Jul 092010

As you may have read here (or listened to, if you are one of the Liquorature core) Lance and I have occasional volleys regarding our views on reviews.  Topics include, but are not limited to:  subjectivity, assignation of a numerical rating, format, etc.  One of the topics that has cropped up a few times is my lack of reviews for those truly awful whiskies out there.

The observation itself is valid.  A quick perusal of the whisky reviews here will attest to exactly Lance’s point.

So…should my integrity be doubted?  Should be nosing/tasting abilities be questioned?  Should a high degree of skepticism be employed when reading these reviews?

Short answer…absolutely.  These reviews ARE subjective.  They are comprised entirely of my personal evaluation and will continue to be so.  You, as a reader, should always question what is put in front of you.

So, why are the reviews seemingly universally high?  Simple, really.  Whisky is expensive.  I, and we, buy it to enjoy it.  A low end rum may only gouge you for $15-$20, while a low end single malt will still cost somewhere in the low $30’s.  Of course, we all pad our cabinets with a few of those buffer bottles that help preserve the good stuff (or to offer guests you just…don’t…like), but the secret is to find those affordable bottles that are actually really good so we never have to drink rotgut.  More on this in a future post.

The moral however is that we in the whisky world are spoiled by choice.  There are thousands of exceptional malts on the market (and more to come as the world stage is being shared with many new distilleries in far-flung corners of the globe).  When shelling out our hard-earned ATM-dispensed food stamps should we buy a clunker just for the novelty of writing a review of an inferior product?  I don’t care about creating a bell curve based on my reviews, so this becomes incidental to me.

Lance’s point hits home more on his side of the fence.  Being a rummie, he is at the mercy of the liquor outlets and their prejudices.  A tour of almost any outlet will show a vastly more expansive Scotch whisky section than rum selection.  It is quite feasible for our resident caner (and his newfound disciples – notably Robert and Bauer) to exhaust the choices rather quickly.  Lance has, in exasperation, mentioned this challenge many times.  We whisky anoraks on the other hand are still overwhelmed by the available choices and future prospects.

This brings me back to the point.  I have not found many bad whiskies yet, because there are too many good (or at least promising) ones to try.  I tend to have an idea (through other reviews, distillery history, local industry resources and whisky forums) as to the quality of what I am buying before presenting plastic.  Further, many of the whiskies reviewed are from tastings, where an ambassador is highly unlikely to present anything less than the best of his/her line, or are Liquorature club selections.  The Liquorature selections are always chosen with a view to impress, not shock.

Alas, fear not…for I have tried some really…not good drams.  I will not mention names here as future reviews will cover them when I am brave enough to re-pop those corks.  Anyone who says there is no such thing as a bad whisky is lying to you.  Fortunately for us though…there aren’t that many.  Relatively speaking

A final note…

I recently picked up the latest edition of Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion.  The introduction to this edition speaks to the character as well as the integrity and expertise of this sorely missed whisky legend.  It mentions Michael’s adherence to the ‘if you can’t say anything nice…’ idiom.  While I do not necessarily agree to this philosophy, I will admit I do not go out of my way to review what I feel is an inferior product.

Thoughts, folks?

 Posted by at 8:19 am

  9 Responses to “Stinkers”

  1. Here ya go, Lance.

  2. Well put. Goes well with – and is an interesting counterpoint to – my notes on Single Digit Rums and whether we are a bunch of likker snobs.

    I agree that we tend to aim high when we go draining our wives’ bank accounts (which is as it should be). I can’t in all fairness say that my experiment with revieweing the lower end of the spectrum has been an unqualified success, but it has given me an appreciation for the quality of the more expensive stuff.

    Too, the crap-end of the rum world is really not made for sipping, which whiskies of the sort you prefer mostly are: this means they are made primarily for either cooking or as cocktail bases, and this allows me to mix ’em and glug ’em them comfortably, if not always with enjoyment.

