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.