Whisky Advocate

How everyone evaluates whisky–and the concequences

October 6th, 2009

Several of my blog postings have lead to drifts in the comment thread to how whiskies are evaluated, including my posting here yesterday on Jim Murray’s “World whisky awards for 2010″.

Let’s get it out in the open and discuss it.

There are A LOT of people reviewing and rating whiskies–more now than ever, thanks to the explosion of whisky blogs, forums, tweets, podcasts, videos, etc. Problem is, we all review whiskies differently, and HOW we review whisky has a big impact on our ratings and opinions of whiskies.

Is there a right or wrong way to evaluate whisky? Can you really evaluate a whisky properly if you are just nosing your way through a hundred samples without tasting (like blenders do), or if you are evaluating a dozen or more whiskies and just spitting without swallowing (lik many reviewers do and many spirits competitions necessitate)?

Can you be unbiased if you don’t taste blind? Should you review a whisky in groups of a whisky peers or by itself? Should you assign a rating to every aspect of the review (e.g. 25 points for aroma, 25 points for taste, etc.) or is it best to give it one overall score at the end? Should you use a 100 point scale? 10 point scale? No scale at all?

Since I always try to be open and honest with you (and more approachable than other whisky writers), I will tell you how I rate whiskies. Is it perfect? No. It’s just the way I do it and have been doing it for years. I’m sure that some of you won’t be happy with some aspects of it, and I’m okay with that.

I always try to taste a whisky at least twice before rating a whisky. This means I won’t be reviewing as many whiskies as some other reviewers, but that’s okay with me. The first time I taste a whisky is probably just like the way you taste a whisky. I pour myself a measure, nose it, taste it, and drink a little bit of it. This give me a general overall impression of the whisky, whether I like it or not, how much I like it (or dislike it), and why. I’ll usually jot down some general notes.

Then, at a later date, I’ll review it more formally. I’ll line up this whisky with a group of its peers (or previous bottlings from that distillery) and review it at the same time as my other formal reviews, in the same room as my other formal reviews, using the same nosing glasses as my other formal reviews. There’s usually no more than a half dozen whiskies.

I  nose and taste the whisky at bottle strength, jot down my thoughts, and combine them with my notes from the first tasting. Then I add water to the whisky and repeat the process. Finally, I rate the whisky. (As you can see, I don’t usually taste blind, and I know that some of you disagree with that.)

Oh, and one final note about how I review whiskies: I try to keep my tasting notes very simple and straight-forward without a lot of fancy words and descriptor. (Okay, sometimes I get a little carried away.) This is by design. I feel that reviews are supposed to help you, not alienate you.

So, lets hear what you have to say. Speak up.

(Note: If you already posted your thoughts on this topic on a different comment thread previously, if it is pertinent here, please feel free to re-post your thoughts here.)

38 Responses to “How everyone evaluates whisky–and the concequences”

  1. bgulien says:

    Sounds to me that you do it in a consequent manner. And that’s the way to do it when you are reviewing whisky as a person other people rely on. (I personally prefer your reviews over Murray’s)

    Always the same environment is good but one thing is usually dynamic, and that’s your mood. Bad day at the office, heavy traffic on the way home, or vice versa. All situations that can affect your judgement
    How do you factor this in?

  2. John Hansell says:

    bgulien, that’s why I always taste a whisky twice (and often more than twice, to be honest). It usually helps to correct this. Good question!

  3. Marc says:

    I’m fairly new at this so I may not be ‘qualified’ to comment, but the whisky reviews seem very indulgent and often describe items to such detail that I sincerely wonder how much is real, and how much the reviewer believes is real. I’ve seen reviews of the same whisky by Peter Jackson and Jim Murray (both of whom deserve any Scotch drinkers utmost respect) but they had completely different things to say and there was no similarities. That really makes me wonder.

  4. Quentin says:

    John,

    How do you control for personal preference? I wonder if a personal preference will lead to dismissing or not even detecting things in other whiskies. As a personal example, I have tried the Glenlivet Nadurra several times in the last few weeks and found it a little boring — am I letting bolder whiskies (Ardbegs, Laprhoaig etc) influence what I expect from a whisky?

  5. When I evaluate a whisky, I also give a score and publish my notes only after I have sampled it at least twice. This definitley helps to level out changes in your perception of the dram. And these changes can be significant on a day-to-day basis. I write down my notes at the first tasting, compare my second impressions to them and then try to condense all into a final tasting note.

