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Jim Murray – Whisky, Sulphur And Testosterone

by Oliver Klimek on January 23, 2013

Jim Murray arguably is one of the most controversial personalities in the whisky world. His Whisky Bible is the most popular whisky book by far but his views also earn him massive criticism. At the Victoria Whisky Festival last week I had the opportunity to attend his Pulteney tasting, allowing me to experience him in action for the first time.

There were only three drams – the 12, 17 and 21 year olds – plus the Pulteney liqueur for those who wished to try it (I did: avoid, it just tastes of sugar and wood). As I had already tasted the 12 and 17, I would have loved to take tasting notes for the highly acclaimed 21 yo. But it turned out that by complying with Jim Murray’s demand to use his “warm up, chew and spit” method of tasting the notes would have not been in sync with my other tasting notes. The methods are just too different, and it would take quite some time to tune into that.

But a Jim Murray whisky tasting is not so much about the tasted whiskies anyway. It is more about Jim Murray himself. The drams only serve as anchor points for his monologues: about his way of tasting whisky, his achievements, his views on the whisky world and of course his book. Whisky vapours mix with testosterone in his tastings. His self-focused performance oozes it just as much as his jokes that try to straddle the fine line between innuendo and tastelessness but fall off to the wrong side just too often (“What is it with tongues and holes [...]?”, “85 is well within my range” [referring to the age of a women] just to give you a few examples).

And now the man who gave us Ardbeg 17, who single-handedly saved the Irish pure potstill style from extinction and who is responsible for the fact that there are distilllery bottlings of Old Pulteney has embarked upon a one-man cruisade against the entire Scotch whisky industry on a mission to save us from sulphured whisky. The evangelist tries to gather his disciples behind him, supplying them with his Holy Scriptures in annual subscription.

Jim Murray has a great talent for writing, no doubt about it. And he surely has a very sensitive palate. His dislike for sulphur is legendary and unmatched by anyone I have ever met or read. The sulphur issue is indeed a hotly debated one, but he has yet to substantiate why he fired a broadside against the entire Scotch whisky industry by calling it a rampant problem. Jim Murray has built his commercial success upon his talents, and now we see it being leveraged for a personal campaign.

The alpha male of the whisky herd expects submission. He sets the rules in his tastings (“One, two, three, go!”) and now he wants to set the rules for the industry. Like a silverback gorilla beating his chest with his fists he tells us about the power of him naming a “Whisky of the Year”. Sales will explode. It seems that Jim Murray intends to find out, if this also works in the opposite direction.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan January 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm

I know Glenmorangie has worked fairly hard to avoid sulphur in their cask finishes by paying extra to get the wine casks to the distillery quickly enough that they don’t need to be decontaminated with sulphur. I guess we’ll see if there will be enough complaints to make other distilleries pony up the extra cash as well.

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Miguel January 23, 2013 at 11:09 pm

I stopped reading Jim books the very same moment I started drinking malt whisky.
The way whisky are scored on the book and the 70% of the tasting notes are plain bullshit. My toddler could rate them better… in fact I am to see any blogger that write something more vague and inconcise.

Keep buying the book just for filling Awards page on A Wardrobe of Whisky. People seems to pay attention to what he says anyway.

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Bruce Crichton January 23, 2013 at 11:49 pm

I used to read his books but his latest bible gave Cu Dubh 88 points – a very high score.

Given that he has railed against the use of caramel in whisky for years, giving such a score for a whisky loaded with the stuff is completely contradictory.

Never again.

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Pieter January 24, 2013 at 9:33 am

In his last bible he singled out the Arran devil’s punch bowl as being sulphured.

I haven’t met a person who thought this whisky is sulphured, not even the tiniest bit. Did he had a bad tasting day, was it because the food he ate before the tasting, was the sample bottle not rinsed properly, did the samplebottles got swapped?
Did he retaste it, just to be sure before he started his raid against sulphur, and singled out this one as the bad example?

And why didn’t he pick on a well known brand to use as a benchmark for rotten-egg-whisky? Now he puts Arran, nota bene an independent distillery who cares about the craft presentation, in a bad daylight. There are distilleries who have really problems with sulphur which aren’t singled out. And even then, there are distilleries who use sulphured casks for their bottlings, and it doesn’t make it bad whisky (glendronach revival for example).

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David January 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Never been to a Jim Murray tasting but you have summed up what I had feared. For me whisky is absolute enjoyment and to have any sort of crusade is just rubbish. I do not go to tastings to be told how to drink or how things should be, I go for fun and enjoyment. It appears Jim has forgotten to have fun.

