my own calculated average was 90.2 for the 327 whiskies listed on the web site at the time. As the alert reader of that piece will note, I even cited John’s own WDJK post from a couple of months ago on the improved quality control in the whisky industry that keeps truly bad whiskies from getting to market. I also pointed out that at the time, I had scores for another 300 or so whiskies from judging in the 2008 Malt Maniacs competition that I am slowly adding to the site, and it’s my belief that those scores will bring the overall average down.

    Also, please allow me to cite from the commentary that accompanies each of the ratings pages on the WhiskyCast web site:

    “Finally, please don’t take these ratings as anything more than what they are: the grade of one individual whisky lover. If you want to use them as a guide, that’s fine…but remember that everyone has his or her own sense of what a great whisky should be, and these scores are nothing more than my own academic exercise in that pursuit.”

    I tend to look for the positives in a whisky, and as I have pointed out…I may not find a whisky to my own personal liking, but that doesn’t mean it’s a flawed whisky that might appeal to someone else’s tastes. I’m a journalist by profession, and try to present objective, fair and balanced tasting notes that represent what I get from a whisky. The score is the only subjective part of the process, and it’s why I emphasize that it’s only a guidepost. In addition, I’m posting notes on every whisky that comes in, since I do not have the same limitation on space that John does in Malt Advocate.

    As others have also pointed out…the producers aren’t sending out crappy whiskies to John, Serge, myself, and others to review. They’re sending out the good stuff, and no one should be surprised that that results in higher scores. As far as I know (and if someone knows any differently, please let me know about it), no whisky company is using my scores to promote their product.

    Mungo, I’m sorry that you haven’t visited the website or listened to the podcast. I think you’ll find there’s much more to WhiskyCast than tasting notes and scores, and I invite you to give it a try. By the way, I happen to like Johnnie Walker Gold Label very much, and I’ll stand by that score. I think it’s an excellent whisky.

    John and Serge, please send me those whiskies that you referred to that might help recalibrate my median score. I’m always interested in learning more about whisky…and truth be told, if I had been scoring whiskies the night John poured Loch Dhu at one of his Monk’s Cafe tastings in Philly, the median would be much lower!

    David…perhaps one day I’ll get to try some of your whiskies. I haven’t had the privilege yet.

    Finally, I’m working on an idea that might help give whisky lovers a way to share their own thoughts as I’m tasting whiskies. Watch this space…


  27. dpennington says:

    Well said Mark, it’s not everyone that can respond so well after being “thrown under the buss”!

  28. mongo says:

    murk, i do have problems with over-inflation of scores in general, and with a fair number of individual scores (especially relative to each other: johnnie walker black above the laph cs and qc *and* the laga 16?)–the latter, i grant is a subjective matter; the former is a real problem, in my opinion, but is not in any way restricted to you and i regret focusing so much of the discussion on your ratings alone via my first comments in this thread. someone far more important than you (or even john or serge) in terms of rating influence (he who must not be named) is far more culpable in this regard–and he rates the amrut fusion (a very good whisky but unfairly served by over-praise which leads people to expect far more than they will likely receive) even higher than you do!

    • Michael says:

      I am always a bit confused when I see that JW Black (or Ballantine’s Finest) is rated higher than Laphroaig or Lagavulin.

      • Michael says:

        Ps. I even bought Ballantine’s Finest some time ago to check what I was missing and to avoid any unnecessary spending on (more expensive) older single malt whiskies. As a matter of fact, I recently bought another highly rated (and cheap) whisky to check if I am wrong trying to get older expressions of whisky. At the end, it has been always a valuable and not too expensive lesson to learn 😉

      • Michael, there is one factor to consider when comparing ratings for blended Scotches to single malts. I’ve made the analogy in the past that a blended Scotch is much like a symphony orchestra, where all of the musicians (the malts and grain) are playing together in unison, the rough edges are rounded off, and the result flows smoothly. A single malt, on the other hand, is more like a jazz soloist with a unique style and occasionally some harshness to it. One may prefer a symphony playing a Beethoven sonata, but still recognize the unique pleasure of listening to Miles Davis (and vice versa). Each has the same goal of creating a musical experience, but it’s difficult to score them against each other using the same criteria.

  29. DPennington, thank you for the kind words.

    Thanks to you as well, Mungo…and as I have also posted on my website, I do reserve the right to go back and re-taste whiskies and revise scores and tasting notes if I think it’s justified. With the mainstream whiskies that you mention, it’s certainly logical to re-taste those every couple of years because of changes in cask management, blending recipes, and batch differences.

  30. mongo says:

    you’re welcome, mork.

