Professional tasters have objectivity in spades… or do they?
Objectivity. Those of us who write about beverage alcohol products are supposed to have it in spades. We are to assess each wine/spirit/beer from a standpoint of complete impartiality, never letting our personal preferences get in the way. Whether it’s a rare and coveted elixir, something far more ordinary, or an item so exotic and off the beaten path we may never have encountered it before, we, as “professional tasters” are supposed to be able to assess each sample based on its technical merits, never letting such trivialities as whether we really actually like the stuff influence our overall judgment. In fact, we’re supposed to be able to judge the objective merits even of the things we taste and really don’t like.
It’s a noble idea, but is it practical (or even doable)? Sure, most of us “experts” can easily tell when a product is defective, when it’s unbalanced, when it’s too young, too old, too thin, too flabby, or just generally boring. Yeah, we can weed out the good from the not-quite-as-good. But can we really, definitively determine that one wine is deserving of a 100-point score, while another merits a mere 99-plus? Can we truly separate the “exceptional” from the “best in the world,” especially when we are comparing things as diverse as say, oh, I dunno … whiskies?
Possibly the biggest “booze news” of 2015 was the proclamation, by English whisky sage Jim Murray, that Canada’s own Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (henceforth simply referred to as Crown Royal) was the “World Whisky of the Year” — as noted in his Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible. This was almost akin to a splash of vodka in the faces of whisky worshippers everywhere (and a real kick in the stones for the Scots). It wasn’t Scottish — in fact, not a single Scottish dram made it into Murray’s top five list — or some exotic import; it wasn’t old or rare; it wasn’t expensive; it wasn’t a “limited edition.” No, it was a commercially produced, globally marketed blended rye with no age statement and a price tag of about $34 (closer to $31 if you bought it in Ontario while it was selling at a two buck off promo price … which just added insult to injury for those who got stiffed).
But you probably didn’t buy it, simply because you never had the chance. In Ontario, in a very short period of time, sales of Crown Royal shot up by something like 400 percent. People were hauling the stuff out in case lots (regular folks, not restaurateurs and bar owners). Canadian Rye. In. Case. Lots. Stories of physical altercations in LCBO stores were heard. If a shipment did happen to arrive at a store (stock destined for south of the border was even diverted back north), the manager wouldn’t even put it on the shelf. Why bother unpacking it when it was selling as a 12-bottle single unit? Block pile it on the floor and do your best to control what amounted to more-or-less a Zombie Apocalypse (with booze rather than brains bringing on the hunger). Eventually, a six-bottle per person purchase limit was imposed.
The whole episode was fascinating on a number of different levels, but mostly because it presented a perfect storm of sorts: the whisky was from our own backyard; it was affordable; it made for a perfect Christmas gift. Suddenly both “Jim Murray” and “Crown Royal” became global media sensations. Oh, yeah, it was also the best whisky in the world.
Of course, some of the more cynical types (no names here) immediately wondered a) how much Diageo, Crown Royal’s multinational representative, paid Mr. Murray for the tribute (he’s adamant he can’t be bought); and b) if this wasn’t more or less a calculated stunt to help Murray market his Whisky Bible to the Christmas-shopping-crazed masses. If this was the case, it kind of backfired. Crown Royal will get way more traction out of this than either Jim Murray or his Whisky Bible. In fact, I’d wager a bottle of Crown Royal that most of those freaking out to get the whisky still don’t know — or probably care — who Murray is, they just know that it was deemed the best in the world and, therefore, they had to have it, which, in itself, raises a few questions concerning herd mentality and the novelty factor.
So let’s circle back to the notion of objectivity. Murray said that after tasting over 1,000 whiskies in 2015 alone, Crown Royal was the best of the bunch, garnering an incredible 97.5 point score. I tried it; a very nice whisky indeed, especially for the price. A few nights later I had what can only be called the honour of tasting through The Macallan 1824 Masters Series — including The Macallan Rare Cask, The Macallan Reflection, No. 6 and The Macallan M. Prices ranged from $400 to $5,000 per bottle. These were very nice whiskies, too. I mean, really nice. Was the $5,000 The Macallan M “better” than the $30 Crown Royal? Is an apple “better” than an orange?
