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Monday
Jun062011

No Authority 

If you think there's no authority in the world of wine critics, think again.  When Robert Parker releases his Bordeaux ratings every May, the wine world sits in anticipation, waiting with baited breath to see just exactly what they can effectively charge for their bottles.  A higher Parker score equals a higher price tag, so each point can mean the difference between hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars .  If K&L sends out an email to customers and the review of the product reads, "96 points Wine Spectator," you can expect that wine to sell out within the hour.  Thousands of people read the Wine Spectator and a 90+ review can equal big sales for the recipient of such an award.  The world of wine is such a large, complicated, and ever-expanding one, that people like me get paid to interpret it for those without the time to do it themselves.  People defer to authority because wine can be so confusing, so snooty, so high-browed that they don't dare misspeak or misstep for fear of revealing a weakness.  Most people also don't want to waste time or money on a bad bottle, nor do they want to show up at a party with a bottle that needs to be explained.  The bottle needs to speak for itself. 

The authority of these powerful critics extends far beyond points and scores.  Robert Parker's book of Bordeaux is still one of the best reference books on the region.  Clive Coates has an expansive, and all-encompassing tome on Burgundy.  James Laube wrote a great manual on California.  These guys are all-around experts whose opinions are respected as much as their knowledge.  What's interesting to me is that the whisk(e)y world has yet to produce someone as powerful or influencial.  There are and have been some profound figures, no doubt, (Jim Murray, Michael Jackson, John Hansell, Dave Broom, Chuck Cowdery, etc.) but none of them wield the same might with whisk(e)y as someone like Parker does with wine.  If I send an email out about a new whisk(e)y and I put "92 points Malt Advocate" it just doesn't have the same effect.

Part of the reason I think this crossover has not occured is because whisk(e)y has no real vintage.  No one is waiting for the next seasonal release that is based upon growing conditions or weather.  Whisk(e)y bottles don't need to be kept in a cellar to mature either, therefore customers don't need to inquire about the drinking window or ask, "How long should I keep this before opening it?"  Whisk(e)y also has limited producers, distilleries, and production methods, which therefore limits the amount of information available about it.  For example, there are always new wineries or new producers making new wines from different grapes, which results in an ever-expanding universe of information that needs to be processed and deciphered.  You could write about new wines everyday and just scratch the surface of a single region, let alone the entire planet.  The whisk(e)y world is large, but it doesn't grow at the same speed.  It's methods are not constantly in flux and there is not nearly as much interest in how it is produced or the source of its materials.  Because of this, I think that whisky writers and critics have to really dig to continually find something interesting to say.

What do people want to read about when it relates to whisk(e)y?  Wine has its many facets: farming, production, cellaring, and tasting - four distinctly different subjects, each with their own culture of enthusiasts.  What does whisk(e)y have?  Those who like it and those who really like it, that's about it.  The people who really like it are interested in the distillery, understanding the flavors, and learning about why they taste the way they do.  However, I don't know one person (discounting professionals) who cares about the source of the barley, the farming methods of different grains, the bogs containing peat, the quality of the water, the weather surrounding the warehouse, or the wood in the cooperage.  Heck, I'm a professional and my interest in those subjects is mild at best.  That leaves flavor as the one overall interest of those who like whisky (not that it shouldn't be the most important, because it should), but how much can you continually say about flavor?  How long can you read about the taste of whisky before you begin to nod off?

Part of this phenomenon is obviously the result of the information age we live in.  Parker was established before the internet with its limitless blogs and amateur experts dilluted the pool.  We get our information from so many sources these days that it may not be possible for another grand publication to ever establish itself.  Now it just comes down to the simplest possible summary there is: points.  But if points haven't taken over whisk(e)y already, will they ever?  Will there come a day when a customer asks me to look up a review in the Whisky Bible?  That kind of occurance happens every single day concerning wine, but it's never happened once regarding a whisk(e)y - at least not to me.  The whisk(e)y world has no true, established authority.  Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure. 

