Esse Quam Videri: What Is a Perfect Whisky and Why Must We Give It a Score?

cas1There is probably no such thing as a perfect whisky – or is that only true if our standards are unrealistically high? If a single malt I’m drinking has no noteworthy faults, no glaring lacunae, no salient aspect I can imagine improved or wish were better – if it has captivated and delighted my senses – why not declare it perfect? Why not give it 100 points? We say Michael Jackson was conservative in his ratings while Jim Murray is perhaps too generous, but even Jim Murray, who evidently gets to taste everything produced in a still of any sort anywhere in the world, has never declared a whisky perfect. What’s he waiting for? What’s the ideal he measures his malts against? May I have a sip?

What whiskies did Michael Jackson choose to drink when sequestered in his favorite lair away from the demands of whisky journalism? What bottles do Jim Murray, Dave Broom, Dominic Roskrow, Gavin Smith or the great Ian Buxton and Charles MacLean go back to again and again? Being professionals, they don’t tell us – but we all know those bottles exist. We all know these men drink sometimes, or often, for the pure pleasure of drinking, reaching when they do for bottles they’ve reached for many times before and will reach for again and again; if that weren’t so, they wouldn’t be in the careers they are in.

But there’s something else. Even if we could know what these great whisky writers’ first choice malts were and are, there is one thing I strongly suspect: No two would be the same. What one great whisky scribe cherishes, the others might not esteem highly at all. Fans of these writers might even be appalled to learn how many blends would be top shelf in the cabinets of their whisky heroes. I know myself that I have tasted whiskies I only swallowed out of politeness because they were offered by friends who revered them – friends, I should add, whose taste in whisky I respect. I’ve spoken to many whisky ambassadors who prefer the 12 year old, say, from the distillery they represent, to the 25 or 30 year old. Mention Glenfarclas to malt professionals from any distillery or distributor and you are bound to hear a string of enthusiastic compliments. Even The Nose himself, I suspect, Mister Richard Paterson, takes great pleasure in whiskies other than Dalmores and younger than 50 years.

But let me try to funnel this torrent of words into something like a point…

Writing this blog, it is becoming clear to me that saying anything of lasting value about a particular whisky is probably beyond accomplishing. And scoring whiskies, something I have vehemently and vociferously resisted until now, is like writing your will and testament in sand even as the waves roll over it. A rating is simply a snapshot of a thousand variables, all at once – from the condition of your nasal passages to the mood you’re in to the unique sensitivities of your particular palate to the amount of oxidation the malt has undergone to the density of allergens and aromas in the air to the level of intellectual energy you can muster to what other whiskies you’ve recently drunk to the temperature in the room and the lamps in the room to how tired or razzled or manic you are to the dew point and the season and the barometric pressure to what you had for lunch and what you dreamed last night and the personality of the last person you talked to on the phone… At least a thousand variables!

Not to mention the level of alcohol in your blood by the time you finish scribbling your review…

But friends can be very persuasive, and my best whisky friends have made it very clear that they want to see a number or a letter grade at the bottom of my reviews. One good friend has even insinuated that my choice not to include such ratings could be a sign of cowardice on my part, an unfortunate flaw in my character…

Well, listen up, Buddy: It isn’t cowardice that’s been keeping me from scoring whiskies. I ain’t no pusillanimous milquetoast man. What has stopped me is my aversion to spending precious time doing meaningless things. And I still consider scoring whiskies to be too subjective and too narrowly time-stamped to be of any but the most superficial use to anyone.

Furthermore – and please be honest here – how many of you peek ahead to see the score at the bottom of a review before you finish reading it, and then don’t finish reading it? How many of you skip forward on Ralfy to check out his “malt mark” before sitting through all 20 minutes of his most-discerning-nose-in-the-world reviews? If you take reviewing seriously and would like to be read, are those not good reasons to not include a score?

But I’ve decided I shall do just that: Score the whiskies I review. For no better reason, perhaps, than to see my whisky buddies smile in triumph. To that end, I’ve been trying to come up with a meaningful way to do a meaningless thing. What aspects of a whisky am I looking for when I have time to really focus on savoring it? Here, with the weight (number of possible points) on the left and the savoring category on the right, is what I have so far come up with:

10 – Appearance / color, legs, etc.
20 – Nose / discernable aromas
20 – Palate / discernable tastes
20 – Finish / final discernable tastes, tongue, throat, chest, etc.
20 – Balance / of distinct and complimentary aspects
10 – Intoxication / the quality of the buzz

The first five of these categories you see everywhere and therefore I feel they require no explanation. You will easily determine what I mean by them in context. The final one, however, may need a bit of expounding upon. By “intoxication” and “quality of the buzz” I mean exactly what those words imply: The relative intensities of wafting sensations that delineate the altered state one enters when one has imbibed sufficient drammage of a distilled and oak-matured liquor. The buzz one gets from some whiskies can actually be agitating or, if finer, energizing, which I suspect is a consequence of more than ethanol alone, while other whiskies offer a buzz of pure warming pleasure or ease and a lulling vagueness as from the river of Lethe in Hades, whose waters when drunk made the souls of the vexed and disconsolate dead forget their happy lives on earth. I include this category because I am convinced, from a lifetime spent among good-natured drinkers, that almost nobody would imbibe this glorious stuff if the reprieve of inebriation weren’t an assured and inevitable portion of the experience.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. What is a perfect whisky? It is that drink that gives pleasure and opportunity to all of the senses, that eases the path to enjoyment of conversation and of the company of friends, family or strangers, that unfetters the tongue to speak from the heart, that helps us to forget, if only for an evening, our hardships and sorrows, obligations and trials; that persuades us to abide the nettlesome embarrassments and merciless inevitabilities of the human condition and of life on this planet in these maddening times and, instead, calls us to move with the music and dream with the dreamer, to express our loves and our friendships fully and, finally, that gives us courage sufficient to see ourselves as the forsaken specks of dust we are in a universe that expands beyond comprehension, which in turn makes our loves and affections all the stronger and helps us to be truthful even to ourselves, and to forgive ourselves, and to forgive even life and time itself. That is the perfect whisky.

One thought on “Esse Quam Videri: What Is a Perfect Whisky and Why Must We Give It a Score?

  1. I know you were/are resistant to this, but I think it will be a good thing in the long run. Bikram and I have said this before but I think scoring fosters thought, debate and even growth. It helps to do something that we already do everyday- compare whiskies to one another. I know the review itself goes into great detail about how you feel about a particular spirit but I am thrilled you have decided to do this.

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