    Like you, John, I don’t try to hunt down the faintest aromatic components and describe them with colorful words. I think the basic direction the whisky takes is more important and also more helpful to the reader. When you identify twenty different things in a whisky, much of it will be influenced by you personal shape at the time of tasting and might even distract from the general character of a dram.

    Furthermore, I don’t write proper reviews, but rather tasting notes combined with a short synopsis and a score, which I think is quite sufficient to express my impression.

  6. David K. says:

    My approach is similar to your’s, John. However, the one thing I always try to do is not read a formal review or scoring until AFTER I have tasted it and ranked it in my own mind, which is often very difficult because I want to know about a whiskey before purchase. Then, I’ll open up the Murray book or your site and compare notes. This approach may leave me with a slightly disappointing bottle from time to time, but avoids bias, and honestly is more fun.

  7. Dave Pickerell says:

    John,

    I wholeheartedly agree … as a hard and fast rule, I do not taste more than 8 samples in a 4 hour period and no more than 2 settings a day (unless I’m on a panel with someone else’s rules). I have a set of peer whiskies all together and go thru them several times. First time is for visual effect only. Second time is bottle strength nose. Third time is bottle strength taste. Fourth time is slightly cut nose … and fifth time is slightly cut taste. I try to work from weaker to more potent taste profiles. I do swallow just a little with each taste (hence the limited number). I usually don’t assign numbers, just relative placement. I try to keep the descriptors simple as well … and frequently have live samples of potential herbs, spices, etc available to help confirm the presence or absence of particular notes. Fortunately, I don’t have to review tons of products … so this works well for me.

    I am glad that there are people like you out there, whose opinions I trust and can rely upon to taste most of the other stuff out there…. Keep up the good work…

  8. I’ve oft wondered how you (and others) can keep straight the seemingly minor distinctions between whisky A and whisky B. I appreciate the fact that you taste twice (at least) and don’t attempt to taste too many at a time. Our world’s “more, bigger, better, faster” syndrome doesn’t seem to have infected you — one of the singular reasons I dedicate time to this place in space and so little to others.

    You are straight forward, seemingly without bias, and I, too, don’t know how you do that. I tend to favor peated expressions, but I can certainly appreciate what my nose and palate define as a wonderful non-peated expression.

    I drink, share, cuss, and discuss whisky for the pleasure of it. I could never take it as seriously as you must (to achieve your unbiased ratings). Instead of issuing a numerical rating, I use a continuum scale; however, as I taste more and more whisky expressions, I’m finding that to be a cumbersome effort, so I appreciate your (and others’) numbers.

    I’ve compared my “scale” to your (and others’) numbers, and for the most part your numbers line up very close to my linear scale. That’s why I pay particular attention to your ratings.

    I would like to know, too, are you influenced by your own taste biases?

  9. Adam H. says:

    The thing that strikes me as strange is that some people claim there’s a strict objectivity that must be involved in tasting whisky. That’s impossible. You can’t objectively evaluate something that by its very nature is a subjective experience.

    The drinker has a certain responsibility to familiarize himself with the preferences and biases of the reviewer, and adjust accordingly with that. Everyone does this naturally with other types of reviews — for instance, say, a movie review/rating — everyone understands that a film review in Entertainment Weekly should be read through different lenses than one in the Christian Science Monitor. Likewise, a profesional cinematographer will provide a very different perspective than a teenager.

    Likewise, the reviewer has a certain responsibility to be honest with his readers. Biases and preferences should be acknowledged.

    I have a club/website where I encourage everyone to do notes. Our tastings are blind. I rarely, if ever, tell the guys what to expect of a specific whisky — and I keep a poker face until they’ve had enough time to evaluate the whisky on their own terms. What they experience should be their experience. But, I also tell them that if they want to publicly post notes, it can be whatever they want — I figure that a range of opinions, even if some are short or even amateurish, can be valuable to an informed reader.

    Personally, I often try to taste blind, in a controlled setting — same place, same chair, same glass — and my control whisky is Glenfiddich 12. If on any given day, that ‘Fiddich doesn’t taste like I know it should, then my palate’s off and I don’t do notes/ratings.

