a personal view on whisky scoring
Being an Aberdonian comes with some hardships. It’s a grey city with often grey humoured people. Many of my work colleagues know Aberdeen as “Aberdoom”, perhaps because they have to hang around the city while waiting to go offshore. It’s not that bad really. Often it’s worse. Only joking, it’s a fantastic small city which is much misunderstood and is on the doorstep of some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery and attractions. Visit the castles, especially Dunnottar and you’ll soon get what I mean. Plus, going to Dunnottar puts you close to the Carron Chipper, birthplace of the legendary Deep Fried Mars Bar – two historical superlatives in one day! Aberdeen and Shire are rocking!
The local football team have been successful in the past with two European trophies in 1983, the most European Cup success of any Scottish football club so far. Take note Rangers and Celtic fans. Two stars on the breast. Things haven’t been so successful since the departure of Alex Ferguson, but as a local lad I have to say I keep an eye on their progress, despite leaving the city some years ago.
To be fair, I don’t follow football that closely. Once upon a time when I was a student with an obligatory long fringe in my eyes and walking through the St Nicholas Centre I was pounced upon by a local reporter asking my opinion on who would win the Scottish Cup. I didn’t care who was playing in the 1991 Scottish Cup as it was only Dundee United and Motherwell. Aberdeen had won it the previous year, so I brushed him off by saying I was a Clachnacuddin supporter, an Inverness based Highland league team that is probably the lowest professional level in Scottish football. Little did I realise my photo had already been snapped. Wished I had known as it had been raining, I was sodden in my student camouflage jacket and my hair was a mess. The next day I had my moment in infamy when my quote and photo appeared in the local newspaper. Since then I’ve followed Clachnacuddin out of sympathy after the extensive ribbing I received after the publication of my comment. They join Aberdeen as a team that often gives me cause to wince when I see the scores from their latest games, though I always wish them well.
Scoring may be important when it comes to sports competition, but what about for whisky? We often see reviews of whisky giving a score out of a hundred, but what does it mean or even matter to us whisky geeks?
What seems to be the most popular way of allocating a score is analysing the different stages of whisky tasting, namely nose (aroma), palate (taste), body (weight – is the whisky light and watery or thick and heavy), mouthfeel (Is it oily, waxy? How does it coat your mouth? For me this ties into body), finish (sensations after swallowing) and balance (do any of the flavours or sensations overpower the others?).
Unlike sport where scoring follows well defined criteria, tasting doesn’t and I’d propose that can’t ever do so because it depends on too many factors, some physiological and some subjective. As we are all unique, each one of us will have a different ability to taste due to our unique set of tastebuds, our experience of taste and smell sensations, our medical history and current state of health. A drinkers preference can be influenced by what they’ve recently consumed, altitude, their mood and their perceptions of the whisky that can subconsciously creep in from the appearance of the liquid, hence why many blind tastings are done with coloured glasses.
For instance, I like sherried and peaty whiskies, though not necessarily both at the same time. In theory I might not take to a more delicate Lowlander from a bourbon cask and mark it down accordingly. Or, I might sample a whisky after a curry earlier on in the day and thus miss the subtle notes.
There is a fact that you can’t identify a smell or taste if you haven’t experienced it before. By all means you will be able to explain what a sensation reminds you of, but you have to wonder what has gone into the mouths of whisky tasters that describe the tastes of the more weird and wonderful taste descriptors.
I’m a bit guilty of this – I do believe that I described the TBWC Invergordon 42 year old as reminding me of polished wood. I’ve got a memory of standing idle in the older part of my primary school with my head against a varnished and heavily polished old door frame. I can’t remember if the smell was so strong the vapours were also landing on the back of my tongue as I breathed in, or if I licked it – both are possible but in my defence I was no older than 9 years old at the time. However it is a taste / smell sensation that has stuck in my head for close to 40 years. I can still picture that part of my old school in my minds eye as I type, and this illustrates a way we build up our memory bank of taste profiles as we move through our lives and taste whisky.
Getting back to scoring, we can see that there is not really a fool proof method to decide a score for whisky. If you can’t determine flavours, it can be harder to accurately assess a whisky. And with each of us being biologically different and with different outlooks, it is potentially less possible to get a reliable score based on so many variables across so many opinions. Plus, how do we set each criteria? We’d need a point of calibration to decide what was bad and good in each situation. I guess most people will describe the level of pleasure in each stage of their experience of a dram and that is the most reliable yet still subjective point we have.
