Rating whisky is a dangerous game. Perhaps nowhere more than in premium-priced spirits is beauty in the eye (or the nose, or the palate) of the beholder. The most important part of any review that we write is the prose: we invest time and effort in exploring and describing the characteristics of whiskies in a manner that we hope is enjoyable to read – and enlightening to consider in combination with a dram or two. We hope you’ll engage with the substance of our reviews; we’d love to hear what you find in the whiskies, and if your opinion tallies with ours.
Nevertheless, we think there is value in assigning a whisky a numerical score. It doesn’t tell you half of what we think, but it provides a yardstick for our reviews. How do you compare a heavily peated Islay whisky to a delicately fragrant lowland expression? Not easily, but you can bet we enjoyed one more than the other – the numbers will tell you which. There is, however, a conflict between our individual enjoyment of a whisky and its objective qualities. We hope our scores reflect, albeit imperfectly, a combination of the two. We’re likely to give credit for either, so scoring is more likely to err on the side of generosity.
Now, to the system we employ. We’ve opted for a 100-point scale overall, broken down into four component parts: the nose, the taste, the finish and the balance. They are never independent of each other, but we think each tells you something important about a whisky.
- Nose – What is the aroma like? Does it have one or many scents? Does it change over time?
- Taste – How does the whisky feel on the palate? What is its body like? What are the flavours? How do they interact?
- Finish – Does the finish improve or detract from the whisky? Is it long or short? Is it consistent, or does it vary?
- Balance – Is the whisky complex or a one-trick pony? Do all the component parts combine well or conflict? Do certain characteristics predominate and, if so, are they detrimental?
We use a 100-point scale primarily for its sensitivity, but there’ll always be a crowding towards the top end: very few wholly unpalatable drinks make it to distribution! We think of each 25-point component part in quintiles. Roughly speaking, we might describe these as appalling, poor, acceptable, good and outstanding (a more detailed chart explaining how we evaluate scores is available here) – and we’d expect the vast majority of whiskies sold to merit at least a ‘good’. There’s also an increasing sensitivity to the scale: the difference between 22 and 23 is greater than that between 16 and 17, and a 25 is an incredibly rare beast.
Consequently, we can provide general descriptions of certain scores. Anything over 84 has averaged in the top quintile and we consider exceptional; the least we’d expect from a whisky available in the shops would be a 64, representing an average in the second quintile. A whisky above the mid-seventies we’d strongly recommend if you think it sounds up your street; above the mid-eighties we’d strongly recommend to everyone, at least once.
We cannot overemphasise the subjectivity of our ratings. They are personal impressions peculiar to the author – the two of us have our own likes and dislikes, and while we agree with surprising frequency we also differ sharply at points (as you will see when we begin to review whiskies that the other has already). We value the textual over the numerical review, so look there for clues about why we scored as we did. We’re happy to explain where a score came from; we’ll never suggest that others should agree with it, nor will we be offended if you think differently. If we’ve provoked thought and discussion – especially if we’ve prompted you to pour and contemplate a delightful dram – then that’s good enough for us.