    The problem with blind tastings, however, is that nobody actually drinks whisky blind — meaning, if you’re out for a nice dinner, and splurge on an expensive old Macallan, then you’re prepped for a high-end, oaky sherry bomb. There was a study done not long ago (published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) on wine drinkers that basically proved that when the drinker is told that something costs a lot of money, it tastes better. Likewise, the identical wine tasted blindly from a fancy-looking bottle and a crappy-looking bottle fares very differently. The reason is that different areas of the brain are stimulated more when someone expects something awesome/expensive/rare. Your senses are literally, physically heightened. So, maybe whiskies should _never_ be tasted blind, since part of the whisky-tasting experience is looking at the bottle, thinking about the price, the history, the culture, etc. It’s complicated.

    Most importantly, whisky is made to be enjoyed and drank in a (usually very) informal setting. That’s the reason that I’ll also post notes when I’ve tried a whisky at a bar or event (presuming I feel that I got a good enough taste of it). A ball of cotton candy tastes a lot better at a carnival than in a quiet, controlled laboratory setting…… anyhow, I’ve said more than anyone will read…. next!

  10. @ Adam H.

    I read every word, Adam. I’m sure others have or will, too.

    Bias is a human affliction. Nothing a human does can be absolutely without bias.

    In a “blind” tasting, for example, color can lead to bias. If you pour a Tullibardine 1993, some, even educated tasters, (if they don’t smell the malt first) might believe they’re about to taste an Ardbeg or a peated BenRiach.

    You said: “The drinker has a certain responsibility to familiarize himself [or herself] with the preferences and biases of the reviewer ….” I heartily agree.

  11. Tex says:

    I really like your reviews John, they have been immensely helpful in exploring bourbons and ryes, especially. I also like the fact that you are clearly independent, unlike Jim Murray. I have not heard anyone else declare Ardbeg Supernova as being fantastic, yet once again Jim has an Ardbeg on his list. Sure he could just disagree with everyone, but that just adds to the growing skepticism about his objectivity.

  12. B.J. Reed says:

    One thing I have really changed in my approach is not so much tasting it twice (although I think that is a sound idea depending upon factors such as length of time between the time you taste) as tasting it twice in one sitting.

    So, for example, if you taste a 9 YO Rosebank right after the bottle is opened you might find an hour later its gone flat as lowlands often do. On the other hand if you taste a Glenfarclas and go back to it an hour later you might find maple syrup has been poured into it! :0)

    Some whiskies mutate (particularly the nose) if you let it oxidize awhile. Others change dramatically with a little water.

    So, the two things I always do to confirm notes I take are taste it more than once in one setting over an extended period of time and taste it at whatever strength it comes out of the bottle and then add at least a touch of water to see what has changed from nose to taste to finish…

    Nuf said.

  13. Thanks for posting your review process. It’s incredibly valuable to the reader of a review to understand the process of the review itself. My review technique is perhaps a bit more informal, but the primary difference is that I don’t like to attach numerical ratings, which I find highly subjective. I definitely understand their role in the context of a magazine or similar media though.

  14. Luke says:

    Whiskey reviewing?

    “Enjoyed Mightily with friends and good company”.

    As good a review as you’ll read IMHO.

  15. Tony - imbiber says:

    Every Thursday a friend and I meet and sample scotches over the course of whatever it might be that we do. Who ever pours does so in secret and the other is forced to blind taste test and give their best guess as to region, age and distillery. Much of what I have learned of tasting scotches is thanks to the tastings you hold at Monk’s.

    First hold it up to the light and look at it. Then I nose the glass, take a small taste. Then add a drop or two of water (more if it is a potent cask strength) and nose and taste again. We generally start out describing what we taste and smell. Either the age or the region seems to pop out first.

    Often, this makes you think of a particular distillery. Between us, we probably have more than 60 single malts, and the visitor usually brings a bottle or two to pour from their collection.

    It is wonderful to stump the other person, but it happens rarely. It is nearly impossible to mistake the various whiskeys of Islay, for example. Granted, using independent bottlings does make this harder, but even so, how can you taste something like an Laphroig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin and confuse them with something else?

    The more you taste, and we try to use very small quantities, the more certain things become unmistakable. The way certain ones are sherried, the rawness of a green scotch, the floral sweetness of a Rosebank or the peppery bite of a Talisker.

    Blends I find difficult with a few small exceptions such as Pinch or Black Bottle. I only recognize them, because they are a whiskey I often turn to when I can’t decide what I want. I find them always quite drinkable. (I have some friends who find this abhorrent, choosing a blend over a single malt, but I like them.)

