Reviewing Whisky For The Purchasing Public
According to CNN, the internet now has 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses or, as the guys from the Big Bang Theory would say, 340 undecillion. I'm pretty sure that half of those sites are up and coming whisky bloggers (ha!). There's been a huge explosion of food and booze-related websites over the past few years, mainly due to the huge explosion of interest in food and booze! People love talking about booze, almost as much as we love gossiping about the lives of celebrities. Collecting has a become a serious hobby and in order to keep one's collection spotless, we want to know which bottles to buy and which to avoid. Like Rolling Stone rates new records or Entertainment Weekly grades upcoming films, there are a number of different systems in place for ranking the quality of various whiskies – the 100 point system, five stars, A through F, etc. As a retailer, we refrain from using any of these rankings because we don't want to get in the habit of saying we have good and bad inventory – obviously, we're here to sell all of it (our wine buyers will definitely let you know, however, when another publication has favorably reviewed one of our products). Just because we're in the business of selling booze doesn't mean that we can't give our opinion about the various selections. I love reviewing, writing, talking, and thinking about whisky. Personally, I don't avoid ranking systems because I'm a retailer, I avoid them because I genuinely dislike them.
If I could get back the money I paid to go see a bad "four star" movie from Leonard Maltin or to purchase a terrible 9+ point album from Pitchfork.com, I would feel better about rating systems. Inevitably, rankings come down to personal opinion and scores based on personal interpretation of a sometimes personal scoring apparatus. There's nothing wrong with using a scoring system for yourself, or to share with friends and other hobbyists, but when people start spending money based on these ratings, there's simply too much that can go wrong. I'm trying to avoid going off on a completely different tangent here, so let's just say that I don't feel personal rankings help consumers make educated decisions about purchasing. They may help spark an interest or curiousness in tasting a particular malt, but they don't always put things into context. There's one question that needs to be answered before making a purchase above all and it rarely, if ever, gets addressed in most widely-read whisky reviews: Why would someone want to own this whisky?
There are many fantastic single malts available on the market right now. Few of us own every one of them. Even if we could afford it, would we really want to possess every single expression known to man? There are at least fifty whiskies, just on the Redwood City shelf alone, that I absolutely adore. Want to know how many of those I actually own? Five. While the other forty-five are, in my opinion, of the highest possible quality, flavor, character, and value, I have no desire to actually bring them home and drink them when I'm feeling thirsty. The point I'm trying to make is that whisky needs to be more than just 90 points for me to buy it. I'm not saying it needs to be 91 or better (ha ha), I'm saying that something on top of quality, flavor, and price needs to speak to me.
Yesterday, I called Kilchoman's Machir Bay my favorite single malt of 2012 so far, to which one can attach some sort of numeric value or rating if they so choose. However, I don't want anyone out there to purchase that whisky simply because I like it. That's not a very good reason for buying anything. Sure, I taste a lot of whisky for a living, but I may like whisky that you don't, or vice versa. Therefore, what can I tell you about the Kilchoman Machir Bay that will help you make a decision? Everyone knows tasting notes are dull and boring, so cross those off the list. Everyone knows I'm enthusiastic and prone to hyperbole, so cross excitement off the list. How about the fact that the Machir Bay tastes kind of like "Bruichladdich meets Lagavulin." Maybe someone out there loves both of those distilleries and is interested in the idea of trying something similar. Context – that always helps. How about some information about the distillery? Maybe because this is Kilchoman's first "affordable" release and it's a chance for someone to get a feel for the style without dropping a hundred bucks. Maybe because this is a five year old whisky that tastes better than many twelve year old malts, or maybe because someone likes the idea of supporting the little guy. Perhaps those are interesting reasons to consider taking this bottle home.
In the end, I purchased a bottle of Machir Bay because it's delicious and I absolutely love it. However, as I said earlier, taste is just step one for me. After accounting for flavor, I need a reason to believe in a whisky. I purchased the Compass Box Flaming Heart last year because John Glaser's approach to blending fascinates me and this was his homage to peated Brora. I grabbed a bottle of the Ardbeg Day last week because the idea of an Ardbeg malt with extra sherry maturation really intrigued me. I always have a bottle of Springbank on hand because they're a distillery that still handles every step of production and for some reason that makes it taste better in my glass. The Machir Bay came home yesterday with me because I can't wait to pour it next to a glass of Lagavulin 16 and then make all my friends do a blind tasting.
In the end, maybe I'm the crazy one for believing there's more to a whisky than just flavor. However, I can't help but think that knowing something about what makes a particular whisky special helps it to taste better. Giving a whisky 95 points or five stars doesn't make it special because that's just one person's opinion. There are still objective elements to whisky. As a retailer, it's my job to help you find which of those are important to you.