Whisky Advocate

How valuable are “expert” reviews?

January 28th, 2009

I know that many of you enjoy reading my reviews of new whiskies coming on the market, so you might be a bit surprised when I tell you this: Don’t just take my word for it!

My reviews should just be one of several resources you use when making a decision on what whisky to buy. Let me give you some examples to prove my point.

I rated the new Canadian Club 30 year old 150th Anniversary bottling a “93.” Paul Pacult, in his Spirit Journal, gave it “Two Stars/Not Recommended.” Similarly, I rated White Bowmore a “94,” while he gave it “One Star/Not Recommended.” I rated “The Last Drop” blended scotch a “95” and Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible gave it a whopping “96.5. Paul rated it “Two Stars/Not Recommended.” I could give examples going the other way, where Paul likes a whisky more than I do.

Jim Murray and I also differ on some whiskies. There are some very young American whiskies where Jim Murray rates in the mid 90s (Triple Eight’s Notch, Stranahan’s Colorado whisky, etc.) , where I rated these same whiskies in the high 70s or low 80s. I like the whiskies but can’t imagine calling them “Classics.”

I could cite similar examples between Dave Broom and Martine Nouet or Dominic Roskrow. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Nobody! I respect all of these people. They are great whisky writers. Each of us has our own opinions of the whiskies we taste. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don’t.

Now, if every one of us likes a whisky, there’s probably a good chance you will too. But only if you like that style of whisky. Nothing will ever replace you actually tasting the whisky before you buy.

 Whisky reviews are merely tools to use when you don’t have the opportunity to “try before you buy.” My advice is for you to find a whisky reviewer who you feel comfortable with–someone who has similar likes and dislikes. If that’s me great. If not, that’s great too. Maybe it’s a whisky buddy you trust. Maybe it’s they salesman at your local retail shop. Maybe it’s your dog! Hey, whatever works for you.

Just have the right tools to help you make informed, educated decisions when buying whisky. Then you’ll be more satisfied with the purchases you make.

24 Responses to “How valuable are “expert” reviews?”

  1. sam k says:

    A good point to bring to the discussion, John. I honestly think that the breadth of experience that you and your fellow reviewers have accumulated gives you a much broader base from which to compare the quality of a given whiskey.

    In my case, I have found that on occasion, whiskeys that you weren’t necessarily captivated with have been extraordinary experiences for me, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve tasted far fewer whiskeys over the course of my travels, This inherently gives me a more limited “reference library” to consult.

    Not a bad thing at all, just a different perspective on the world of whisk(e)y.

  2. Joe says:

    I believe that reviews are just one resource that should be considered, but it helps if one can determine the personal preferences of the reviewer. Numerical “scores” don’t tell the full story, and it bothers me when consumers get hung up on them. The comments must be taken into consideration. It is nice, however, when several reviewers seem to come to a consensus, that obviously means something.

    I think that reviews become more valuable to the average consumer when the product in question is more expensive. It gives consumers more confidence to part with, say, $100+ hard-earned dollars than $20. It helps to eliminate buyer’s remorse.

    I also think that this underscores (no pun intended) the usefulness of whisky/whiskey bars, the real field of battle for distilled spirits, which fight for placements. Nothing beats trying-before-you-buy.

  3. Don Mowat says:

    Good point, John. I recently noticed this with Paul Piccault’s accolades for Highland Park Scotch. I’m a really green novice, but I wonderd why others gave it a lesser review.

  4. bob townsend says:

    Your comments validate something I finally figured out in 2008. Thanks for your openness on this one. Speaking only of single malts (Scotch, that is), your ratings seem to ring true for me. Sometimes Paul Pacult is low compared to my taste, and often he is too high; we seem never to agree. I often find a similar dispairity between Michael Jackson and my tastes.

    One tasting classification method I want to explore more is David Wishart’s 12 flavor trait clusters (as described in Kevin Erskine’s, Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch, and fully explored in David’s own book, Whisky Classified, Choosing Single Malts by Flavor).

    Since ratings do seem to track somewhat consistently with personal, therefore subjective, tastes I generally tend to trust the rater’s ratings (numbers, stars, recommendations) when they compare to my own experiences. I look forward to trying Glenmorangie Astar, for example, based on your 93 rating; without your confidence I might not have given this young newcomer a thought.