    I like to wash my palate in beer between scotches and then drink a small glass of water just before tasting. That’s just me, and I tend to drink malty beers as well, brown ales, stouts and porters. I think I like malt. I loved malted shakes too, for that matter.

    If I don’t write down a review at least once, or I don’t remember it very well.

    I have managed to make it through John’s tastings where we taste up to 7 scotches with my palate at least partly functional, but I do think after 4 or 5 your ability is much impaired.

    I am so happy that Monk’s reopened and look forward the next tasting, which I fear won’t be until long after the New Year.

  16. Tony - imbiber says:

    Sorry for being so long winded.

  17. Mike Ef says:

    There seems to be a good bit of preference here for a simple, direct style as opposed to lavish embellishment. And while a trained nose/palette can detect nuances that may not matter much to the average drinker (say, the difference between lemon pith and lemon zest), impressionistic reviews seem to be subjective to the point of undermining their basic function (which is to inform somebody as to what they might expect from a whisky).

    But I actually appreciate the impressionistic reviews a lot, in as much as they not only typically include (elaborate versions of) the basic flavor profile, but they also give the reader an abstract but meaningfully transmitted sense of how much the reviewer liked each element that s/he detected. When two or three top writers can disagree about almost every aspect of a whisky, even the driest tasting notes seem truly subjective.

    Not to say that we don’t appreciate or benefit from the professional approach, which is critical– John’s process sounds as good as anyone’s. But the thing that I like best about a review or reviewing style is that it is a little bit different from the myriad out there, and sometimes that means using the creative parts of the brain (and sometimes it doesn’t).

    And along with that variety of writing styles there should be a variety of methodolgies. It might be very useful, though, to somewhere make it clear to the reader what one’s method, in fact, is– as John has just done.

  18. davindek says:

    Hi John,

    Yes, I also enjoy your notes and especially that you write appreciatively about whiskies other than single malt Scotches.

    So often I hear people say that tasting and rating is subjective, implying that we shouldn’t take other’s notes (or our own) too seriously, and while I agree, after carefully tasting a few thousand whiskies I must say that subjectivity becomes less and less a factor. Still, like you I don’t like to rate a whisky after just one tasting, even though nine times out of ten my second score will be almost identical to the first.

    When I am tasting seriously I really try to eliminate any environmental influences. I taste in the same place with no distractions. I prefer to taste blind and, like Adam, I prefer to taste with a reference whisky.

    For serious competitions I may taste the same whisky five or six times before I have a solid score. I taste all the whiskies with similar scores against each other in various combinations in order to tease out the slightest differences.

    Like you, and many others, I tend to write simple tasting notes, but I really can see the value of noting the subtle differences. Just this weekend I was making the case for simple tasting notes and said it was enough to say a certain whisky tasted of apples. When someone asked what kind of apples, without thinking I said “Soft yellow ones.” And my friend said “See?”

    Davin

  19. JW says:

    John, I discovered your blog very recently (past couple of months) and have been impressed with your ratings, conscientious work habits and responsiveness (including interactions with your readers). I’ve gone back and read your older blogs and articles. I appreciate that unlike some other reviewers, you are able to relay the essence of the whiskey without turning “winey” as some other whiskey “experts” are doing. Leave the transcendental efforts to the wine buffs – whiskey deserves more honesty and straightforwardness.

    I like your approach – drinking it neat and then drinking it with some water and then rating it. Key here is you drink it. As for not blind tasting, I actually think it is better that way – you (and we) have certain expectations for certain brands and if it doesn’t live up to it or isn’t as good (for example, your recent review of the 2009 Eagle Rare 17 year old – am still disappointed that it is not as good as the previous two years).

  20. Adam H. says:

    Davin, I like your points. But, suppose a reviewer doesn’t prefer dry whiskies. No matter how objective they try to be, and no matter how much of an “appreciation” or “understanding” they may feel they have of/for dry whiskies, that person’s review/rating is still going to influenced by their semi-dislike of dry whiskies — because they can’t fully _enjoy_ the whisky the way it’s likely meant to be enjoyed.

    By way of analogy, suppose you love meat, but within that category you’re not really crazy about ground beef. Nevertheless, you review and rate a meatloaf. You can _objectively_ rate that meatloaf based on your understanding of the quality of beef, juicyness, spice combinations, and so forth, but basically what you’re doing is trying to approximate the way a meatloaf-lover might experience that meatloaf. Right?

