...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jim Murray's Whisky Bible

The very existence of Jim Murray provides a quiet quandary to many anoraks.  The scores from Murray's annual whisky "Bible" are touted by distilleries, blenders, bottlers, and distributors whose products are commended within the tome.  Those same people make not a mention of Murray if their scores aren't stellar.  His awards arrive in press releases, which in turn cause many bottles to instantly vanish from shelves, often purchased not by whisky enthusiasts but by those whose buying patterns are swayed by public announcements.  His annual winners frequently cause a bit of head scratching industry-wide (see Ballantine's 17yr, Old Pulteney 21yr, one batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail sold in Canada, etc.).  His anti-sulphur campaign, though passionate, seems to be fought by an army of one.  He has consulted for a number of companies, some of whose whiskies score quite well.  This all results in an otherwise well-informed "Bible" reader to be unsure what a score of 92.5 really means for that bottle he or she is considering buying blindly.

Murray writes in grandiose emotional (sometimes carnal, oft metaphysic) phrasings some readers have labelled "maltoporn".  He champions blends when most writers are praising only single malts.  Producers worldwide send him samples of everything from 3 year old Indian blends to new make bourbon to 70 year old Speyside malts.  And he may have tried more individual whiskies than any other human in history.

What perplexes me most about Murray is his self-celebratory, self-referential, self-promotional writing style.  To wit:
From Redbreast 12yr Cask Strength (2013, p. 267):
To think, had I not included Redbreast in Jim Murray's Irish Whiskey Almanac back in 1994, after it had already been unceremoniously scrapped and discontinued, while championing the then entirely unknown Irish Pot Still cause this brand would no longer have been with us. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, at least I have that as a tick when St Peter is totting up the plusses and minuses... And with the Cask Strength, he might even give me two...
Who writes that?  That's not even a humble-brag.  (And this is after devoting another paragraph to this subject a few pages earlier.)  Even if it were true that he single-handedly saved Irish Pot Still whiskey, what sort of already-successful person pronounces that in a whiskey review?  Should that praise not be left to others?  Others should thank you, you shouldn't thank yourself when speaking about others.

Then there's the name-dropping and strutting:
From Glenfiddich 50yr (2013, p. 112)
William Grant blender David Stewart, whom I rank above all other blenders on this planet, has known me long and well enough to realise that the surrounding hype, with this being the most expensive whisky ever bottled at 10,000GBP or a 360GBP a pour, would bounce off me like a pebble from a boulder. "Honestly, David," he told my chief researcher with a timorous insistence, "please tell Jim I really think this isn't too oaky." ...... For the record, David, next time someone asks you how good this whisky is, just for once do away with the Ayeshire niceness installed by generations of very nice members of the Stewart family and tell them, "Actually, it's bloody brilliant if I say so myself! And I don't give a rat's bollocks what Murray thinks."
Is there whisky in there somewhere?
From Glengoyne 17yr (2013, p. 117)
Some of the guys at Glengoyne think I'm nuts. They couldn't get their head around the 79 I gave it last time. And they will be shaking my neck not my hand when they see the score here...
Ardmore Traditional Cask (2013, p. 35)
"Jim. Any ideas on improving the flavour profile?" asked the nice man from Ardmore distillery when they were originally launching the thing.
 Ardbeg Supernova (2013, p. 32)
...apparently this was called "Supernova" in tribute of how I once described a highly peated Ardbeg.
This is just from flipping through pages randomly.

As a writer, I don't understand the need for detailing one's importance when speaking of spirits.  Reading the reviews becomes like listening to hip-hop lyrics, full of self-grandeur.

I know he has thirty years and thousands of whiskies on me but his "Bible" makes me want to say, "Damn it Jim, you're a great writer, let your skills shine by writing about whisky and others will recognize your brilliance.  Otherwise, how are we to take you seriously?  Because when you pat yourself on the back, you motivate others to publicly contradict you."

I do not question his expertise.  Nor I have received any proof of dishonesty in his grading.  I admire his drive against substandard oak maturation and have no doubt that casks are not what they used to be.  He LOVES whisk(e)y, doling out 90+ ratings readily and highlighting the best elements of the 80+ entries.  I enjoy his unique style in so many of his reviews.  For example:
Port Charlotte PC 6 (2013, p. 68)
ohhhhh... arrrrrrhh... mmmmmmmmm... oh the peat, the peat... yessssssss... oh my god... mmmmmmm... ohhhhhh... first you get the smoky... ooooooohhhhh... arrrrrrr... then the sweeter... mmmmmmm... 
If you've had a good Port Charlotte you know what he's talking about.  Then, on the flip side:
Gordon & MacPhail Rare Vintage Glenlivet 1961 (2013, p. 128)
A very dear friend and colleague told me today that his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It was terribly sad news, and something she understood and accepted with fortitude, magnanimity and a courage which came so natural I doubt if she realised she even had it. "They are a different breed" said my friend with unaffected reverence, referring to the generation which survived a World War, so would take whatever low card fate was dealing them with the same innate stoicism. I have a mother who was 91 last week, is mentally sharp as a knife but unable to walk unaided, and a final remaining blood uncle also with Alzheimer's whom I visit whenever in London. So I know exactly what he meant. And in a far, far less important way, I feel something similar regarding the whiskies of yesteryear and today. I cannot see that many whiskies reaching 50 years with the kind of resilience that this whisky shows me here. The casks of today, both sherry and bourbon, are so much inferior - weaker - that we can only look upon this vanishing generation of malts, like the one in my glass before me, as we do our own kinfolk. So easily taken for granted. So dreadfully under-appreciated when with us. And to be painfully and immeasurably missed when they are gone.
A massive, sweeping statement; personal and maybe a little overreaching, but singular and grand.  And he even plugged his continuing qualm with cask management.  That's the sort of paragraph that brings me back to Murray's "Bible".

His passion about whisky is to be admired.  His passion about himself is amusing at best.  At worst, it makes the reader close the book prematurely.  And that's the last thing a writer ever wants.

In my next post, I will be reviewing Ballantine's 17 year old (Murray's 2013's Scotch Whisky of the Year and a former World Whisky of the Year) utilizing Murray's tasting method as outlined in this year's "Bible".  Let's see what happens...