    Lastly: all respect and kudos to the esteemed whisky author, but its an idealistic utopia he’s advocating with the “If you can’t say something nice…”. The fact is that once we hit a certain point, we will have passed beyond mere apprenticeship and being students of the Malt and the Cane. We will have experience and knowledge and will have tasted around for years, developed snoot and tongue and palate. Others less devoted, or perhaps those who are now getting into things, will read what we write, seeking opinions, help, understanding. And we would be abrogating our duty as reviewers (I do not say critic, since we are stating a point of view, expressing an opinion, not criticizing) not to be honest when something is simply not good, or sub-par. Now I may dress my pig up in funny language, but it’s still a pig. We have to ensure we stay honest that way – and call the pig what it is.

    Having said all of the above, I wait for the day when you take a much-anticipated whiskey from supposedly noble sires and impeccable antecedents, and it ends up tasting like (how did Keenan so colourfully phrase it?) curried dingo sh*it.

    Now there’s a review I can’t wait to read.

  3. Ahem…McLellands. Coming in the near future.

  4. Nice site. I just bookmarked you on my bloglines.

  5. Always found the best way to taste and fully understand single malts is in a vertical tasting of the same brand. Usually starting with a young expression and finishing with an 18-25 year old. Something magical about an 18 year old scotch comparing to say a 10 year old. Always creates good conversation talking about bang for the buck and the best tasting overall.

    I like reading the tasting notes of the professional tasters but never really agreed on their rating system. But still the best single malts of the world always seem to be the same and usually for a good reason.


    Work is the curse of the drinking classes

  6. Ratings can be the source of simple disagreement, or occasionally the hiring of a hit man. You decide. But here are the relative truths:

    1. When it come to spirits, experienced taster/reviewers actually agree. Yes, the descriptors may change but the actual ratings really don’t. Davin of the Malt Maniacs is really pretty maniacal about tasting blind, and writing down his score before he hears those of anybody else.

    Surprisingly he found the ratings of his fellow taster to be within a point or two.

    2. BTI – the Beverage Tasting Institute – has perhaps the most rigorous and unbiased protocol I know of, using a good panel of experienced tasters. Although, like other top tasters (like Jackson) their scores fall mostly from 5-10, I once performed a computer analysis of the 200 or so rums they’d reviewed.

    The result: a gorgeous bell curve.

    In sum, this is what really counts. A bell curve indicates reassuring credibility and honesty, since no matter where you aim at the dartboard, the results almost always will fall into a relatively normal bell curve.

    Distributions to the high end tend to be those of promoters. Now if you fear your own – honest – scores are running high, you might find that a distribution of analysis will still show the bell, allowing you the opportunity to relabel your scored.


  7. Lance, a few quick additional notes. First, I’d like to reiterate our admiration of what is surely one of the most interesting, and relatively competent rum/whiskey websites on the net (short of mine, of course!). That you also “do” books and post intriguing miscellany is also good.

    In particular, I was especially pleased to see that someone spoke of “The Idiot”. No doubt a sop to me, well known as “The Compleat Idiot of Rum”, lol.

    Happy New Year and keep up your wonderful work!

    But I digress…

    Often, in rereading a post I pick up things I missed the first time – but as the Compleat Idiot I am afforded such deviations. It’s expected.

    You mentioned Michael Jackson and his commitment to good whisky. Of course his death is a major loss, still his work, The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, goes on and still retains as much of his work as possible, particularly with Macallan. No whisky drinker should be without this educational and honest tome.

    One of the most potent books I’ve ever read about tasting was in a book called “Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine”. This is a very, very serious collection of contributions by some of the world’s most respected wine tasters and makers.

    In it they discuss the idea of escalating skill – enjoyment, connoisseur, writers and reviewers and chemists. The notion was that to become more skilled, you first must designate those experts in whom you trust.