    The obvious exception is the reviewer who loves all styles/types/finishes/whatever of whisky equally…. but does that guy truly exist?

    There may be a semantic confusion here about the word “subjective.” Yes, we can be very scientific, controlled, and objective our _approach_ to tasting whisky, but what we actually taste and experience is still 100% subjective — presuming we don’t have a built-in mass spectrometers, gas chromatographs, and so forth…. and even we you did, I don’t think any of us would find the data produced to be very useful.

    Oh, and one other thing — our taste buds die as we grow older. Every day we all lose some, and our experience of taste changes. That’s one reason that children have vastly different food preferences than adults… and it’s why whisky isn’t as appealing to college kids (at least, on a flavor basis) as it is to older folks. So, to close yet another lengthy post (sorry), I posit that this fact in particular makes it impossible for each person’s tasting not to be a subjective experience. Simply put, you don’t have my mouth, and I don’t have yours. Debate ensues!

  21. Serge says:

    Hi John, all,

    A few ideas…

    Sure assessing a whisky can be subjective, but I believe a reviewer can easily reduce the proportion of subjectivity in his notes and/or scores. The more different whiskies you try, the ‘better’ you should become at assessing a whisky, and the more aromas and flavours you’ll be able to detect. It’s like in any fields (arts, work, sports, whatever), the more you’ll practice, the better you’ll get. There is no other solutions, unless you’re one of the very few people who’ve got a super-nose and/or a super-palate.

    I know that this view isn’t PC. Sure the ‘one man, one vote’ (or ‘anybody’s an expert’) approach is tempting, especially in the Web 2.0 age, but is it really true? Are education, practice and experience really out of fashion these days? If the answer is yes, will it last? I tend to believe that ‘un-education’ regarding any food or drink matters leads to McDonaldisation. In whisky, that means big sweet (or peaty) easy flavours and less and less complexity. Do we want all whiskies to taste the same one day?

    Anyway, to answer John’s question, this is how I (try to) reduce subjectivity when trying whiskies:
    - Same setting, same time of the day. Always same glasses. Not after a meal. Never at unusual places. And alone (friends are great for freewheeling dramming, not for tasting and scoring).
    - Checking your senses/mood: trying reference whiskies first, that is to say whiskies that you know very well (one poster already mentioned that). If your HP12 tastes more bitter than usual, or no so good, just drop you session. Would you rate it much lower or higher than usual? Drop! Works better if you have a few of them (one peaty, one sherried, one all rounder, for instance). I feel I’m out of form at least half of the time.
    - Trying similar whiskies head to head. I like to try whiskies from the same distillery, maybe same ages, or wood type, or strength and so on. Helps you pick nuances. Never one whisky alone, never wildly different whiskies. Always a lot of water. Long pauses between flights.
    - Go from one to the other back and forth, several times. You can’t do that when you have wildly different whiskies. With and without water (always the same water).

    I do not split the scores into nose/palate/finish/comments because I don’t know which proportion of a global score each aspect deserves. Plus, I feel the proportions change with the whisky. Very old ones are more ‘on the nose’, young ones more ‘on the palate’. I feel 25/25/25/25 is too arbitrary anyway.
    On detailed tasting notes: (or just apples rather than soft yellow ones, as Davin would say). It’s a tricky issue because many people feel that going too deep into details means showing off. Indeed, it can be but on the other hand, everybody knows that not all apples taste the same. Nor do all peppers. Is Talisker’s black pepper the same as white pepper that sometimes comes from active oak? Of course we all have to work with our own references. A taster from China will not have the same references as a taster from southern Europe. Sometimes even the names can be unknown to some tasters, but google comes handy in that case! In any case, I think many whiskies (still) are complex drinks that deserve detailed unrushed tasting notes. Short, abbreviated tasting notes are cool but they describe only the whisky’s main frame, except when the whisky’s simple indeed. Now, short notes are also much quicker to write, which can be a relief ;-) . Again, the more you’ll taste very similar whiskies head to head, the more you’ll find details.

    At the end of the day, it’ll all come down to your notes’ purposes. I like to taste whiskies and to write my own tasting notes and feeding my own tasting diary is one of my hobbies. It helps me buying whiskies that I like whenever I come across a bottle. My little website is in fact simply my own tasting diary that I foolishly decided to put online a few years ago, thinking that it may be of help to a few friends. I did not, and will never adapt to some kind of standards or tweak them so that they’re more in line with what Joe Public wants. I’ll never sell them either. They may well not be very useful to a lot of people, I’m fine with that.

