Wednesday, August 18, 2010

No Short-Cuts To Whiskey Appreciation.

Regular readers of this space may have noticed that while I will review specific whiskeys from time to time I don't score them. I last wrote about this here.

One of the main reasons I hate ratings is because they are a crutch for lazy people looking for a short cut. They are looking for a short cut because they have no base of knowledge and no interest in obtaining one. People who buy-by-the-numbers are people who do everything by the short cut route and who are looking for social validation more than they are a great bottle of whiskey.

As a writer, I hate the idea that these people don't even read the reviews, they just look at the numbers. Ideally, a critic will give you enough information to make up your own mind but you as the reader have to work too. You have to think. You don't need to be a writer to pull a two-digit number out of the air and you don't need to think to turn those numbers into a shopping list.

People who buy-by-the-numbers wouldn't recognize "brine and spice, apple pip, and traces of aniseed"* if it bit them.

I don't blame or condemn the writers, publications, and entities like the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI) that give ratings. They are forced to do it because they depend on advertising revenue or (in the case of BTI) fees to stay in business. The producers would scream bloody murder if any of those entities switched to the type of "good-better-best" ranking system I advocate.

Ridgemont Reserve 1792 is a very good bourbon made by Sazerac at its Tom Moore Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Accordiing to BTI, 1792 is a 93, ranking above the brands 1792 considers its competitors: Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve (both 90), and Gentleman Jack (82).

The sad reality is that their 93 will sell more bottles of 1792 than positive reviews by me and every other writer combined. And selling more bottles is what the producers are in business to do.

For the people who give ratings the pointlessness of it doesn't harm their credibility as long as they're running an honest game and so far as I know everyone is. That it is a silly and meaningless game is beside the point as long as people buy-by-the-numbers. The only harm it does is put great bottles of whiskey into the cabinets of people who manifestly do not deserve them.

As long as there are people with money to spend who believe the ratings mean something there will be ratings.

* From Dominic Roskrow's Guest Review of Caol Ila, 25 Year Old on "What Does John Know." He gave it an 88.


Anonymous said...

I agree. The idea that there is an objective (or even a meaningful subjective) difference between a whiskey rated, say, 93 and one rated 92 or 91 is ridiculous. Critics just make up those numbers, then they imagine that the numbers contain meaningful, quantitative information. The 5 star system (or equivalent) is much better adapted to the imprecision of human sensory evaluation. But many whiskey drinkers, it appears, prefer made up numbers on a scale of 1-100.

Robert said...

I agree that the ratings are largely meaningless, and usually aimed at the ignorant. But, I don't know about the idea of condemning some people as "not deserving" good whiskey just because they can't taste the subtle differences, or don't even try, and buy on rating alone. I don't like that type of purchasing decision - it's just pitiful, in a way - but it does help keep the distillers in business, gives them some profits that they then hopefully use to make good whiskies for those of us who actually care. The only downside to someone like me (I consider myself a mildly to moderately informed consumer of whiskies) is that high ratings drive prices up and/or cause demand to outstrip supply, and therefore, I sometimes don't get to enjoy a good bottle because I can't afford it or don't get to it fast enough. Still, if my choice is not always getting to buy a bottle of the good stuff or distilleries not making enough money to do good work, then I'll choose the former.