    Slainte,

    Bob

  5. Sam S. says:

    I was lucky enough to have dinner over at a whisky-enthusiast friend’s house over 2 years ago.
    He had 15 bottles open that we sampled.
    Don’t worry–they were tiny. Well, most were.
    That was my first real “treat” being able to try varying styles/ages/regions, and it was great being able to narrow down the field for myself.
    He now lives in Glasgow, and when he recommends something new, I make sure I try it since he knows what I like and what I don’t.
    His opinion, in addition to others available here and elsewhere, are very helpful in narrowing down the choices, but nothing beats having a sample yourself.
    I’m luck to have a lounge nearby where they have many SMS by the glass.
    We are obviously the final judge.

  6. AlanLaz says:

    Great post. I hate when people say flatly that a whisky is “good” or “bad”, as if there is some objective standard for such a thing. To each his own, I say.

  7. Lucas says:

    Yup. We all know that ‘experts’ don’t have the same opinions about whiskies. And that’s good! But aren’t some whiskies simply ‘good’ no matter what some people think about them? Surely all of you have tried Ardbeg Ten, probably half of you didn’t like it but you all must admit it’s a great whisky, right? My conclusion is ‘good’ is not automatically equal to ‘I like’. How bout that?

    Bob: David Wishart’s flavour clusters are great, it’s a very good classification, much better than regional or any other I know. In fact I met Dave a few days ago, he’s a great chap.

  8. Lew Bryson says:

    Funny you should mention “your dog”… You know the new puppy we got, and that bottle you gave me for Christmas? When I pour myself a small dram of that, she is all over me, sniffing the glass, licking my face, sneezing, and starting all over again. Bourbon? Irish? The Balvenie I had last night? No interest. She didn’t even want any of the Penderyn! what kind of Welsh Corgi is that?

    Seriously…some excellent points, and I know you’ve felt this way for a long time. Good idea to talk about it: more ‘confirmation’ for folks. Cheers!

  9. Gary Gillman says:

    I agree with some of Paul Pacult’s ratings when I see them, but am not that familiar with this writer’s work. I do agree with Paul Pacult’s rating of Highland Park 18 years old, for example, his remarks are very accurate on that one in my opinion.

    I find I am generally in agreement with how you see things, John. Perhaps we just share a similar taste, or it is that I have been reading MA for so many years!

    I find Jim Murray very reliable in general too. True, he sometimes rates blends or young whiskies very highly but I think he tends to rate them in their category, which after all is not unfair. He is right that, say, Seagram V.O. is a very good whisky, or Teacher’s say, in fact superlative whisky if one rates them against their peers (in their category I mean).

    But in the end, words, while important, are a guide. We must make our own decision. I am not afraid to depart even from a respected observer if I like something he doesn’t or vice versa.

    Another thing we must remember: the whisky tasted by a critic may be rather different than the one you taste. Batches change over time, (for many reasons), and so forth. So we need to cut the writers some slack because we may not be tasting, exactly, what they are when we “compare”.

    Gary

  10. Todd says:

    These differences reflect matters of taste and category specific expertise and bias as much as anything, and I dare say, even distillery bias on the part of expert writers. I’ve learned over the years that most of the writers you note are relatively consistent on making judgments that tend to agree or disagree with my own depending on category. Martine for example has a very discerning palate for lowland whiskies and if she recommends a lowland scotch as worthy I would seek it out, but I would never buy or not buy a bourbon based on her rating. She just doesn’t get it for bourbon and other American whiskies. Michael Jackson loved all Macallans and tended to score them in the nineties, even the the mediocre ones (some of the Decade series are good examples of good but not great whiskies).

    All in all, though, based on confirmation by my own tasting following reviews, I tend to trust John Hansell, Serge Valentin, and Jim Murray’s picks and pans, and then there is everyone else whose opinions I certainly want to hear but don’t agree with on the same level as those writers noted above. And to other readers of this blog, I recommend you find a whisky reviewer whose palate agrees with your own more often than not – and someone who tastes what is available to you.

    Gary makes a good point about batch variation, the rule rather than the exception.

  11. John Hansell says:

    Gary, like Todd said, you make a great point about batch variation. It is a lot more common than most people realize.

    Great comments everyone, Not bad for about four hours.