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Dennis Mulder January 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm

More Jims are troubled by narcism…

Great article, Oliver!

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Steffen Bräuner January 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Hey. For once I agree with Jimbo. 85 is well within his range.

But if you go 84 or lower you’re out :-)

Steffen

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Henry January 30, 2013 at 9:19 am

I’ve never bought Mr. Murray’s books, but I’ve read through a friend’s copies on several occasions. They are extremely entertaining, as is this excellent piece. However, there’s a bit more trust established here on Dramming, and this frank assessment of Mr. Murray reinforces it nicely. Thank you.

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politicalidiot February 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Ok, so Jim Murray is an ego maniac and exaggerates. Don’t listen to him then. His schtick isn’t created for us anoraks anyway. His whole life is dedicated to talking to people filling space in between going to the doctor and shopping for caskets. I like his whisky bible, but I have no interest in listening to him pontificate about his greatness (it’s whisky for god sakes). His bible ratings are inconsistent and confusing. So what? His tasting notes are creative and fun to read. A good value for the $15 I paid for it. As for his problems with sulfur, I agree with him in that sulfur is a flaw. But I think sometimes flaws are good.

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Jeff April 1, 2013 at 8:42 am

I think the “so what” of the failings of Jim Murray and his schtick is that, regardless of the lesser opinion many anoraks hold him in, he presents himself, and presents himself to be taken, as quite serious and authoritative. To read his book is to be told “In terms of whisky, this is the gospel” (front dust jacket flap) and that while Michael Jackson was a “colossus” of beer (and it is implied only beer), in whisky that honour is held by Jim Murray (back dust jacket flap). I, too, find his notes “fun to read”, but anyone taking them seriously is directed to some strange conclusions on relative quality and this may result in many people with less experience being misled. Misinformation is not harmless to whisky just because it doesn’t harm those who can see through it.

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Nick February 23, 2013 at 11:58 am

Quote: “His Whisky Bible is the most popular whisky book by far”
Is that measured on sale?
I could come across a few other whisky books that is more popular – to me that is

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Malteriet November 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm

I haven’t been to a Murray tasting either, but instead I visited Pulteney earlier this year and tasted the three drams mentioned on that occasion. I had tasted a sample of the 21 year old a few weeks earlier, and based on that I strongly disagree with Jims high rating of it. Actually I dislike it and would by far prefer the 12 or 17 year old.

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Darac November 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Personally I often disagree with Mr. Murray’s ratings. Sometimes I’m not sure does he works on a fee basis, or is just too “saturated” with so many whisky aromas that his his preferences become a little bit “off road” (people who test at Nestle have actually small active working hours per week to avoid losing their tasting criteria).

Even so, the problem of sulphur is quite a huge one. First of all there are several different “sulphurs” during production process, none of them influencing the final product the same way.
Several problem can appear … strong nosing of rotten eggs, a feel of harsh tasting aromas (usually when there are sherry casks involved) and pronounced smoke.

That smoke problem is something that bothers me most ! If I compare Laphroaig 10YO and Lagavullin 16YO they both have sulphur in it but (in my taste) Laphroaig balanced it nice and in Lagavullin sometimes I can feel too much smoke trying to overrun the rest of aromas (depending on the batch).

Even so, many find Lagavullin 16YO way better whisky (and probably it is) but maybe are not aware of the full body because it remains hidden with peat (and actually sulphur is responsible). On the other hand some just enjoy that strong sulphur influence that other find repulsive.

To conclude … let there be some “sulphured” whiskies but most of the producers should avoid it as much as possible. The main reason they use sulphure is to speed up the process and protect casks. That’s the exact the same trap wine producers have to look to avoid.
So, maybe Mr. Murray is not that wrong when pointing out “The Sulphur Issue” after all.

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Andrey December 15, 2013 at 8:29 pm

I recently grabbed a bottle of the Pulteney 21, later found out he named it Whisky of the Year or some such. Just proved my theory that he is nothing but a quack jumping on the recent resurgence in whisky popularity wagon.

Then again, never seems to amaze me that so many people need a book to tell them which whisky is “good”…

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Jeff January 14, 2014 at 4:39 pm

I don’t think it’s strange that some people are looking for direction toward good whiskies (and away from bad ones), given the money that’s involved – but Murray wants to say that his opinions, eccentric as they sometimes are, are the only ones worth consulting, whereas I always look for some kind of consensus among trusted reviewers. I’d agree, though, that the “Whisky of the Year”/awards mentality is going too far – largely just providing shelf talker fodder for many whiskies that would only be on the high end of average even just a decade ago.

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