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Numbers Galore: Review of the "Spirits Spider" Rating System

by Oliver Klimek on April 1, 2010

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a system for rating whisky and other liquors called Spirits Spider. It was developed by Nick’s Wine Merchants from Australia and is based on their own wine rating system called Winespider.

As there is at least one website that uses this system for rating whisky, called Ryan’s Ratings, I thought it was a good idea to take a closer look at it.

The Spider in the Spirit

The Wine and Spirits Spiders have their names from circular diagrams that can be drawn from their components. Unfortunately there is only an example of a Winespider diagram available on the site, but it will do nicely for the job of demonstrating how the system works.

A Huge Compound Score

As you can see, there is a whole lot of different parameters that have a number between 0 and 10 assigned to them.

That makes this rating system a relative to the compound score approach used for example by Jim Murray. But unlike Murray’s four sub-scores (Nose, Palate, Finish and Balance), the spirits Spider system uses ten different parameters that make up the total score. And this is not the only difference between those two, as we shall see.

The Ten Legs of the Spirits Spider

  1. Aroma – Compexity and harmony of the nose
  2. Intensity – Intensity of the nose
  3. Concentration – Concentration of flavour on the palate
  4. Complexity – Complexity of flavour on the palate
  5. Length – Length of the taste sensation on the palate
  6. Alcohol by Mouthfeel – How smooth or rough the alcohol is perceived on the palate
  7. Alcohol by Reduction – The stronger the better
  8. Balance - Harmony of flavours on the finish
  9. Aftertaste - Length of the finish
  10. Faults – Flavours that don’t match the profile of the spirit

Number Crunching

The website then gives detailled guidelines how to score the different parameters. If you have not done so yet, please read them at point 5 of the document. I don’t want to quote all of it but I will refer to it.

Aroma and Intensity

These scores represent the grade of complexity and intensity of the nose. The higher either of them, the higher the score.

Complexity and Concentrati0n

These are the analogous scores for the palate. The more complex and concentrated (read: intense) the palate, the higher the score

Length

Measured in seconds

Alcohol by Mouthfeel and Reduction

Mouthfeel gets better scores the less burning the alcohol sensation is ie. the less “rough” a spirit tastes. Reduction is a calculated factor introduced to make up for the mouthfeel penalty of spirits with high bottling strengths.  Any spirit with an ABV of 50+% gets 10 points by default.

Balance

The more balanced, the higher the score

Aftertaste

Measured in seconds

Faults

10 minus 1 for every flaw found

Observations

- The first thing that struck me is that there are two different lenghts of taste to be measured, on the palate and in the finish. The document tries to explain this but I still don’t get the length-on-the-palate thing. Flavours are present as long the liquid is in the mouth, after swallowng its finish, call me old-fashioned.

- Apart from the flaws section the scoring guidelines start at 5 for all parameters. 5 means “neutral”, “0 seconds”, “bland”, “undrinkable” and so on. The result of this is that it is effectively impossible for a spirit to get a score below 45, even if it were the worst nightmare dram you can think of. On the other hand, every spirit bottled at less than 50% gets a penalty even before the first tasting glass is poured. And why should a 90% poteen be treated the same as a 30yo cask strength whisky at 50.1%?

- In the description for the “Faults” score I read

“For example, a Scotch whisky that could be mistaken for a rum is hardly desirable”

Cask finishes for whisky should be treated as flaws than? And how does this take into account the fact that aged spirits tend to converge tastewise after long maturation? A very old rum is not too diferent form a very old cognac or sherry cask whisky.

Where is the Spirit of the Spirit?

To put it shortly: I think this system is overkill by numbers.

Obviously, this is an attempt to make the rating of a spirit as objective as possible be using many parameters that can somehow be measured.

X seconds finish means Y points. But what to do when a short finish is delightful, like it is the case with Loch Dhu? Or vice versa like with my experience with the Ardbeg Supernova?

How intense? How complex? How concentrated? How long? How rough? The Spirit Spider rating gives answers to all these questions. But one simple question remains unanswered: How did the taster like the dram?

And isn’t this what rating whisky and other spirits is all about? In my most humble of all opinions, the score should always be an indication of how the scorer enjoyed the dram. I may have my problems with Jim Murray’s compound scores, but we agree on the important concept that our scores are “enjoy scores”. They are only produced by a different methdology.

But the Spirit Spider is not much more than a combination of sensor values, purposely ridded of as many subjective impressions as possible. 10 different tasters should come to more or less the same result, within a margin of error that is unfortunately unavoidable.

Trying to make different types of spirits comparable is certainly an honourable feat. But I have strong doubts that ratings conceived with this system can provide a consistent guideline for even a single type, let alone all spirits.

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