    Oh well, I just realised that all this may sound a tad conceit or vain. Apologies! (hear, Davin?)

    PS: many people ask me how I manage to try 1,000 whiskies a year, where I find the time especially since this isn’t my work. The answer is no or little TV. An average American or European spends three to four hours a day watching TV, where do they find the time? ;-)

  22. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    I find reviews helpful but no review can be the gospel on any whisky. To single out one of all the whiskies there are as World Whisky takes a lot of ego. Something Jim certainly has no lack of.

    On a small base like the tasting experience of one other person you can never be certain about the whisky in question being the one for you.

    The second thing I tell people when I do tasting is: If it comes to taste do not believe me anythig.
    There is only one authority you can trust when it comes to liking a whiksy or to disliking it. Yourself.

    So if you believe me if I tell you how a whisky smells and tastes and how good it is and you buy a bottle and do not find the properties I told you about you might just be disapointed and might have spent money on a probably expensive bottle of whisky you do not like.

    So John and everybody who does whisky reviews with or without giving ratings, I appreciate what you do and take inspiration from the things you say and write.

    But more I do not see in tasting notes or reviews. I have said this and more on other ocasions about ratings or the value of tasting notes.

    As a consumer my advice will always be let yourself be inspired and let tasting notes wake your curiosity. The truth about any whisky is in the glass. The glass you hold in your hand.

  23. butephoto says:

    Try everything yourself if you can. That’s the best way!
    :D

  24. Serge says:

    @Butephoto, exactly!

  25. patrick says:

    Since I am proceeding the same way as Serge, no need of more details.
    Since I always try to match the whiskies during my tasting sessions (same distilleries and similar age whenever possible), blind tasting is not applicable. Blind tasting might be a good approach, but you need to have someone preparing the samples for you and making sure that you don’t start with a heavily peaty whisky cask strength and move then on a smooth and light whisky bottled at 40%. Again, no magic solution.

    Also, when I don’t feel like, I don’t do any tasting.
    As mentioned by Butephoto, whenever possible, try everything yourself since you are the final judge.
    Unfortunately, It is not always possible to taste the whisky that you desire, so I will consult tasting notes produced by others. Regarding scoring, I put a score from 0 to 5 for the nose, taste, finish and general impression. It has pro and cons, but this was my decision. To my opinion, to give the best description as possible, I write tasting notes and rate them. Again, this might be criticized, but that is the best compromise I found. Two whiskies might have a similar profile, but one taste better than the other one, so a score is needed, and vice-versa.

    Regarding the vocabulary, I try to use the same vocabulary to make cross-comparison possible. Of course, as mention by Serge, the flavor description is based on my olfactory experience and I guess that some aromas such as quince, gentian or liquorice might not be very meaningful for a Japanese or Indian whisky enthusiast. Well, we could use refer to flavors based on the chemical structure, but this would not very useful. Isn’t it?

    About nosing only?
    For blenders, they are looking for consistency for their blends. Well, this might be adequate when you are nosing all the time similar whiskies, since you know what to expect on the palate. Each whisky I taste is almost new to me, I will taste it. If not, the information I will get out of it would be rather limited and would not be too useful to the whisky drinker?

  26. John Hansell says:

    Wow, much has been said here, and by a wide range of whisky enthusiasts–from the beginner to those who review even more whiskies than I do. There’s a lot to chew on here, and I appreciate everyone taking the time to offer their thoughts and opinions.

    I must say that reviewing (and rating) whiskies is the hardest thing I do professionally and I take it very seriously.

    There are whiskies I like, whiskies I don’t like and whiskies that are just “okay”. My numerical ratings of whiskies are my way of expressing this.

    But keep in mind that these are MY feelings and opinions about a whisky and not yours. So, you must determine how corrolated your palate is to mine. This is critical. You might discover that you more closely gravitate towards someone elses reviews and ratings. If that’s the case, then by all means follow their reviews and not mine.

    And this is why some of you out there don’t even believe in assigning a rating to a whisky, because likes and dislikes is a personal thing. Fair enough!