    This is no small matter. In the world of rum particularly there is a group of self-appointed “experts” who retain commercial ties and relationships, who have not really paid their tasting dues, and who honestly don’t have the chops. Many of their “reviews” are outright steals or rewrites of distiller marketing copy.

    I once posted a fascinating article comparing the “reviews” of two of these “experts”. What a hoot!

    Anyway, the Philosophy names, of course, is the inestimable Robert Parker. This man is truly the focal point of wine reviewing and is absolutely fanatical about keepin his distance from the industry. He is more than willing to take stands that contradicts the “consensus” and has been right so often that he stands almost alone.

    Bottom line: he has earned respect and credibility, not simply claimed it. As budding reviewers we all need our heroes. For us and for whisky, it’s Jackson. For rum (and whisky too) it’s Dave Broom.

    Believe me this is not easy. In our own humble case we have occasionally taken some contrary stands that have proven to be right (eg the altered, liqueuer-like nature of the Zee rums). And although our reviews do fall into the normal distribution there are some real clunkers and we do say so. There’s a cost to this:

    We don’t solicit free samples (not that they are offered). I am no longer invited to “judge” (along with the other sycophants) at the “rumfests” and their faux “competitions” (that lack any real or reliable protocol and do not include all the important contenders).

    That’s why websites like yours, along with just a very few others is so important. We need places where truth – however haltingly told – prevails. The Queen’s nudity must be noted and examined in great detail, lol. As must be the elephants wandering through…

    That this can be done with a sense of humor, history, and while telling an interesting “story” simply makes it better and more effective.

    Keep it up!

    • Ahoy, Capn.

      Curt here. The whisky content (and the main post above here, as well as all afore-mentioned references to MJ et al) on Liquorature is mine. I think each post/page/review begins with the author’s name. Lance tackles the rums and most books (as I have sorta stepped back from fiction reviews)…I handle the whisky and ‘gathering’ reviews and various other musings.

      I’ve enjoyed reading your contributions (however misguided…rum, bah!), and hope you stick around.

      Your points here are valid. As the whisky content here on Liquorature grew I branched off with http://www.allthingswhisky.com. Most reviews are mirrored here or vice versa. As Lance has built up a sizeable bedrock he is thinking about a similar move. Time will tell.

      Regardless…it brings us back to the point of designating ‘experts’. Uncomfortable as I am with this term, I concede the need to first determine that the reviewer knows of which they speak, and second that they have a nose/palate that you can relate to (even if not necessarily agreeing with the minutae).

      Though I don’t seek vindication in what I do (not speaking for Lance here…he can pipe in), I would be lying if I didn’t concede a certain satisfaction from correct deductions at blind tastings, reader agreement, growing traffic and finally reader requests for certain products to be reviewed. This simply keeps me honest, and provides that peronal assurance that what I am dissecting is indeed seen by others.

      Where I can speak for Lance is in assuring the reader that he spends as much time with his beak in the glass (Glencairn purists, to be certain) and diligently peeling scents out as I do. This task (writing/reviewing) is a lot like work when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, I think, we have a responsibility to the reader. If we are going to even faintly suggest that something is a worthwhile investment I would hope the reader has read a few other reviews to see if they agree/disagreee with what we’ve said about other products they may know.

      Lance and I have different approaches (as anyone can see) but we get to where we want to be in the end.

      Regarding MJ? There’s something of the grandfatherly figure there. Though I enjoy his work and oft recommend his book, I’ll admit…I’m much more a Jim Murray guy. Though far from being a member of his sycophantic legions, I find his rating scale more in line with mine…the flavors and aromas he picks out more in line with those I do…and his writing much more captivating. All said however…he and I often have vast point spreads (more than 20 points on occasion!). Dave Broom is brilliant, BTW.

      Finally…none of us are experts. We’re all learning. Things are always changing. Being humble keeps me on the straight and narrow.

      Cheers, Capn.

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