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Why I Score Whisky Anyway

by Oliver Klimek on March 20, 2011

If there is one topic that is constantly popular in discussions among whisky lovers, then it’s the question if whisky should be scored or not. Whenever there is a whisky competition or when a new edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible is released, the discussion is re-heated, and the same arguments that were used a year ago are being recycled.

There are a few things that are quite interesting to note nevertheless. Firstly the discussion is usually resurrected by people who are opposed to “sticking numbers to whisky”, then a few supporters will jump in to defend the concept. Those who are in favour of scoring whisky are hardly ever seen critizising writers who only publish tasting notes. If you give scores to whisky, you are almost guaranteed to meet situations where you have to defend your position.

But the pro and contra camps are not as clearly defined as you might expect. Recently we have seen one blogger starting to score whisky after a period of only publishing tasting notes – Gal Granov from Whisky Israel – and another one who dropped scoring altogether – Steve Rush from The Whisky Wire.

Popular Arguments Against Scoring Whisky

“You can’t measure things as subjctive as taste”

You are right, you can’t measure taste. But whisky ratings are not meant to measure the quality like the temperature or the alcohol content. They are just a way for the reviewers to express how much they like a whisky.

“Your taste can vary, and so can your scores”

Yes, right again! But ths can happen to anyone reviewing whisky, even without scoring. Your tasting notes will vary and your final assessment may be different as well.

“Why use a 100 point scale when all scores concentrate at 75 to 95?”

This is an argument often cited by people who are not opposed to scoring in general but feel that the commonly used 100 point scale is flawed.

But the fact that so many scores are very similar only shows that whisky in general is a pretty high quality drink. And isn’t that the reason why we love it so much? Still the scale has to be capable of handling bad quality whisky too. There are some absolutely awful drams out there after all. Just think of Loch Dhu or Cu Dhub. That there are – fortunately – so very few of those around should not be taken as an excuse to deprive the system of its capabilties.

If you dislike scoring whisky, you must never:

  • Pay attention to the Malt Maniacs Awards
  • Select a restaurant because of Michelin stars or Gault Millau points
  • Watch boxing fights, gymnastics or ice skating competitions.

My Reasons For Scoring Whisky

Any Verdict About A Whisky Is A Score, So Why Not Do It Properly?

All writers who review whisky sum up their impressions in some way by telling you how much they enjoyed it. They may do it verbally with statements like “enjoyable”, “fantastic”, “mediocre” or anything like that. But even then this can be regarded as a rudimentary form of scoring because by this the whiskies can in fact be arranged by (perceived) quality.

The next step would be the ever-popular star rating (usually five), and the logical extension to this is the fine-grain 100 point scale which I personally prefer over all other systems.

It Helps Me To Be Organized

The more whisky expressions you have tasted, the harder it is to remember details. Evidently this is also the reason for writing tasting notes. But if I only relied on tasting notes, I could never find out what whisky of any given two I actually preferred, even if I had tasted them in the same session. I already addressed the issue of potential inconsistency, but for me a score is the best method to accomplish this.

A score is an added value to a tasting note

The one thing I agree with the opponents of scoring is that only giving a number to a whisky is pretty much useless. Tastes for whisky vary so much from person to person that tasting notes are essential if you intend to publish your scores in order to help fellow whisky lovers.

My personal approach is to provide the readers with a tasting note and a summary of my impressions much in the same way a non-scoring reviewer would do it. And then on top of that comes the score for those who care.

Perhaps unlike some other reviewers out there I have no literary ambitions in writing my tasting notes whatsoever, so they might read a little uninspired at times. But usefulness is my prime motivation; and as English is not my native language it is not my goal to be recognised as the Oscar Wilde of whisky writers anyway.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal March 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Good points there.
I did just recently started scoring, as I was facing the same issues as your first part of the post points.
But, i did think about it, and it does help me remember how i liked a certain dram after a few months…
In addition, if i write : This whisky is very good. it can translate to 85, 88, 89 by the reader, a score i think conveys the little differences better than language.

I also put the score at the bottom. if people are not into scores, they can read the notes and bottom line, and ignore the score…

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Michael March 20, 2011 at 7:07 pm

I cannot score whisky myself. I think that my preferences change and I cannot be subjective. At the same time, I am a very strong supporter of scoring and 100 point scale.

