Following Felipe’s post last week on the weaknesses of the 100-point whisky scoring system we were contacted by an incandescent Angus MacRaild demanding a right of reply*. Here’s the irate MacRaild, jabbing his finger in our spittle-flecked chests and arguing that the 100-point system is great and Felipe should get back in his box (I paraphrase). Sgian Dubhs at Dawn, Gentlemen!
*all events and controversies massively exaggerated for dramatic purposes.
Scoring whiskies, however you do it, is about communication. I am no fan of the isolated score; my argument is always that a score, allied to a concise, detailed tasting note is the perfect combination and the best way to communicate to others your impressions of a particular drink. The 100 point scale is the most communicative precisely because it allows for subtleties.
The argument that it doesn’t work because most whiskies only score 70-90 is a fallacy. The 100 point scale is a measurement of a particular drink’s proximity to perfection, with 100 being perfect and 0 being satanic bin juice. Just because most whiskies exist around 70-90 does not mean that there aren’t aberrations that lurk around the lower ends of the scale, or total masterpieces that hover between 95-98. The scale allows expression for the vast breadth of character and flavour in the world of fine alcohols.
The argument about variation is also problematic. Of course people can vary subtly throughout the day. But, particularly when tasting whiskies, the use of a benchmark expression, one you know intimately and, once nosed, can easily tell you if your olfactory apparatus is properly calibrated, is the perfect way to know you are judging with a strong degree of consistency. I favour Laphroaig 10yo and Clynelish 14yo.
Then there is the issue of personal preference. Serge Valentin’s scores on Whiskyfun are powerful precisely because they are consistent within the framework of his personal tastes – in his case, distillate-driven styles of whisky. This understanding has been built up with his readership over years so that people can read his notes, look at his score and work out how that particular whisky is likely to factor into their own tastes by comparison. This is where the information of the score becomes truly meaningful. Extra-textual knowledge is everything. Conversely, it is also why Jim Murray’s scores are problematic: they are arbitrary and devoid of any discernible context.
What’s more, a taster can – and should – use the 100 point scale to judge with a degree of objectivity. I don’t always enjoy heavy sherry but I will often score a sherried whisky a few points higher on a technical basis for cleanness, balance and complexity. Even if I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it so much myself, it’s still possible to judge and express, via scoring, a whisky’s qualities on a purely technical level. Just as it is possible to approach a 1960s Ardbeg and calibrate your emotions and expectations accordingly to produce an honest, balanced score, it is perfectly possible to score all whiskies with these broader considerations and awarenesses of context.
The 100 point scale also takes on a greater level of cultural value if more of us use it. It means we can collate, compare and accumulate scores using the same system. It builds collective data about individual whiskies and provides a linguistic framework for easily and collectively discussing whisky – and other drinks. It can transcend barriers of language and helps to ground our broader whisky conversation.
Ultimately, if we want to share our passion for this drink, having a core whisky scoring system around which to discuss and express each dram’s individual merits is the greatest conveyer of meaning and opinion. For me, that’s the 100 point scale.
There you have it, folks! I think we can all agree that one or other of them is probably right. Tune in next week, when Connas challenges Angus to a naked mud-wrestling match in Bigg Market to decide whether or not bourbon or sherry casks are the best.