Thursday, September 17, 2020

Jim Murray Does It Again (I Wish I Knew How)

Do not look directly into his eyes.

One thing you rarely read about in the whiskey press is the whiskey press. That's just as well. Excessive navel-gazing is a risk in any enterprise. Look at the movie industry. But Jim Murray's annual World Whisky of the Year awards are a cultural phenomenon that deserves a comment or two.

Although it is the work of one man, it is widely reported as if it represents an industry consensus. Every year there are dozens of different competitions for distilled spirits products; with panels of judges, prestigious announcement events, and fancy trophies. Murray does a press release, yet he gets better coverage than all of them. Murray's annual announcement is always front page news in the trade press and garners remarkably heavy coverage in the general press as well. 

How does he do it? No one explains Murray better than Murray. Here is his description of himself, from his website:

"Jim Murray is a legend and leading player on the world’s whisky stage. It is now over 25 years since he became the world’s first-ever full time whisky writer. And this 2020 edition of his Whisky Bible marks the 17th year of annual publication."

You can't argue with results.

What is his secret? Here is part of the answer. Murray does his business in a way that generally pleases whisky producers, although he has pissed off more than a few of them too. His annual pronouncement gives most of them something to crow about, often in irresistibly evocative prose, so they promote his glowing descriptions of their products and burnish his credibility in the process. He keeps a low profile most of the time and doesn't go on Facebook to argue about politics and other wastes of time. He maintains an air of mystery, the hermit aesthetic who speaks to his votaries only through The Book. ($19.95 on Amazon

About that evocative prose, here in part (from his press release) is his description of his latest World Whiskey of the Year:

“A succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and manuka honeys ensure for the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever and yet this is constantly salivating, from the very first nanosecond."

Murray also is very good at creating controversy, i.e., buzz. He loves to tweak the whiskey establishment by giving his highest honors to outliers such as this year's winner, Beam Suntory’s Canadian bottling of Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.

Whatever his secret, he's been getting it done for 25 years now, and I can testify to how easy that isn't.

NOTE (9/21/20): Murray's hegemony faces a new threat. Finally, he is being called out for the sexism in his writing.  


Unknown said...


Murray is certainly a prodigious reviewer of whiskies. So he has an unparalleled knowledge of whiskey styles and variations therein. Nonetheless, all he can give us are his personal opinions. In many ways, personal judgments of whiskeys are no different from personal judgments of, say, male or female beauty. Murray’s judgment about the world’s best whiskey carries little more weight than my judgement of the world’s most beautiful woman. It’s just what he thinks; it’s just what I think. Even more subjective in his book is the silly 100 point scale, a scale that is sometimes broken down to 0.5 intervals. These numbers, of course, have no meaningful basis; Murray just makes them up. Equally lacking in value are his descriptions of whiskies (as are those of most other reviewers). What is meant by succulent oils or “ulmo and manuka honeys” or a “constantly salivating” whiskey? Does the whiskey make you drool? God only knows. And He won’t tell us. Murray’s book can make for entertaining reading, especially for those with a good magnifying glass. But otherwise, his reviews contain rather little information of practical value to whiskey drinkers.

Tom Troland

Shane Campbell said...

I'm watching this challenge to the "way things have always been" culture with interest. Full disclosure, I'm a fifty-something white guy with no problem acknowledging advantages society has laid at my feet. I've never been tempted to say "Not all men." I've no need to qualify "Black Lives Matter." I've cut loose several long time men "friends" over the years who will never be able to see women in a context other than - a thing they desperately desire. Now with my feminist badge all polished, I hope this guy can be reached and come to understand - no one gets to decide if what they say hurts someone else. I'm not rooting for his personal redemption but he is an influencer. If Mr Murray can analyze the character of the world he lives in, as well as he does whiskey, perhaps he'll remain relevant generally and do some good. As I see it, he can remain a public figure respected by thinking men and women or he can circle his sexist wagon defiant as his audience shrinks. I drink...too much whiskey and I'm interested in aspects of whiskey that help me understand its history, how its made, and the people involved in the industry. That's why I follow Chuck's site. I don't care about reviews very much except except, in so far as they identify aspects of the drinking experience I comprehend. Esoteric descriptors aren't useful (to me) and make me loose interest quickly. What I am very interested in is how we treat each other. Especially how we treat those who are marginalized by our white patriarchal society. I would like to see important voices in the strong drinks community like Chuck Cowdery and Fred Minnick express their views. Fred wrote Whiskey Women and I've never read anything written by Chuck that made me think he doesn't respect women as people first and foremost. I believe they see women as people. Likening consumables to women and sex with women is an age old practice acceptable in a "Mad Men" world where women are valued like a favorite hunting dog, a trophy whiskey, or at best, most favored support personnel, but not respected on an equal basis. That leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I've never read Mr Murray's Whiskey Bible or bought a whiskey because of his or anyone's review but reading the excerpts from his "bible" called out by others, makes me question his respect for women. Only he can change that view.

Anonymous said...

It's the hat. That hat is the secret. Could be his English accent too. And he's got the best book name in the business. Bible.

Tommy said...

I can't believe anyone holds what Murray says in "High Regard" anyway. That dude gets clowned by every true bourbon drinker I know. His information has been wrong for so many years that his "garbage" that is put out yearly is looked upon as a comic book....not a reference.

Anonymous said...

People get conned/provoked into creating his publicity. As a whisk(e)y anorak I have precisely a metric ZERO use for anything he writes. His photos are weird (is he wearing makeup? I think so). Best policy is to ignore, just like that annoying Greta child.

Having said that, I was curious to pick up Alberta Premium Cask Strength, not because of any oracle's pronouncements but because of other stuff I already knew about it. I just happen to be a rye whisky enthusiast (while single malt scotch is still my favorite spirit). Nobody can write your own book for you.