  12. Adam H. says:

    Great post, John. So many people are intimidated by whiskey — and worse, many “pretend” or self-delude themselves that they like a particular whiskey just because they’re “supposed” to. It’s straight-talk like this that helps the beginner and aficionado alike. Whiskey is just a beverage; people like what they like.

    You could fill an entire issue on this topic alone… especially as advice to novices… there’s so much arrogance out there, especially when it comes to scotch (and some *cough*other whisky publishers*cough*) that it’s high time somebody stopped talking down to everyone. More stuff like this, please!

  13. Red_Arremer says:

    How valuable are expert reviews?
    Really valuable.

    As public authorities on whisky appreciation, expert reviewers play a big role in shaping the public’s impression of what whisky is. And what is it anyways? There are several popular images on offer:

    -Drinking it is hardcore/manly
    -Manufacturing and drinking it are praiseworthy cultural traditions
    -It’s luxurious (if it’s expensive)
    -There’s a lot to enjoy and explore because it’s the most complicated and diverse spirit in the world

    Without expert reviews, that last image of whisky, which we here in this discussion all care so much about, would be a much smaller part of whisky’s cultural cache.

    Expert reviews present wine-connoisseur-like appreciation of whisky as normal to people who might otherwise never consider such a thing. They hold advertisement answerable to the experience of the refined palate. And they let the industry know that a lot of people will pay more money for heavy, flavorful, idiosyncratic malt drinks than they will for light, smooth as water blends.

    As whisky-lovers, credible expert reviewers are one of our most powerful tools. By demonstrating our appreciation of them, picking up whisky magazines, and participating in discussions like these we influence the whisky world.

  14. Chris S. says:

    I think it really depends on where you’re at in your whiskey journey. I travel to Europe on business several times a year and bring back a few bottles each time. When I first got into whisky, Jim’s bible was with me on every trip to the whisky shop. Results were mixed, but were surely better than if I had just chosen blindly. Then I started reading reviews from several sources before buying. I also began to learn what I liked. Results improved. Now I rely primarily on my own experience to guide me and I’m generally happy with my purchases. I still read plenty of reviews, but I use them more as a supplement to my own knowledge than as a de-facto guide to what’s good.

  15. butephoto says:

    As with anything in life you should really try things for yourself and make up your own mind. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it :D

  16. Luke says:

    Given the variety of Whiskeys, Whiskies (Alba!), Bourbons and other Brown Spirits abroad, if not readily available, any advice or review is very welcome!

    That said, Jim Murray’s rating of 95 for regular Jameson is inexplicable – and I like regular Jameson!

  17. John Hansell says:

    I also want to reiterate here that the purpose of my blog posting here isn’t to attack any given whisky writer or to say that one is better (or worse) than another. I respect all of the individuals I mentioned in my posting. It’s just that we don’t always agree on things, which is why our reviews should be just one source of many in your decision-making process.

  18. Neil Fusillo says:

    To some degree, the ‘expert’ tasters’ reviews are an absolute essential in that they try a wide variety of whiskies, and talk about them constantly. As such, you can get to know the preferences or tastes or, as it were, idiosyncrasies of a particular reviewer and know how his tastes compare with yours. It’s a bit like having a drinking friend you go out with who says, “You really have to try this, it’s incredible.” If you know what he thinks is incredible, it gives you a good idea as to whether or not to give it a whirl or simply pass on it.

    It’s much the same with movies or any other arena in which professionals critique the finished product. You find there are some you agree with, and some with whom you disagree, and you can begin to treat them as friends recommending things you might have passed on otherwise.

    I would never take a review (yours, Jim Murray’s, Paul Pacult’s, Michael Jackson’s, or any other) as definitive proof of whether or not I’ll like a whisky. But it does help me when there are good tasting notes, as I know the sorts of tastes I like, and it will help steer me toward trying new ones.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you look at it that way), I have a set of shelves stocked with more whiskies than any local whisky bar, so it’s difficult for me to wander out and try something new. We just don’t seem to get new (or old, or particularly expensive) here. We get the tried and trues. A Macallan 12. A Glenlivet 12. A Glenfiddich. Possibly a Glenmorangie. I’ve never seen an Islay whisky at any local bars, and while they have them at a whisky bar or two, they’re almost always ones I’ve already tried.

    And so, with the ever-increasing cost of whisky bottles, it always helps to have friendly recommendations as to which to try and which to avoid. Do I always pay attention? Heavens no. But without any expert advice, I’d be flying completely blind, and might have spent thousands on whiskies of which I’m not particularly fond.

