How to Rate Whisky 1/3: The Philosophy

by Oliver Klimek on November 1, 2009

This series of three articles should give you the neccessary foundation to do your own whisky ratings. This first part will explain the philosphy that is behind rating whiskies (a pretty controversial topic, by the way), the second part will deal with how to assess the characeristics of a whisky, and the final part will be about giving a score to whiskies.

What is Whisky Rating?

To make it short: Rating a whisky means giving it a score that indicates how well you like it. You can use 1 to 5 stars or a certain range of points or whatever. In the whisky world, a 100 point system is predominant which was adopted from wine rating by Michael Jackson. As most of the people who rate whisky use this system, it should be an obvious choice for novices to apply it as well.

How can I rate whisky?

The easiest way to rate a whisky would be to drink a dram and just give a score to it. If you do the ratings just for yourself, this might be sufficient. But as soon as you publish your rating in any way, be it on a website like this one, in a forum or just by telling it to a friend, you will run into problems. Tastes are different, you might like peaty whisky, your reader might prefer sherry monsters. Now a peated whisky that you scored let’s say 90 points might be unacceptable for that person.

This is why it is tremendously useful to add tasting notes to your ratings. In these you basically write down what kind of aromas you can detect in a whisky. This helps the reader to put your rating into the right perspective.

Why Should I Rate Whisky?

I already covered this question in this blog post. To sum up the points:

  1. You can develop your own taste by comparing as many whiskies as possible
  2. It is fun to compare your ratings to others
  3. You keep track of the drams you have enjoyed
  4. Sharing your ratings helps others, shared ratings help you

How Can I Stick a Number to Something as Subjective as Whisky?

If whisky should be rated all has always been a source of discussion among whisky lovers. Every time a famous whisky writer comes out with a new book of ratings, there is an upheaval within certain parts of the whisky community. Just recently Jim Murray issued the latest version of his Whisky Bible which prompted a heated debate in the blogosphere, like on the Edinburgh Whisky Blog.

The main argument of the adversaries of giving scores to whisky is: I can’t attach something as objective as a number to something inherently subjective as a the taste of a whisky. They tend to think that taste is something you can’t measure.

Of course, they are right in a way. There is no such thing as “the best whisky”. Everyone has its own taste and will prefer whiskies that others may dislike.

But in my opinion, “rater haters” make a critical mistake. They are blinded by the seemingly objective point rating, assuming the writer intended to cast an ultimate verdict on the whisky by sticking the number X to it. They neglect the important fact that a rating for a whisky is only an expression of the writer’s subjective feelings about the whisky. And I am convinced that nobody who seriously rates whisky will insist that his ratings are the True Whisky Gospel.

Quite a few of those who are opposed to rating whisky on the internet publish their own reviews and tasting notes, just without a point score. Is there any difference?

I think: No! Giving a point rating to whisky is just another way of saying: “I like whisky A more than whisky B” or “Whisky C is one of my all-time favourites”. For me personally, a point system just has the advantage of having a finer gradation than words can put it, but some people may prefer words over numbers. But just like with your tastings notes, it is always advisable to wrap up your point rating in an verbal summary as well.

In the end it does not matter at all. 95 points from Jim Murray are worth just as much as when Joe Schmoe says “Now, THAT’S a great dram”. Any whisky review, be it verbal or numerical, is just one person’s subjective view.

The next part of this series will deal with nosing and tasting whiskies.

Read on…

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