Should whisky be rated? / by Jason Hambrey

I work as a cost analyst for major capital projects in the Canadian Coast Guard. The most challenging part of my job is communicating the context of a given estimate. Is the estimate preliminary (e.g. has the ship been designed yet?). Is that number for construction or for the entire lifecycle? Is it based on bad data? Does it assume 30 years of operation instead of, say, 40? And I do care about metrics (I am an engineer after all…). A 100 point scale for rating whisky isn’t a useful metric, and, just like big cost estimates, it is easily taken out of context.

Whisky isn’t one dimensional. How can you possibly assess a whisky as one value on a 1-100 point scale (or, more often, 70-100)? And if one were to break down different assessment categories, is there an objective way to do so? Taste preference is at its core subjective.

It isn’t hard for me to rate whisky – I have reviewed a lot of whisky, I have a sharp palate, and I’ve developed metrics and characteristics that feed into my given score for a given whisky. I understand the full context of what my ratings mean, and I’ve gotten better and more consistent at evaluating “how good” a whisky is. But this presents multiple challenges still:

  1. Different people have vastly different palates and preferences. For example, some people like a bit of sulphur in their whisky, while some can’t stand it. Additionally, people rate whisky in a very different manner – one person’s “90” might be another’s “80”. Even among experienced tasters, like those on the Canadian Whisky Awards, the scores are often considerably different. This is not uncommon on panels even with experienced judges.

  2. Ratings don’t dictate what I drink, or even how I recommend. A higher rating isn’t necessarily better. It really depends. Some days I want to drink this, some days I want to drink something else. One of my favourite whiskies is Amrut Peated Cask Strength, but I am far more likely to grab something else out of my cabinet (like Ardbeg 10, Dickel 12, or Gooderham & Worts) on a regular basis. If I have friends over for board games and we are drinking out of tumblers, it impacts my whisky choice. It really depends…

  3. Uniqueness is important, to me especially. Sometimes a whisky isn’t rated highly, but it’s the one I end up bringing everywhere because it’s different. An example is Lohin McKinnon’s chocolate malt. I often reach for that in tastings or to bring to parties because it’s different, but I don’t rate it highly. And it’s always a hit, even if it’s not the favourite of the night: people love the unique stout-like kick of roasted malt in the middle of the palate.

  4. Ratings actually get in the way of enjoying whisky. It comes down to getting the best, or not trying whiskies which aren’t rated highly. I often find ratings get in the way of being able to have intelligent conversations about whisky….

Does this mean that a rating is not useful? No. I have a certain set of friends and reviewers whose palates align with mine, and I like knowing their ratings. But, generally, it is not. The review content is in the review, not the score. I’ve given a full year considering it, but I’m going to stop giving numerical ratings.

The core element I want to communicate is how much I would care about recommending a whisky. I’ll assess into 5 categories:

  1. Recommended

  2. Highly Recommended

  3. Very Highly Recommended

  4. Exceptional (highest level of recommendation)

The fifth category is unlabeled. There are some whiskies which I won’t recommend, which I won’t assess into those categories. However, I won’t explicitly “Not Recommend” it, since if you are like me, you want to try everything. It’s often useful to taste whiskies that aren’t recommended. I’ll update each category with the percentile of whiskies that are assessed in or above that category.

I thought about this a lot in developing my value metric, which I quite like – but that also faces two challenges – price varies according to where you live, and second, it depends on my numerical score (my scoring methodology is described here and here). I think the best way to address this is to state what I’d pay for it, factoring in the current market.

I continue to rate whiskies on a numerical scale for myself and a few others, like Whisky Analysis, which takes ratings into account well. If you yourself appreciate my numerical ratings, and want access to them – send me an email (there is a contact form on the website) and I can share my database with you.