  31. Anster says:

    I have been thoroughly enjoying this week’s blog, loads of important issues coming to the fore, and I look forward to a few more before the week is out. With regard to scoring, personally I think the issue can be taken far too seriously.
    Marks can be useful in planning a purchase, but only if taken alongside second, third and even fourth opinions, and the tasting notes to justify scores can certainly make interesting and informative reading, but surely the difference between one drinker’s taste and that of another is nothing worth girding loins over? As Mark states, a percentage or score can never be thought of ‘as anything more than…the grade of one individual whisky lover’. To criticize someone’s scoring system or their results is to suggest that they are either unable to grade their own experience or fallacious in their report. If you believe the person’s motivation is to deceive, then call foul but otherwise what does it really matter if you think someone like’s something more than you think they should?

    Personally, I buy whisky because I enjoy a tasty dram and because I like a good story. I have spent good money and enjoyed whiskies which have graded less well than others I have drunk for a whole range of reasons. I may buy a whisky because it is made in a certain way or in a certain place, or others because of the values the brand is trying to promote. I like some because they are very young, very old, rare, or simply wonderful oddities. The idea of scoring them and assessing their scores against each other would be simply to miss the point.
    I look forward to more of the same tomorrow John.

  32. mongo says:

    isn’t the concern about scores/ratings the premise of john’s post today? that, indeed whisky makers take them too seriously (and the comments would suggest some retailers do too). a trend towards inflation (especially when it involves really influential voices) is bad for the whisky world as a whole, even if as individuals we may know better than to take scores literally.

    everyone says their scores are personal and idiosyncratic, and of course they are, but it seems a little naive at best and disingenuous at worst when bloggers (and i’m not referring to anyone in particular here) who are intertwined with the whisky industry in fairly meaningful ways (be it distillers, major retailers etc.) behave as though it’s surprising or shocking that their reviews and ratings could be taken seriously by readers, who they otherwise want very much to be taken seriously by when they report on trips to distilleries and events and so forth (most of which end up being de facto marketing one way or the other). it is in this context that hyper-inflation of grades or too much enthusiasm becomes a problem.

  33. Chris Riesbeck says:

    The concept of a 90 pt score is no more arbitrary then the color of a blue sky. Its based on an inherently relative perspective. Without question there is a certain expertise present in a review from someone such as John or Mark but to place any significant bearing on these reviews is pointless when the end result is your own palate. It would be fantastic if reviews instead of describing flavors and aromas focused on more measurable characteristics (length of time in wood, oak regiment, ppm peat number). This would allow the average consumer the opportunity to build a mental database where whiskies with certain characteristics would create the frame of reference for other drams. Hope this stimulates!

    • Chris, that’s a very good idea. However, it’s difficult to implement because of the variances between different casks that go into a malt and the distiller’s desire to keep some of that data confidential.

      The solution might be to use a system like Dr. David Wishard does in his book “Whisky Classified” where he compares the distillery character and suggests that if one likes a single malt from Distillery X, then one might like whiskies from Distilleries J, K, and M because those malts have a similar flavor profile.

      • Chris Riesbeck says:

        Mark, you hit the nail right on the head. I think thats exactly the system that should be in place for any consumer! The “If you like X try Y” is how almost all line extensions come to life in the spirits industry and therefore house styles become incredibly important. I also agree with the difficulties of getting total clarity on a whiskies specifics, but we as an industry need to push for total disclosure!

  34. Samuel Muindi says:

    This is a great topic, one that definitely warrants some consideration. I regularly read reviews and take note of scores, but I never really factor them into purchasing decisions because I must admit that I really can’t fathom the difference between, say, a “89” and “92.”

    That said, I definitely appreciate the value of a metric because I too am a college professor. (Is there something about this vocation and an appreciation for good whisky?)

    When it comes to shelling out something on the order of $100 for a bottle of something sight unseen (or untasted) I’m much more inclined to trust the opinion of a retailer I respect. This is why I’m a regular mail order customer of K&L. They sell stuff that I can’t get in the mid west, plus Susan P. never steered me wrong and happily her successor (David D. on this blog?) is well on the way to establishing a similar track record.

    But the last state I lived in did not permit mail order whisky sales, so I can see how some sort of ranking system has its uses. But I must confess to finding the numbers a bit nonsensical.

  35. Mark C says:

    Long, long thread already so not much for me to add other than agreeing with most of the points mentioned already. Pretty much all ratings are, for me, a very rough guide and nothing more. I prefer tasting notes with a conclusion (e.g Mmm, tasty stuff. More please!). Most competitions I pay no attention to. And getting back to the original point of the thread, many whiskies are indeed good but not great even though the producers think they are liquid nectar.

  36. Mr Claw says:


    Do you have a URL for the supermarket whiskies you reviewed? I’d be interested reading…

  37. Mr Claw says:

    “He who must not be named”? That’ll be – oh…

  38. After I sent my original response last night, and as I was lying in bed trying to get to sleep after an 8-hour flight from Europe in the same row with a snoring guy and a crying baby, I had a thought that might put my scoring in some better perspective for you.