I am also interested in wine and I am wondering how the Bordeaux futures market would look like without scoring. Actually, it would not exist.

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sku March 22, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Great summary of these issues. I don’t score whisky on my blog but I do score for the Los Angeles Whiskey Society, so I do some of both. I have two issues I’ve grappled with when scoring. My biggest issue with scoring is that it creates a linear measure whereas taste is multifaceted. Assigning a simple number isn’t always sufficient to convey the value or quality of the whisky. For instance, there are whiskies that I think everyone should try because of their flavor profile, experimentation or other qualities, whiskies that are essential to understanding whisky, but that I don’t necesarilly like all that much. It’s hard to convey that kind of complex reaction through a simple numerical score.

My other concern is that people tend not to read descriptions when there is a score. It is so much easier to just skip everything else and look at the score. I know I’m guilty of this myself, and I think it leads to the type of snap judgments and score-chasing that plague the wine world. I would actually rather read someone’s descriptors (mediocre, wonderful, must-buy) than see a number. That being said, scoring has some advantages as you have pointed out, and I find it fun and challenging to give scores, though I feel that 100 points is too many for me personally.

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Oliver Klimek March 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm

The “just looking at the score” phenomenon seems to be quite common, I agree. I guess that’s just they way our brains work.

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Ryan August 22, 2011 at 2:44 am

From the perspective of a casual consumer, I think scores help a lot. I read a lot of whisky blogs. On some, I can read through extensive of tasting notes, but it doesn’t really help me understand which whiskies are worth the money that you spend. Isn’t the point of reviewing whisky to help people decide which whiskies to buy? For example, let’s say someone’s favorite dram is Highland Park 12 year, and they generally never buy any whisky more expensive than that. Personally, I can’t imagine that person ever reading a tasting note of Highland Park 18 and being convinced that it’s worth paying over twice the money as the 12 year. But, it is! You need some way of quantifying how much better it is. Simply describing the tastes is insufficient, at least in my mind.

Sku noted the discrepancy that exists from whiskies that you know are excellent, but they are simply not to your taste. I think that a solution to this problem already exists: multiple whisky blogs! When I score whisky, I try to score such that higher score means that I would generally take that whisky over the one with the lower score, if I were offered the two free of charge. When the reader of the blog can see all the scores, they can determine if their tastes align with the blogger’s by comparing scores on whiskies they’ve both tried. Then, the reader can read the score in the context of scores of whiskies they know, and form an opinion. I think that most whisky consumers are smart enough to do this, and even to compare opinions from multiple reviewers.

So it’s true, blindly reading scores from a random reviewer doesn’t do much or could even hurt, but I think that scores are very beneficial for folks who want to figure out which whiskies to buy, and who take a little time to understand what the scores mean.

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JM September 30, 2011 at 11:45 am

Nothing against scoring, but scoring something as subjective as taste out of 100 is IMPOSSIBLE. And if all scoring is, in fact, concentrated between 75 and 95, then the errors found in statistical analysis of such scoring systems is even more significant.

One, two, three, four, five stars… That’s more reasonable.

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Ryan September 30, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Hi JM, I was following this post and saw your comment, and I agree that I think that it would be impossible to assign scores in an objective manner to a subjective taste. However, I think what really happens is that the scores simply serve as an enumeration of rankings – that is, you can rank whisky by which one you like more than the other, and then put the numbers next to your list for reference. You necessarily need to have some equal scores or categories, but I think most people grading whiskies can do better than 5 categories. Since scores out of 100 tend to lie 75-95 as you say, this pretty much just means that scores rank whisky into 20 categories. Once you start keeping track of whiskies that you’ve tried, you’ll find that you tend to know rather well where a whisky sits within that ranking, and thus, assigning a score out of 100 isn’t as difficult as you might think. For example, if you graded out of 5 stars, you would be easily able to go look at your “4-star” whiskies and then begin to rank those into a couple categories. Once you’ve done that, why not put some numbers out of 100 next to each category? Of course there will be “error” of a few points up or down, but I don’t really see the problem with that!

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Oliver Klimek September 30, 2011 at 10:16 pm

I was just about to post a reply along the same lines, but you hit it on the spot!

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