Now, I’m not saying I’ve got Murray’s palate. But other than the fact that they are both called whisky, The Macallans and the Crown Royal really have nothing in common. To be fair, Murray would no doubt explain that he’s not directly comparing one dram to another, but scoring each one on its own individual merits. Okay, but still, how can one tot get an aromatic rating of 24 out of 25, while another gets 23 out of 25? Surely there must be something, on some level, that transcends pure objectivity when it comes to favouring the aroma and flavour of one liquid over another. However, the professional/objective reviewer probably wouldn’t admit to simply “liking” sample A over sample B, since what someone “likes” is completely subjective.
But so what? If the reviewer has an expert palate and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, shouldn’t this be good enough to earn reader/listener/viewer trust? If a critic was to say, “this is a great bottle … I think you should try it,” (or write a review that implies the same thing) wouldn’t that be lauding enough for the average consumer to consider taking the recommendation of the expert? Does the stuff really have to have an impressive score or “best in the world” tag attached to it to merit attention?
The other thing about wines/beers/spirits and any other sensual items is that they are all, to an extent, situation dependent. The same wine, for example, can leave different impressions depending on when, where and with whom it’s tasted. I’m sure you’ve heard someone bemoaning that a particular libation they enjoyed in, say, Italy, “just wasn’t the same” when tried back in Canada. Of course it wasn’t. They were in Italy!
I can tell you firsthand that a wine tastes different (i.e. better) when enjoyed with the winemaker, over a fabulous local meal while watching the sun set over the rolling Tuscan hills, than it does when sampled on its own in a tasting lab. Context dictates the difference between what is truly exceptional and what is just unquestionably good. In fact, speaking of wine, a good chunk of what is produced in the world is designed to show its real merits when paired with food. The winemaker intended it to be enjoyed, not judged.
In any case, I’ve ranted many times in the past about scores and stars and other accolades, so I won’t go down that well-worn path yet again. But I will say that I think it’s about time we all lightened up a bit about the drinks that have been crafted for us to simply appreciate.
Oh, yeah … the World Whisky of the Year? I poured it for a number of people — from whisky aficionados to those who simply appreciate good spirits. The consensus? Most liked it. Some more than others. On the other hand, at least one thanked me for saving him 30 bucks. But nobody claimed it was the best whisky they’d ever tried (or even the best rye they’d ever tried). And nobody really agreed with the “best in the world” honour. Probably because they just weren’t being objective.
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye ($33)
The nose is distinctly fruity, with hints of candy apple, fruitcake, baking spice (cinnamon, to be exact), vanilla, tangerine and fennel. Crisp, spicy, snappy and pure. A really nice dram. And, at the price, it’s a knockout. World’s best? Well, you decide!
The Macallan 1824 Masters Series
I’m always conscious about writing tasting notes for libations most readers will never have the opportunity to try. However, since I mentioned these in the story …
The Macallan Rare Cask ($400)
Dark chocolate and sultana notes waft up from the glass, complemented by freshly zested lemon and orange, with some allspice, wood polish, toffee and dried fruit fragrances mingled in. Smooth, rich and balanced, with notes of vanilla, clove and a touch of tobacco as it exits.
The Macallan Refexion ($1,500)
Candied orange, exotic flowers, caramel, vanilla, nutmeg, toffee … they’re all here, with a suggestion of sweet, stewed fruit. Assertive and fairly spicy on the palate, it is nonetheless seriously complex, with toasted nuts, bitter chocolate, dried fruit and a dash of candied, cinnamon hearts on the lingering finish.
The Macallan No. 6 ($4,500)
“No. 6” refers to the number of facets cut into the stunning Lalique crystal decanter in which the nectar is housed. Aged exclusively in first-fill Spanish oak sherry casks. Like the decanter, the whisky itself is multi-faceted, with ripe red apple, fig, date, candied ginger, clove and marmalade. Rich and viscous in the mouth, this is an intensely concentrated dram sporting layer upon layer of seamlessly integrated spice, vanilla/oak, malt and crème brûlée.
The Macallan M ($5,000)
I joked with one of The Macallan spokespersons that I was worth considerably more leaving the tasting than I was walking in. Malts for this extraordinary assemblage date back to 1940, with additional barrels of the 1947, ’48, ’49, ’70, ’80 and ’91 blended in for good measure. Intensely spicy and complex, with aromatics suggesting anise, smoke, nougat, traces of aged wood and just a bare — and pleasant — whiff of acetate. Clove, sweet tobacco, cocoa powder, raisin pie and lush red berries almost overwhelm the palate. Incredibly intense and long on the finish, with just a trace of smoke. In fact, this is the only The Macallan that has ever incorporated peated whisky in the blend.