Friday, December 4, 2015
Putting Whiskey Rankings, Ratings, and Awards in Perspective.
You've seen the headlines. "Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Named Whiskey of the Year." Then the follow-up headlines. "Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Flying Off the Shelves."
In other news, the New York International Spirits Competition has taken to giving awards such as "Kentucky Rum Distillery of the Year" and "South Carolina Vodka Distillery of the Year." The facial absurdity of these awards, not to mention their sheer gall, seems to go unnoticed. Exactly how did Adam Levy and company assess and evaluate every vodka distillery in South Carolina and every rum distillery in Kentucky, and where exactly is evidence of the public's demand for that particular breakdown of information? The competition named Kentucky's best rum distillery but is silent about the state's much more prominent whiskey distilleries.
Just today, Whisky Magazine announced the results of the "Icons of Whisky Scotland 2016," "Hall of Fame Scotland 2016," and "Independent Bottlers Challenge 2015." Whisky gives an almost uncountable number of different awards every year, including its World Whiskies Awards, announced in the spring.
Whisky Advocate Magazine is dropping its annual awards now, one every few days, and this morning named Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye as its Craft Whiskey of the Year. They are announcing award winners from eleven different whisky segments one day at a time, on their blog, from today through December 14. The Whisky Advocate awards will culminate with the naming of a Lifetime Achievement honoree on December 15 and Distiller of the Year on December 16.
Winners are inevitably proud to win and as the Crown Royal experience shows, a well-publicized win in the right competition is rewarded at the cash register. The normally circumspect Canadian whisky writer Davin de Kergommeaux is treating Crown's score as a matter of national pride. Competition results are news, after all. They are an automatic publish for many information outlets hungry for content that is timely, safe (uncontroversial), and free.
A part of every issue of Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine is devoted to rating new whiskey releases. Whisky Advocate uses a 100-point scale. Whisky uses a ten-point scale finished to one decimal point, so a 100-point scale. The content of most whiskey blogs is product reviews, usually with ratings. If you want to give your own whiskey awards there is nothing to stop you. All you need is a platform and a good PR agency.
Excluding hobbyists who rate spirits for their own amusement, most people involved in this sort of thing are selling something. Competitions typically charge a substantial entrance fee. Some are very profitable. Their 'product' is the awards themselves. If you win an award, you can publicize it. The publicity names the product and the award, but never talks about methodology. What was the basis for the win? Who was the competition? Who did the judging? You never hear or see any of that. It's just "Whiskey Name Wins Prestigious Award."
Since awards are the product, award givers maximize revenue by giving lots of them. Here's an interesting statement from the folks in New York. "While other renowned competitions prize up to 85% of entrants with awards, the discerning panel and ethos of the NYISC is to honor the brands that are most deserving among their peers. This year, NYISC prized only 46% of its entrants." So instead of almost everyone winning a prize, only about half do. That's integrity!
Crown Royal's big prize, which certainly sounds universal and definitive, is actually just the opinion of one person, Jim Murray, who writes and publishes an annual whiskey buying guide called, with unapologetic hubris, The Whiskey Bible. When one is disseminating the inspired word of God, no more explanation is needed.
Just as Murray's awards are designed to sell his book, awards given by publications such as Whisky Magazine and Whisky Advocate Magazine are intended to sell magazines and advertising. In each case there is a pool of voters, typically comprising the magazine's staff and maybe some of its freelance writers too.
Sometimes there are blind tastings, though often not. Sometimes the judging panels include producer representatives and sometimes awards go to that producer's product. Yes, really.
The problem with all of this is simple. The award givers are engaged in a ruse to convince you that something inherently subjective and personal can be rendered objective and universal just by how you describe it. One way to test the validity of these exercises would be to look at how often they agree with each other, which is almost never.
The target of all this folderal is you, the whiskey buyer. If they influence your buying decisions they perhaps provide a service by weeding out the really bad products, which rarely win awards. But are the products blessed by these self-proclaimed taste-makers really 'the best' in any sense?
Let's compare whiskey awards to something really important, the naming of Best in Group and Best in Show at the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. One obvious difference between whiskey awards and doggie awards is standards. The 'perfect' dog of each type is rigorously defined by a body recognized as the authority on that particular breed. While a judge's opinion is still subjective, it is based on comparing the candidate animal to a standard, an ideal. Learning and internalizing those standards is literally the life's work of the competition's judges.
Is there a comparable universally-agreed-upon standard for whiskey? No, not even close. Even the top distillers can't agree on what would constitute a perfect whiskey. Do judges at whiskey competitions have organoleptic training? Some do, some don't, and among those who do some have more than others. Are whiskey judges screened, are their organoleptic abilities evaluated? In a word, no.
So what? Well, if you understand all this and still find some or all of these declarations useful, then no harm done. Do lazy people use them as a cheat sheet, both for buying decisions and personal pontifications? Clearly, that's the downside.