Whisky scores will always garner interest and criticism. Maybe you don’t think about it and just want the sweet, juicy tasting notes, maybe you don’t want those and just want the raw information about the distillery and the bottling, but many whisky blogs, reviewers and sites will use a scoring structure of some kind or other to judge a whisky. So when scoring a whisky and giving a rating out of a number how do we decide on those numbers?
This may sound odd coming from me, as if you’ve read any of my reviews you’ll know I don’t have use scores. Why not? Simply put, I don’t believe in them. Scores are incredibly personal and subjective to each person, even more than tasting notes. With tasting notes when reading a comment such as ‘Turkish Delight’ you can break that down into notes most people understand, icing sugar and rosewater. If you like Turkish delight the whisky may appeal to you, if you don’t it may not. Understanding a note such as this is easy, but translating that to a number is more difficult as a note does not equal a number.
Reviews may throw around words such as ‘subtle’, ‘varied’ or ‘bland’ alongside the flavour. Each of these are notes that cannot be expressed through a flavour. A ‘bland’ whisky may have some flavour you enjoy but if those flavours don’t express themselves fully and are ‘bland’ the whisky might still be bad. At the opposite end of the spectrum there could be a minute spectrum of flavours with only a small amount of variance but their expression could be enough to make it a much better whisky if it just uses those flavours in a more interesting and provoking way.
Tastings notes can’t be portrayed as numerical values, what we want to convey is something else. A quite famous method that has been used by many is to score each of the nose, palate, finish and body out of 25 and then add all the scores together to make a score out of 100, popularised by sexist and misogynist Jim Murray. I’ve always thought this to be a poor of a scoring method. If something has the best finish, palate and body in the world but you can’t smell it it still scores 75/100. How is that fair to the whisky? It’s not at all, so lets push aside this method and remember that a whisky can be lesser or greater than the sum of its parts.
Others will break it down to appearance, nose, palate, finish with appearance taking the place of body though with a lesser total outcome and palate being more influential to the final score. I don’t like this system personally, appearance shouldn’t mean a thing. I am a known dregs drinking and will happily drink a green tinged whisky, and apart from that most professional tastings are done blind rendering the appearance of a whisky moot.
It may seem as though I am not adding anything to the conversation but that’s just the point; people drink, enjoy and score whiskies differently. Due to the nature of that enjoyment, the act of being objective about a whisky or just not too subjective is incredibly difficult so how can we try to take away our own biases? To help us on the way the first thing we can do is disregard a few factors.
This is in here for a different reason than you think. Yes, we all love writing them, and please continue writing them, but whether or not you enjoy those flavours should not influence a score. The flavours themselves, through their variance and quality can help us judge if a whisky is good or bad. A famous example would be peat, I love a dirty peat filled whisky and am more likely to subjectively say it is better than someone who does not hold a liking for swampy goodness. It’s how the flavours expressed themselves, not the flavours themselves that matter.
As was said earlier appearance should not matter at all. A new make could be as good if not better than a forty year old whisky if they have been sloppy with the barrels and the addition of caramel colouring still runs through the industry. While you may know it has colouring if you are familiar with the brand simply looking at a whisky and saying whether it does or does not contain E150 is more difficult and should not affect your judgement of the quality of a dram, so don’t judge a whisky by its colour.
Yes, I know, people say they won’t be swayed by brands. We all swear that though ask yourself, have you ever given a whisky a second chance based on where it came from? Have you ever jumped the gun and made an assumption, for better or worse, based on a whiskies distillery or country of origin? Recent and new additions to the whisky world have been treated poorly due to their starting point which is hardly fair to the product inside the bottle. It didn’t ask to be made just as you didn’t ask to be born, how would you feel if someone made assumptions about you based solely on where you’re from?
Why would something being older mean it is better? There’s the old saying about how you can’t polish a turd, if you start with a poor quality whisky aging it won’t make a difference to the end product, it might just be more expensive. One of the worst whiskies I ever tried was a 52 year old Speyside that shall go unnamed (they requested that I never name them), tasting it we were told it was a 52 year old before hand which drew interest from the table. Most of us spat it out to the roaring laughter of the ambassador who took great pleasure in telling us this was a lesson to not judge a whisky by its age.
You can’t judge a whisky by it’s price. You can certainly say that it’s not worth it’s price but that comes later. The temptation is of course to think that the bottle that you paid a grand for is better than the bottle someone got for £50, but that is not always so. How good a whisky is is generally down to the drinker whether they can afford a mortgage or not, so let’s put price aside.
So let’s get rid of all those things, your personal enjoyment of the flavours, appearance, brand and origin, age and price. Take all of that information and what are we left with? The bones, the core make up of the whisky. What makes up those bones?
A cat has not crawled across my keyboard, that’s the system we’re going to use for scoring whisky. What does it stand for?
The first we look at is balance, how well is the whisky balanced? Is it drying to the point of puckering, sweet to the point of inducing diabetes, or does it hold a spot and flavours in between? I told you to ignore your opinion of the flavours when making your score, here we use them to find the balance, there’s a big different. Typically a whisky should be balanced, too much to either side and the see-saw swings away and is left in the sand.
How long is the whisky? Not a distance of measurement but of time, do those flavours continue for any worthwhile time or are they here and gone in an instant? Many reviews talk about a long, medium or short finish though people forget that the length of a whisky is shown in the nose and palate as well, nicely drawn out. The length of the different flavours allows us more enjoyment of the whisky.
Now here we have to ask ourselves about the strength of the flavours. Is that an orange, or is it a peeled orange? Is it juicy? Does it have layers? When we look for these layers we can understand if this whisky is multi-layered or if it just has note it plays the entire time. Imagine how boring music would be if people just played the same four chords in every song, you need some intensity and variance to break it up.
Often confused for intensity here we look for complexity and variety within our whisky. One orange, whether it has one layer or multiple layers, can’t really hold up a dram. It’s multiple different flavours we want, so we can sort them. Intensity and complexity go hand in hand as well, think of it like this, if you have all the ingredients of a cake that’s complex yes but the intensity is off. If there’s all burnt to a crisp that’s intense but wrong, but if they’re mixed together and cooked for just the right amount of time now that’s complex and intense. It’s cake. Who doesn’t love cake?
The BLIC scale is something easy to use and can be used by amateurs and experts alike (a side point, if someone is a self-described whisky ‘expert’ feel free to ignore them, expertise is recognised by an industry not applied to the self) and is not something new. BLIC has its origins in wine tasting, and is a useful guide for anyone seeking to enter or understand the category.
The most important thing to take away is this, any score or scoring system, BLIC included, no matter how low or high if subjective or objective or any tasting note should mean nothing to your own palate. While they are useful as a guide, yes, they are not gospel. When reading about a whisky the most important thing to think of is does this interest you. If it does, then maybe you should grab a bottle. If it doesn’t then maybe you should ask yourself why it doesn’t and challenge yourself by going out and grabbing a bottle. Whisky is not an blanket equation, it cannot be understood until you yourself have drunk it. The most important thing about whisky is that you enjoy it.