A Word About Scoring Whisky

Hmm, I smell dingo kidney and rose blossom...how the hell do I score that?

I spent considerable time on the question of how I should score whisky for my reviews.  Distillery blenders may spend as much as ten years learning the nuances of a whisky’s nose and palate before they are entrusted to work alone, so it is hardly reasonable to expect an amateur, however passionate, to describe and evaluate a whisky in any sort of a comprehensive manner.  To make matters worse, there are any number of grading systems out there, from a simple “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” to the commonly accepted 100-point scale.  Even the 100-point scale isn’t used consistently, with some scoring the spirit between 60 and 100, and others between 50 to 100.  Why they only use a portion of the scale is beyond me.  Then there are the descriptions themselves.  Vanilla, treacle chocolate, hay, salt, heather, sea weed, and on and on and on.  I know I’m just a barbaric heathen, but I don’t understand how someone can clearly and consistently identify 10 or even 20 distinct aromas or tastes in a single sip.  Perhaps my senses are just deadened from years of tobacco use, jet exhaust, and neglect, but I am quite happy if I can identify three or four primary influences.  Maybe the other reviewers are just having us on and getting a good laugh, but I don’t think so.  The human body is an amazing instrument if it is well trained.  Yet for most of us, the colorful dissertations about the type of Swiss chocolate that they smell or how the particular bee (which was about eight weeks old) that pollenated the barley has given it the taste of honey from an 18 inch tall, purple flowered, bell heather, are certainly very entertaining but not particularly helpful.  Likewise a score of 75 versus a 76 or even an 80 is not a very clear distinction unless you yourself have tasted and recorded scores of whisky expressions.  On the other hand, a simple “two thumbs up!” is hardly sufficient for a quality, 18 year old whisky, careful created by master craftsmen following centuries old traditions.

The penalty for screwing up a review can be severe!

The penalty for screwing up a review can be severe!

So what’s a barbaric amateur, wannabe expert to do?  Make up his own grading system, of course!  At first I thought about using the 100-point scale, but I figured I’d screw it up somehow and then would wake up one morning to find a mob of the world’s foremost whisky experts at my door ready to lynch me for my incompetence.  I suppose I could just sneak a peak at someone else’s score, pick a number close to that, and write a colorful description, but that kind of defeats the purpose and the whole integrity thing kind of gets in the way.  It also bugs me that they have 100 points to work with but only use 40 or 50.  In the end, whisky scoring is completely subjective anyway.  It’s just an opinion.  Ultimately, my scoring system is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s; it is a way for me to capture my experiences and compare different whisky across the tides of time.  If you find that your tastes are similar to mine then so much the better.  If not, then I certainly encourage you to comment on my reviews.  If I find your comments compelling and entertaining enough, I just might invite you to write your own.

I wanted my system to be useful to both the connoisseur and casual drinker, so I settled on a 25-point score that looks at the following four aspects of the spirit:

a. Nose (5 points)

b. Palate (5 points)

c. Finish (5 points)

d. Overall Experience (10 points)

For the Nose, Palate, and Finish, I am considering complexity and development.  How many distinct flavors are there and are the subtler one allowed to show themselves?  How does the spirit develop over time.  How pleasing is the effect?  What kind of bees pollenated the oak tree that the cask was made from?  You get the idea.  I’ve given 10 points to the Overall Experience because I believe that how the other elements combine and work together is far more important than any one element on its own.   By totaling the score we can grade the whisky:

20-25:  Exceptional; don’t tell your friends you have it!

10-19:  Good whisky; stock up for the end of the world.

5-9:      Drinkable, but try to get someone else to pay for it

0-4:      Drain cleaner

So that’s pretty much it.  I’ve successfully created a new grading system that both satisfies my tendency to overcomplicate things yet can be boiled down to a number between zero and twenty-five.  I certainly hope that you find my ratings and reviews useful and I look forward to hearing from you.

Slainte!

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Filed Under: A Word About Scoring WhiskyWhisky

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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!

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