  19. Ryan says:

    I’m reminded of a time I went to an indian restaurant in the mood for eggplant. There were two dishes on the menu, with the same description except one contained eggplant and the other pickled eggplant. I asked the waiter the difference between the two dishes and he replied ‘Yes we have two eggplant dishes one is very good the other is excellent, which would you like’ Needless to say, I chose the excellent one…

    So anyway, I think there is a definite fault with numerical scores. As we learned in a recent post on cold weather drams, sometimes a whisky that is heavily influenced toward peat or sherry even to the point of inbalance can be wonderfor on a cold day. Similarly on a hot day a light whisky that may lack some complexity would be wonderfully refreshing. I’m not saying that all light whiskies lack complexity or all heavily peated whiskies are imbalanced. Only saying that not every time I have a dram am I sitting down to contemplate the layers of complex flavors, and when I want a whisky to comfort or refresh, those additional flavors could be a distraction and that isn’t reflected in whisky scoring.

    I believe whisky reviewing is much better than wine reviewing. The whisky community is fortunate to have so many distinct voices and palates reviewing whisky, there is less standardization in reviewers language, and reviewrs regularly use the full range of their rating scale. It is also relatively easy to find both subjective and objective views of a whisky. All of these things make the reviews a more useful guide to whisky consumers.

  20. Joe M says:

    What a refreshing discussion! It’s a big deal for a major whiskey writer to not only broach the subject of his own authority, but to go that much further and urger his readers to read other reviewers. I agree that it’s a deeply subjective process closer to appreciating music than reviewing an automobile (where there’s a lot more empirical information to stand on).

    John, this is why I urge you to de-emphasize the floral note decomposition which gives the air of empirical analysis (an idiom developed by R Parker for his “instant” but somehow authoritative review style). I believe that it’s still subjective whether or not you can smell hints of pencil shavings and quintz. Let us in even more on the total experience (which you do as well or better than anyone). On factual side, information about whiskey construction (distilling/aging/history) is extremely valuable to me and is an area where you continue distinguish yourself.

    Keep up the great work.

  21. John Hansell says:

    Great input guys.

    Joe, I am less flowery than some writers and try to keep my reviews more straight forward. (I am a scientist by trade, not a writer.) I do try to focus more on the total experience, but your advice is a good one and I will endeavor to continue this as much or more in the future. Thanks!

  22. Rick Duff says:

    I think the most important thing of a good review is a very good graphic description. The description can talk about some things that I really like, but the reviewer doesn’t. Now the Woodford Reserve Sweet Mash was an example of a good graphic review that was a bad rating, and even though it sounded good, I had to agree with you.. not too good.

  23. Leither says:

    Like you say John, I respect all Whisky writers opinions – personally, the one I follow most is Jim Murray. One thing I do not really care for are the more esoteric descriptors used by some others and to me JM tells me how it is, but I know it is only one opinion. The way I like to think of it is trust your own palate but learn from others and, most importantly, keep an open mind.

    I think though, the great benefit for us consumers (& the industry) these days is the various blogs and forums with consumer opinions, comment and tasting notes. The web is a great tool to gather insight and varied opinions.

    I work in the field of Tourism, and while it is agreed that many consumers respect the various ‘official’ star or grading systems that Hotels and the like use, many more consumers prefer to use websites such as tripadvisor etc to hear what the average consumer thinks.

    As such I like a mix of both, I want to read what experts say but I also want to hear what ordinary punters think too.

  24. Dr. Whisky says:

    Great post, John, and some great points raised everybody
    The Indian restaurant comparison from Ryan above is parallel to the example I was about to give about going to an authentic Szechuan restaurant named HOT SPICY SPICY. All items on the menu used only those adjectives to describe over 50 dishes. And man, were they ALL different (and hot and spicy).
    So could we always say “honey, vanilla, oak and a touch of smoke” about every single whisk(e)y and not be wholly innacurate? Yes. So it is exactly as you say, John, “if every one of us likes a whisky, there’s probably a good chance you will too. But only if you like that style of whisky,” meaning the effective tasting note is not the one that offers some arbitrary SCORE or keynote descriptor, but rather that which accurately portrays the STYLE of the whisky in any words necessary.

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