    My daughters have attended an academically rigorous high school that uses this grading scale:

    Letter Grade Numerical
    A+ 97-100
    A 93-96
    B+ 89-92
    B 85-88
    C+ 81-84
    C 77-80
    D+ 70-76
    F 60-69

    By comparison, most schools declare anything above 90 an “A,” 80 a “B,” and so forth. (Disclaimer: our school is switching to a similar system over the next year or so because the current one puts our kids at a disadvantage when applying to colleges, since this system doesn’t give as much weight to advanced placement courses, and the new system would.)

    Using this scale, only 10 of the whiskies I’ve scored would have earned an “A+”, and my median score of 90.2 would have been near the bottom end of the “B+” range. I think most of us would consider “B+” or “B” students to be average these days. 6 whiskies would have earned D’s.

    Switching to a star-based system as other writers use would eliminate some of the questions about JW Black Label compared to Laphroaig or Lagavulin, since all would likely have earned 5 stars under that system. However, the Mortlach 70, the entire Bowmore Trilogy series, and many other outstanding whiskies would also have 5 stars, and at that point, the ratings would be even less useful in discerning differences between the individual whiskies.

    I’d like to thank John again, not for “throwing me under the bus” as an earlier post suggested, but for opening up this discussion. I will never claim to be an expert on rating whiskies, and as I point out on my ratings pages, the only reason I do so is because being a whisky journalist has given me the unique opportunity to taste a lot of amazing (and yes, not-so-amazing) whiskies, and I felt it wouldn’t be fair for me to taste them and not share my impressions with other whisky lovers.

    In conclusion, my e-mail address is, and I invite questions from anyone about my tasting notes…or anything else.

  39. Q8 of this interview is just another piece of bullshit. I’d say it’s so bad the guy is lying :

    Here’s a few things I would like to point out

    Bowmore has done some great old bottlings, particular old stuff. Amongst IB’s old stuff is a lot rarer. It’s not worse whisky thou. Really Old IB Bowmore is also very good

    When it comes to younger Bowmore, I don’t think the distillery should point fingers. What they have released of FWP’ed whisky isn’t a short list

    Amongst IB’s I had a fair share of this as well. But pointing fingers at IB when you do the same is disgracefull. As we say in Denmark. Don’t throw with stones if you live in a glasshouse

    The last few years, all the good younger Bowmore’s I had were all from IB’s and I had a fair share


    PS I have nothing particular against Bowmore, apart from the FWP period it’s a fine whisky. I just can’t take bullshit like that 🙂

    • mongo says:

      from the answer to q14:

      “after two additional years of ‘finishing’ we found the best balance and, since this time, have decided that we should always finish these whiskies for around two years”

      except the darkest now spends 3 additional years in sherry….

  40. Sean says:

    I’m relatively new to the whisky world (i am only 26) and am a million miles away from being able to experience what you might call the “pedigree” whiskys. However, i’m suprised and impressed by how many people have a big passion for whisky and of how many choices there are out there for every budget.

    I want to comment on the scoring system: i think if you enjoy whisky then even a ‘bad’ whisky is going to be difficult to rate in the 40’s as thats implying a really low standard and something thats undrinkable. A score and a review is best because ultimately everyones palette is unique and one persons dream whisky is anothers nightmare.

    I hope to experience the great whiskies of the world at some point – i want to ask can anyone reccomend a top whisky for about $100? i am quite poor you see…


    p.s. john hansell seems like a guy who really knows his whisky but who is not pretentious or stuck up about it – what a refreshing change, especially as i’ve seen what wine critics can be like

  41. Michael says:

    $100 is quite enough for a good whisky to start with. There could be many recommendations but I believe that it should be a whisky that is neither too peaty nor too “sherried”, to start with. I therefore recommend Highland Park 18YO for ~$90. It is, in my mind, a well balanced whisky.

  42. Sean says:

    to be honest i wouldn’t know whats reasonable and what isn’t – when i see bottles of whisky for $500 the reaction i to suspect that they must be better than anything cheaper.

    i’m going to buy that Highland Park because thats actually been recommended to me by my uncle (a whisky fanatic) so i am taking it to be pretty good. If i am going through a particularily poor phase are there any good whiskies for $50?…. a friend recommended Monkey Shoulder to me and i loved it but that might be my amateur taste-buds shining through, any other suggestions??

    p.s. thanks for the advice Michael, appreciated

    • Bryan R says:

      There are a ton of good whiskies for $50 Sean, especially if you like American whiskey which tends to be quite a bit less than good scotch. Since I’m not their biggest fan I’ll leave bourbon and rye recommendations to others though.