A National Geographic article that I read in the past while waiting in a doctor’s surgery suggested that if you can taste more than six flavours in your drink at any one time, then you are perhaps not being honest with yourself based on the ability of the human body to experience flavours. However a lot of reviews are given based on experience over several drams while the bottle lasts. Even in my reviews where I often use miniatures, I’ll drink it in two distinct sittings to get a better idea of the dram. Adding water changes the spirit again and can unlock hidden gems of taste explosions within a single sitting so we have to look at a dram over a period of time to get more accurate knowledge to be able to give a score.
In the journey towards a summary before I meander more than the River Spey, whatever score you give it, that is just your score and your opinion. The person that it will be most useful to is you. Using your scores over the life of a bottle, or each time you buy the same whisky again, you can track your experience. The trouble is that it is all relative. You need to establish a baseline of what you find a competent whisky of that style, as there is no point of comparing a heavily peated Islay against a delicate triple distilled Lowlander. By setting a baseline for each style, you can perhaps score relative to that. Problem is that your baseline preference could also change over the years.
Any baseline has to be middle of the road. If you pick one too high, then other whiskies may unfairly not compare favourably. Same goes for picking too low a benchmark. Most other whiskies will taste brilliant after that.
And this is why I personally don’t like scoring whiskies, as it’s one more thing to concentrate on when we should be just enjoying a drink. I prefer to comment on value for money, whether I liked the whisky or not, whether I’d buy it again or recommend it. This should be enough, though that is just my opinion.
If you want help picking a new and tasty dram, scores can be helpful if you look across a broad range of opinions. That will give you a general idea of whether it’s good or not. Consistently high scores are a good indicator that the whisky isn’t rubbish. Even then, I’ve bought and enjoyed a whisky that regularly scores in the low 70’s. The recent official release of Allt-a-Bhainne is the one that sticks in my mind. I’ve recommended it to others who have also enjoyed it, but also one or two that haven’t. It’s opinion, not fact. For further guidance then look at the cask type, the peat level, ABV, not to mention price when considering a purchase based on review scores.
Above all else, this is YOUR whisky journey and nobody else’s. If you want to score whiskies, please do. Just remember a highly scored whisky by others doesn’t mean that you’ll like it. In my opinion scoring doesn’t have to be that important in the bigger scheme of things. Unless it’s for Aberdeen or Clachnacuddin football team.
Since my impromptu declaration of support of Clachnacuddin, I’ve gone as far to buy a replica Clach football shirt. They’ve even managed to win the Highland League since my impromptu declaration of support. Ironically, they’ve won the Highland League more times than any other club – 18 times. Since I’ve moved to the Highlands they’ve seemed to have resumed their position at the lower ends of the league table. But I will still support them. C’mon the Lillywhites!
As an aside and still within a whisky relevance, prior to 1993 there used to be three football clubs in Inverness – Inverness Caledonian, Caledonian Thistle and Clachnacuddin. Caledonian Thistle played at Telford Street Park, which backed onto the Glen Mhor distillery. After a merger of Caledonian and Caledonian Thistle, the new team Inverness Caledonian Thistle moved to Caledonian Stadium, beside the Kessock Bridge. In 1996, Caledonian Stadium was demolished and joined Glen Mhor and the adjacent Glen Albyn distilleries in becoming a retail park.
Aberdeen are one of the most frustrating Scottish teams to follow. However you need to support the team from your city of birth. I still have my 7” single from the successful 1983 Cup Winners Cup campaign. You can relive the classic song and reminisce on YouTube by clicking here Plus like those who remember where they were when JFK was shot, I remember what I was doing on 11th of May 1983. Watching a victorious Aberdeen side beat Real Madrid on the television. For many Aberdonians this was probably a more important point in their life timeline.
Yours In Spirits
Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.
Dunnottar Castle – Herbert Frank (CC-BY 2.0) image cropped
Evening Express 14/05/91 – British Newspaper Archive / DC Thomson
Cricket Scoreboard – Networldsports.co.uk
AFC Replica Shirt – afc.co.uk
Whisky Bible – shop4whisky.com
Grant St. Park – @clachfc (Twitter.com)