    But I think that my ratings, and Jim’s ratings and Serge’s ratings, etc., all serve a purpose. The key reason why you read our reviews is because you want to get a feel for a whisky’s flavor profile and overall quality before plopping down big bucks to buy it. Yes, YOUR opinion is what matter’s most. BUT, you don’t always have the luxury to taste a whisky before deciding to buy it. We usually do, and this is where we can help.

    As long as you understand that reviews and ratings are just guides, and you should use as many as possible to help form an opinion, then I think our reviews–and ratings–can be very helpful.

    Quentin, Two-bit, Adam H., etc: regarding your question of bias, fortunately I like all categories of whiskies and styles of whiskies. I think this helps.

    Keep the comments coming! We can all learn from this discussion.

  27. Cary says:

    Hi John: Great exposition; keep up the good work!

  28. Red_Arremer says:

    A friend of mine, says that he usually doesn’t take notes– because he’d rather just go back to the bottle instead.

    Seems to me that this is the essence of appreciating scotch as a drink. The reviews and such, the discussion of the product and the industry, serve primarily to add a sense of social depth, cultural location, extended community, and significance.

    Serge, you say that “friends are great for freewheeling dramming, not for tasting and scoring.” Maybe that’s true. For my part, though I very much enjoy sharing a dram with my girlfriend or a close friend. We take our time with the whisky, chat about it a little. It’s a relaxing and meditative experience. Two people focusing on one thing. Like listening to an interesting piece of music with someone whose taste you respect. Nothing “freewheeling” about it. I like to take my time with whisky alone too. That can also be great. The point is that focusing on something, appreciating it, and taking it seriously, can all be achieved without the striving towards an image of nonbias or objectivity.

  29. Serge says:

    @Red, very true. That works also with me, when these friends are very close and as mad (serious?) about whisky as I am. There aren’t many – and I don’t always have them at hand, alas ;-) . Thanks for correcting me, its was a generalisation (generalisations are always bad, aren’t they?)

    Having said that, I tend to be very easily disturbed whilst I need a lot of concentration, especially since I’m writing my notes in what’s not my mother tongue. One more handicap, uh! Indeed, I need less ‘tranquillity’ when writing in French, but that doesn’t happen too often.

  30. Mike says:

    In reading these posts, I came up with the following mental image to explain the subjective/objective whisky tasting conundrum:

    Picture a shooting target (archery perhaps), but rather than having a single bull’s-eye at the middle, there are a series of separate bull’s-eyes clustered around the middle of the target. If you stand close enough you can clearly see each individual bull’s-eye. If you stand far back, they seem to meld together into a hazy middle of the overall target. It is my belief that the combination of personal preference and individual palate causes any one whisky taster to in effect be shooting at a slightly different bull’s-eye (say it appears red to that person), especially with elaborately described tasting notes (which represent standing close to the target). The more tasting you’ve done (and better prepared your palate is on that day), the better you are at hitting your personally appropriate bull’s-eye with consistency. Does this mean that one taster’s notes are of no use to another? Not necessarily, if you consider that different styles of whisky (regions of production, mash-bill, cask type, length/location of aging) are actually entirely separate targets. Even different expressions from the same distillery could be different targets. If you stand just far enough away that the separate bull’s-eyes of any one target seem to meld together, you can still very clearly see that a particular bourbon, rye, Scotch, etc. are in fact different targets. Therefore I think that if enough individuals taste a particular expression, taken in the aggregate their combined impressions are a good representation of that particular bottling to the average whisky drinker. Any one whisky drinker won’t taste everything that’s been described, but he/she will likely pick out a few of the different shades and will get a similar feel of the overall impression given by any one whisky. Comparing two people’s tasting notes, it’s no surprise that you might find very little in common between them. But if you compare 10+ sets of tasting notes, I would expect some commonalities to emerge and an accurate overall impression of that whisky.

    Giving any one whisky a numerical score is equivalent to placing a second “shadow” target directly behind the first, but with some offset between the middle of the two targets. The first target represents what you’re actually drinking. The shadow target (picture your arrows passing through the first and hitting the second) represents what you EXPECT that whisky to taste like. Note that you still have certain expectations even if the whisky tasting is done blind. The score is a measure of how far apart the hits are between the two targets. Because of the role of expectation, this scoring process is way more subjective. Nevertheless, if you average together several taster’s expectations, you’ll still get a reasonable representation of how the whisky at hand (say a 10 year old bourbon) compares to some average expectation of what an 8-12 year old bourbon should taste like.