      As for scotch, I’ll recommend:

      Highland Park 12 (a favorite and a steal at its typical $30ish price point).
      Laphroaig 10 or Ardbeg 10 for some peaty Islay style.
      Glenfarclas 12 for a sherry-influenced style,
      Aberlour A’Bunadh for even more sherry flavor and a nice cask strength but usually a little over your $50 request.
      Balvenie 15 yr Single Barrel
      Glenmorangie 10

      There are many others

      • Henry H. says:

        Sean, here are a few more of those “many others.” Needless to say, prices vary, but these are often in the $50 ballpark – some well under:

        Ardmore Traditional
        Arran 10
        Caol Ila 12
        Clynelish 14
        Cragganmore 12
        Glengoyne 17 (usually much more than $50, but K&L has it for $49.99 at present)
        Old Pulteney 12
        Springbank 10
        Talisker 10

        The Springbank and Talisker are often much more than $50 but, again, K&L has them in your ballpark right now. If they ship to your state, it’s hard to go wrong with them.

  43. Lex T says:

    A very interesting thread on ratings and everyone has brought a sound perspective-to which there are many. Take the ratings for what they are – ONE reviewers perspective. I’ve followed Hansell and Gillespie for a while as well as other outlets – I filter all persepectives and make MY OWN choice. After all, aren’t we each our own best critic? Ratings are directional at best and shouldn’t be taken as more than that. That’s my approach and I have yet to drink a bad whisky – and at the end of the day, that’s what any logical whisky enthuisiast should raise a glass and cheers to.

  44. Samuel Muindi says:

    RE: Bryan R’s list of affordable whiskies, I would definitely add McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey. Its out of stock on the website with a $50 price tag for the next batch that’s due in November. However, our shop up the street still has some of the last bottling for $35.

    This stuff is young but its exceptionally good, dare I say as good sliced bread?

  45. Ryan says:

    I’m not saying this is perfect, but widespread adoption of a system LIKE this one would resolve a lot of confusion.

  46. mongo says:

    is it me or have john’s scores largely been in the 90s since this thread? at this rate, you really are going to make whisk(e)y producers think their new whiskies are the best thing since sliced bread.

    • John Hansell says:

      No worries, Mongo. There have been so many new releases, I have been focusing on the best ones to post up here. I though that’s what readers would want to know first. But the others will follow soon enough.

  47. lawschooldrunk says:

    I’m not sure if anyone is still reading this thread, but I thought I’d mention this story from the consumer perspective.

    I attended an in-store tasting where a scottish distillery ambassador had the range lined up and was leading people through the range the distillery had in the store, from youngest (12yo) to oldest (21). I am not a newbie and don’t consider myself an expert. I am an educated enthusiast. I stood back, watched everyone taste and listened to them being lectured on how to nose and to not just knock back the whisky.

    During a lull, I approached the brand ambassador, i.e. glorified salesman (these titles rub me the wrong way), and the ambassador immediately started giving me the whole shpiel about the “unique” history of the distillery. Now, the history is fine, but what sells me is how it smells and tastes. So, I interrupted the ambassador by finishing the history story (yes, I knew the pitch, as I have read many whisky books and live in whisky websites, blogs, vlogs, forums, etc). This always slightly impresses them and lets them know you are not the “let’s do shots” guy walking in off the street.

    The ambassador proceeded to regal me with the awards each bottling won in some competition of which I could care less. I nipped the “speech” in the bud and said that I didn’t care what medals or awards it won, who rated it what, or what the packaging looked like. I said I’d like the ambassador to pour me a dram of each into the glencairns I brought (the store only had 7 ounce plastic cups!). The ambassador stuttered and hemmed and hawed that his sales pitch was disrupted and discarded. At the point that I took out the glencairns, some people’s interests were piqued and they came to watch me (crazy, no?).

    I told the ambassador to put it in any order he wanted and proceeded to nose and taste them blind (single blind, not double!). I could tell the ambassador looked a little nervous (I think this is because he was afraid I would say I liked the 12yo the most and the 21yo the least).

    After going through the available range, I told the ambassador my opinions and placed the glasses in order of enjoyment. Thanks to the bystanders who saw what bottle was poured into what glass (not that the ambassador would lie and say that no matter which glass I liked the most, it was the oldest), it turned out that my order, from most enjoyed to least enjoyed, was the 12yo, then 2nd to oldest, then the 21yo, then the 2nd to youngest. This countered what the ambassador was selling to others before, that the older it gets, the more the consumers in the store should like it. (Yes, I am aware that many ambassadors know and educate that it’s all subjective and age doesn’t necessarily equal better.)

    I sort of ruined the “show” for the ambassador but this opened a lot of people’s eyes that it doesn’t matter what awards, medals or scores a bottling received, it matters what your nose and palate tell you.

    Having told this story, I say that the most important things for me when I read reviews are the descriptors in the tasting notes because I know what I like to smell and taste. I know my subjectivity. And that’s all that whisk(e)y is.

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