Whether from luminaries such as Michael Jackson or Jim Murray, or your best pal’s blog, grading whiskies on a 100-point scale, usually to the nearest half-point, has long been the norm.
Not only does it provoke debate, but quantifying the taste of whisky via a numerical rating forces the taster to think carefully about the dramming experience. Also, and not least important, applying a score – and comparing that rating with fellow geeks and experts – is a lot of fun.
However, I think judging whiskies on a 100-to-the-nearest-half-point scale is the wrong way to go. What’s more, common sense and science are on my side.
Here’s my problem: Drinking whisky is a subjective, transient experience. As a result, scoring a whisky on a 100-point-scale makes as much sense as scoring a McDonald’s burger, the latest hit movie, or the new album from that band you like. You’re not judging to the best of your ability the technical prowess of a figure skater here. Rather, you’re quantifying your own perception of consumption.
Science also says too many factors come into play for your sense of smell and taste to be able to calibrate to such a finely-tuned degree.
First, there’s your existing whisky prejudices. We whisky geeks have strong feelings about the drams we drink and certainly will assign particular biases to certain brands. If you are not doing a blind tasting, knowing that dram is an old Ardbeg inevitably will affect your score. I’d love to see a whisky experiment involving label-swapping on bottles (as has been done loads of times with wine) and how that might affect judges’ scores as a result.
Second, your taste buds change throughout the day, and that means a whisky poured in the evening might taste significantly different the next morning or afternoon. A 2008 study published in the journal Diabetes showed that our perception of sweet flavours can change over the course of a few hours.
And third, context matters, and it can affect a score. Our perception of a dram, and therefore our taste experience, can change if we are drinking it while listening to loud music, suffering from a foul mood, or affected by a particular setting. An experiment with whisky found that the taste of a dram shifted when enjoyed in different ‘sensory rooms’, such as one smelling of freshly cut grass with a soundtrack of baaing sheep compared to a room with a sweet smell accompanied by gentle tinkling sounds.
So what’s my solution to these subjective perception challenges? Switch to a 20-point scale by grading whiskies 1-10 with half points. That creates a scoring system with a wider spectrum (it’s rare to see a score below 70 on the traditional system, for example). What I would call a ‘7.5’ (a very good whisky) would cover the equivalent of anything between 83-88 on the more traditional scoring system.
I think that this system better accounts for subjective experience discrepancies. I’m sure that there are many who would and could poke holes in my argument, and I welcome all healthy debate. But let’s do it over a good dram!