Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Poll Results: Reviewing the Reviewers

I didn't have too much feedback on the reviewing the reviewers poll which asked which one whiskey reviewer people would pick if they could read only one set of reviews. I guess people are more passionate about the actual whiskey they drink than those who review it for a living. To the extent there were responses, they mostly favored John Hansell.

For my part, I think there is a lot of talent in the professional whiskey reviewing world, particularly given its small size, and each of the reviewers in this poll has a certain niche.

Mark Gillespie tends toward higher scores but shows a deep appreciation of the whiskey he samples and samples a wide variety. His status as his program's sole reporter as well as its sole reviewer gives him a deep personal knowledge of each whiskey he tries. Often, he samples whiskey at the actual distillery or with the master distiller, which gives him additional information about the production of the whiskey compared to those who taste mostly from samples.

Jim Murray may be the most controversial whiskey reviewer, but if you want quantity, he's your man. No single professional reviewer reviews as many whiskeys, and he is the only one on the list that has the power to single-handedly raise prices and create shortages, particularly if he names something as his top whiskey of the year.

Paul Pacult is the lone spirits generalist on the list. The fact that he reveiews all sorts of spirits brings a unique perspective to his reviews, though he is probably less read than any of the other writers I listed.

That leaves my two favorites: John Hansell and Dave Broom, two great reviewers with nearly opposite writing styles. Hansell's reviews are straightforward, and his writing style is crisp and clean. When I read a Hansell review, I have a good idea of what the whiskey will taste like (though I may not agree with him on how good it is). Dave Broom is anything but straightforward. A flowery wordsmyth, Broom's reviews are more fun to read than anyone's, but they give me little idea of how a whiskey will actually taste. (What does "Montgomery Clift seducing Elizabeth Taylor" taste like exactly? Never mind, I'm not sure I want to know). So for informativeness I give the point to Hansell, while for entertainment I give it to Broom.

All of that being said, I don't actually spend much time reading professional reviews. In fact, I probably spend less time on the reviews than anything else in Whisky Magazine or Whisky Advocate. And for my own purposes, I'm much more likely to purchase something that's been given high ratings by Serge on WhiskyFun or by my pals in the LA Whiskey Society. Luckily, though, we don't have to pick just one reviewer and we can benefit from a wide variety of palates, both amateur and professional.


Jason Pyle said...

I read most them. There is no "best" - only subjective. I find Hansell's style to be the clearest, most concise and straightforward. His writing isn't prose, but it's functional and far more usable to a reader in my opinon.

There are times where I "WTF?!?" over Murray and other times where I think he hits it right on.

I respect Broom's knowledge immensely, but as a reviewer his style is way too abstract. Actually it's completely off the wall most of the time. It's beautiful poetry to read, but at the end of the day I think a review is for the reader to be able to comprehend. He himself has admitted that using descriptors that get people thinking is something he uses to keep from writing that same notes all the time. I can respect that, but if the notes are there, aren't they there? He is a leader in the space so he's doing something right but his reviews many times mean very little to me. What I have enjoyed with Dave is he describes the attitude of the whiskey better than the rest. So from that standpoint I like that. That I find much more useful than his notes.

Gillespie and Pacult are Double A in comparison to the above.

John Hansell said...

I appreciate the kind words. In my previous life, I was a scientist. When I was taking my technical writing class at Penn State, I had an excellent teacher who basically told me to use words that everyone can understand. He told me it doesn't matter how much I know if I can't communicate it in a way that people will understand.

I have kept this philosopy in my reviews. They might be less entertaining than others, but when you are done reading the review I hope you can relate to what I was trying to say.

To me, a whisky review is not a platform to show off how many fancy words you know or how many aromas you smell or flavors you taste.

Having said this, I think that the other Whisky Advocate reviewer discussed here, Dave Broom, is better at reviewing whiskies than I am, which is why you will find his reviews in the magazine.

sam k said...

Hey, give us more than a day next time. Medication will taker care of most of that OCD thing.

Greg said...

I do read reviews but take them as opinion pieces. Taking someone's opinion as gospel isn't being true to what you like. The example I give is Evan Williams Single Barrel that has received high marks from some reviewers over the years. That expression to me has been average year over year at best. Others that I know like that expression very much so in the end, what you like is the most important and the reviews are simply a reference in the overall experience.