    I hope that was helpful. In the above scenario, when anyone tastes a whisky more than once, it represents firing more than one shot. The average of these shots has a much better chance of representing the location of that individual’s bull’s-eye, and if giving a numerical score, the average will give a more reproducible score if the same person were to taste the same whisky at a later date. The practical limit is how many samples you have to taste in a certain period of time and the effects of drunkenness on your accuracy- no one should shoot while drunk!

  31. John M says:

    “Can you be unbiased if you don’t taste blind?”

    Some people can, but most people can’t. For some people, the word “scotch” gets a whisky extra points, “Islay” gets it a few more again.

    And I think reviewers should taste the whisky on their own.

  32. René says:

    Butephoto said:

    “Try everything yourself if you can. That’s the best way!”

    One of the best advices, imo.

    Red_Arremer said:

    “A friend of mine, says that he usually doesn’t take notes– because he’d rather just go back to the bottle instead”

    How true, imo.

    John H. said:

    “But keep in mind that these are MY feelings and opinions about a whisky and not yours. So, you must determine how corrolated your palate is to mine. This is critical. You might discover that you more closely gravitate towards someone elses reviews and ratings. If that’s the case, then by all means follow their reviews and not mine.”

    Very true. imo.

  33. Texas says:

    John, One interesting thing I have found that in the price range that I can afford maybe $80, I am 95% of the time in agreement with you and Serge Valentin of whiskyfun. Every bourbon or rye purchase I have made in the last year has been based on your reviews and you have hit the nail on the head everytime..especially about the High West Rendezvous. However you do it, just keep doing it.

  34. John Hansell says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence guys.

    And yes, I want to plug Serge at WhiskyFun.com. He’s doing a great job over there and often reviews Scotch (and European) whiskies) before they get here to the U.S., so be sure to check out his site.

  35. [...] bloggers questioning Murray’s objectivity.  For more, check out What Does John Know (and his follow up post), and Whisky Intelligence.  Meanwhile, Edinburgh Whisky casts doubt on the entire business of [...]

  36. Serge says:

    Much too kind, John (and others).
    Certainly undeserved, just trying to have a little fun.

  37. monique at the dell says:

    John (and Serge)!
    Keep on doing what you do.

    I find that my personal tastes lie somewhere between you two, but can rely on your notes to make tough purchasing decisions… They help me narrow choices down and highlight whiskies which I may have completely overlooked.

    I often have people ask me to “tame down” other tasting notes and put them in laymen’s terms. The more approachable the notes, the more people that may be encouraged to purchase the whisky, not be thrown by it. Better for all of us!

    Personally, I like to give first nose to a whisky in the wee hours of the morning, pre-food and coffee and come back to it for a taste 30 minutes later. I like to try 2-5 at a time, from similar distilleries or vintages. I’ve found a lot of value in letting something oxidize over the course of an hour and seeing how well it holds up to air and water.

    A bit different than others, I also enjoy tasting and ranking with friends, but just one group. Because olfactory is linked so closely to memory, it’s nice to have someone remind you of an experience, food, or odor that you shared and relate it to a tasting note.
    I also agree whole-heartedly that everything should be tasted, some swallowed… At least twice and with a control of environment and glassware.

    Purchased a “Bukanter” my last trip and that’s been a lot of fun too. Also, while I might use someone else’s notes in an initial purchasing decision. I hide them away when it comes time to make my own, they can really sway your opinion and even what you smell and taste if the notes are right there.

  38. Tony says:

    I find all reviews useful to some extent. I am not a big fan of sherried whiskeys where the fruit dominates the malt.

    I want to taste the whiskey first and foremost. There are sherried and other finishes that I love, but I am first and foremost a malt lover.

    Learn your reviewers. Think about what you like. Pick a style or a region and think about which whiskey really does it for you.

    Then go see what the reviewers say. I am astounded constantly that such and such a whiskey gets rated low, or high by so and so. Look at your tasting notes and theirs. Maybe their description is more accurate, or maybe it makes no sense to you at all. Maybe you see a pattern, when so and so says XXX it translates into you thinking a whiskey tastes salty, or peppery or whatever.

    It can be quite eye opening to blind taste test your favorite whiskey(s) – sometimes, your expectation guides your palate. Knowing what it is, changes how you taste it, or what you think of when you taste or nose it.

    At least, for me.

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