-David Driscoll

Reader Comments (6)

You say:
"who cares about the source of the barley, the farming methods of different grains, the bogs containing peat, the quality of the water, the weather surrounding the warehouse, or the wood in the cooperage"

I'm a daft 'un what likes to know these things. I actually do like to know about what goes into my food and drink, and I certainly do get this sort of information you cite wrt wines, at least, mostly the ones I drink.
Source of the barley ≈ vineyard or variety of grape
farming methods ≈ farming methods, how the vines are espaliered (what formation, how many wires per row)and pruned during growing
bogs containing peat ≈ terroir
quality of the water ≈ if wine grapes were dry-farmed, that would be mentioned. Brix? I suppose they might mention proportion of rain to irrigation...
weather surrounding the warehouses ≈ climate near harvest, date of harvest and what sort of place the wines were aged in (warehouse or cave?) and at what humidity
wood in the cooperage is also important in wines
distillation processes and stills ≈ what was the wine aged in, finished with (if any)
all those fun numbers pertaining to the product at bottling

Oenophiles love all that information. I'd love to know about it in the whiskies I consume.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterA. Marina Fournier

It takes effort to find decidedly 'bad' bottles of whisk(e)y, and it's super easy to find excellent bottles of whisk(e)y. I don't need experts to tell me that, and I sure as hell don't need their scores.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRN

I think that's a big part of it. Their advice is not nearly as necessary. Bad wines are easy to find. Bad whiskies are much harder.

June 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterDavid Driscoll

I hear you. Still, dry, over-aged over-woodied whiskies are still out there in number though (Woodford seasoned oak finish anyone?) when high proof, unbalanced ones are bottled in quantities (masking the fact alc is out of balance by saying it is bottled as such so one can dilute the stuff to one's liking to make it more palatable - it is another subject, i know, but when one is bringing the proof down of a cask of spirit, one is supposed to diminish the proof not more than 2 degrees at a time, letting the 2 phases (alc & water) in between each addition of water marry together for months so one really tastes the product at a lower proof rather than a sort of diluted mix that doesn't taste like what it could/should).

99% of the spirits consumers are roughly of 3 types: the guys who are not really into brown spirits and consume mostly vodka (or clear stuff in general), the guys who go for the basic brown stuff and the geeks.
If one aint a geek, one will often times stick with what one knows one likes (Beam white, Jack etc...); it serve the purpose, very consistent stuff, all good.
The geek is going to wonder what color of underwear Dr X put on the day he blended those casks and will discuss on message boards the importance of the moon influence on the peat drying process (not judging here; I see myself as part of this latter category).
And none of those guys really need somebody to tell them what they should be smelling or tasting in those 2oz they are sipping.

On a slightly different note this is also one of the reasons why wine people often times miss the point when taking a look at spirits (if they ever happen to do so). Those are two complete different worlds; What applies to one, is really not necessary transferable to the other.

But again, I ve been wrong before.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNP

NP, I agree plenty of whiskies are harsh, out-of-balance, horribly over-oaked, etc. But even so, wonderfully complex and balanced whiskies are far simpler to select than lovely wines. Pours of new or untried whiskies are tremendously easier to access via better bars/pubs, whisk(e)y tasting events, store tasting events, miniatures, and samples before one purchases a full bottle. I may read what Hansell or Murray have to say with interest, but I really don't 'need' their input as I can usually try all the whiskies I wish to buy. And the rare untried outlier whisk(e)y purchases are driven by the recommendations of fellow geeks, and/or trusted brick-n-mortar proprietors, rather than the opinions of an 'expert' authors/bloggers. With wine, the same level of 'preview' access isn't possible across such enormous varieties, classifications and vintages... certainly that's a huge driver of wine 'expert' consultation.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRN

RN - I agree, and also the fact that many wines sell out before anyone has the chance to try them. It happens with whisky too, but not nearly as much. It happens every year with all the top Bordeaux

June 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterDavid Driscoll

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