How to Rate Whisky 3/3: Scoring

by Oliver Klimek on November 3, 2009

After having looked at the specifics of nosing and tasting whisky in the second part of this series, let’s now move on to the actual rating process which means applying a score to a whisky.

The Golden Rule of Whisky Rating: Always Taste at Least Twice

So you’ve tasted a whisky and written your tasting notes. Now you are eager to give your rating. But there is one important thing to keep in mind: Even if your “calibration dram” before the actual tasting didn’t show anything off the line, your nose and taste buds might not always work in the same way. They are not machines or electronical sensors that always give the same results, but they can react to your mood, your health or any other external influences.

Before giving a final score to a whisky, always try to taste it at least on two different days. You should also review your original tasting notes and see if you notice something different than at the first tasting session. More often than not, you will notice a difference. Then try to synthesize your final note.

The 100 Point Rating System

In order to rate whiskies consistently, you have to get a firm grasp of the 100 point system that is commonly used for scoring anything from beer and whine to whisky and other things. There are two different approaches:

1. Compound score of several sub-scores

This is how Jim Murray does it, for example. His approach is to have four separate 25 point scores for nose, palate, finish and balance that add up to the final score. I have two problems with this kind of rating:

  1. For me, “balance” is included in “palate”. An unbalanced whisky (e.g. too much wood influence) will affect how good it tastes. So for combined scores, I would skip a “balance” rating
  2. This method assumes that all components are weighted equally. This is an assumption that I am not happy with. Is the smell of a whisky really as important as its taste? Or the finish? I guess everybody will have their own opinion here.

2. A single score on a linear scale

This is the way I do my scoring, and with me most of the others who rate whisky. To know which score to give, it is necessary to set a few calibration marks:

0: Absolute disgust
50: The line between liking and “actively disliking”
75: The line between “not bad” and “good”, this is the score for an average malt.
100: Paradise, unreachable

This is just a rough outline of the system. Here are my personal definitions for a finer scale:

0 to 5: Don’t swallow this stuff. Spit it out!
6 to 15: Be courageous, finish it!
16 to 25: Can there really be someone who actually likes this?
26 to 35: Slowly approaching whisky territory
36 to 50: Some might even like it, but there are too many flaws
51 to 65: Drinkable but soon forgotten
66 to 75: Has its good points but also weaknesses
76 to 85: A good dram but there is still room for improvement
86 to 95: Something not to just drink but to celebrate
96 to 99: Approaching perfection
100: Do we really want something that cannot be improved?

Most of the single malts score 65 ore above. At lower scores you might call them “bad”, even then most of them they are still “drinkable” when compared to a standard blend.

Let me close with a word of warning for the novice: If you haven’t really tasted a truly exceptional whisky yet, you run into the risk to overvalue the drams you have liked most so far. When you have rated a whisky at 99, you don’t really want to find out that you like the next one even better.

A certain experience with different whiskies is necessary before seriously taking on rating whisky. So if you just swapped your bottle of Ballantines with a Glenfiddich to start exploring the world of single malts, you should broaden your horizon first by trying as many different expressions as possible before you feel secure enough to take on rating.

To keep these articles reasonably short, I didn’t go into too much detail. Of course, there is a lot more that can be written on any of the topics touched here. I will definitely dive deeper into them in the future. But I think this series can give you a solid enough foundation to start your rating experience.

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