“En Primeur” whisky ratings: good or bad?April 8th, 2011
It’s been a while since we had something really good to debate here. Here’s one that has been on my mind for a week now.
I was reading a story in Decanter magazine about a controversy centered around how special, highly regarded, wine critics are allowed access to taste–and rate–Bordeaux wines en primeur (in advance) of the wines being bottled and released.
(The story actually is more complicated than that. There is an official en primeur tasting of Bordeaux wines for wine writers, but a very select few are allowed access to those wines even before everyone else. They are immediately rating the wines and posting them up on their social media sites like Facebook–before the other wine writers even get to taste the wines.)
One obvious issue here (besides the fact that some writers are more privileged than others) is that ratings of these wines, prior to being released, will influence the wine producers regarding the price they charge for their wines. If James Suckling gives a First Growth Bordeaux a perfect 100 based on his en primeur tasting, you can be certain that the wine, when eventually bottled, will command a high price.
So, this got me thinking. En primeur whisky tastings are a regular privilege for the most highly regarded whisky writers. We have access to barrel samples when we tour distilleries. Even more so, we (on a regular basis) get samples of whiskies well before they are released to the public.
In this new age of social media, where we can blog, tweet, or post up on Facebook our rating as soon as we get a whisky (often months before a whisky is actually released to the public), what impact does this have on consumer demand? Equally as important, what influence does this have on the whisky producers when they decide what price to charge for their whisky?
This, in itself, is a good question. But I’ll take it one step further. Some whisky writers actually taste, rate, and publish ratings of the “new make” spirit–right off the stills and long before it is aged for three years and can legally be called whisky. Are these ratings based on the quality of the whisky as it is, or is it based on its potential?
For example, in the 2010 Whisky Bible, Jim Murray rates two “New Spirit” Kilchoman samples from Islay (one from a bourbon cask and one from a combination of bourbon and sherry casks) a 93.5 and 94, respectively. Is this based on the actual whisky that was tasted, or its potential? I ask this question because in his 2011 Whisky Bible, he rates two actual whisky releases (including the inaugural release) and gives them an 85 and an 82.5.
I understand why wine writers rate based on potential. Wine ages and changes when aged in a bottle. And with some wines, they can “close up” and become worse before they get better and peak. Theoretically, whisky doesn’t change at all when it is bottled.
If we start rating whisky based on potential and not actual flavor, imagine what would that do!
So, I have two questions for you:
1) How do you feel about whisky writers tasting and rating whiskies long before they are released (and priced)?
2) How do you feel about rating a distiller’s spirit (or whisky) based on potential?
Let the discussions begin.