Monday, September 23, 2013
Why Does Sku Hate Whiskey?
It's always interesting to see the reaction when I come out with a review that goes against the conventional wisdom, as I did recently with my reviews praising Stagg Jr. and criticizing this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. The Old Forester post, in particular, lit up the comments.
It's funny, because if you ask anyone, they will surely tell you that taste is subjective and it's perfectly reasonable for you to love something and me to hate it. But when I post a review that differs from other reviewers, particularly prominent ones like John Hansell and Jason Pyle, I am inevitably offered a long list of rationales seeking to explain the difference. Perhaps there was batch variation or a tainted bottle. Maybe I was having an off day or I suffer from a judgment-clouding bias against the distillery. Or maybe it was the other guys; maybe they got a carefully selected sample that the distillery determined would receive the best reviews.
These are all possibilities, but more often than not, I believe these things come down to matters of taste. I am in several whiskey clubs that regularly host blind tastings. In these tastings, which are made up of very experienced tasters, I've seen scores on the same whiskey (the exact same bottle, mind you), range from 70 to 92. Everyone tastes things differently and some people have very specific taste sensitivities. I know, for instance, that I'm partial to wood and particularly sensitive to bitterness and sulfur. This means I may hate a heavily sulfured Springbank that others think is the best whiskey since Black Bowmore. And sometimes, a whiskey just grabs you or turns you off for reasons that are hard to explain.
I once got a sample from Jason Pyle of a whiskey he really liked. I thought the sample was so bad that it must have been tainted and asked him to send another one. The new sample tasted just as bad to me. That doesn't mean I think Jason is a moron or a toady to the industry. Far from it; I have great respect for him and his palate. We just have different tastes on some whiskeys. And wouldn't it be boring if we all agreed all the time?
I do wonder whether, as American whiskey enthusiasm has become more and more mainstream, there is increased pressure toward standardization of reviews. Lately, there seems to be a strong desire for a consensus about which whiskeys are best. It may be because of the scarcity of bourbon, particularly new releases. People need to know ASAP if this year's special limited cask strength release is great so they can get on the wait list at their local shop. For this reason, dissent among reviewers is less acceptable than it used to be back in the days when we were all just sharing opinions, and anyone who was curious could run to the local liquor store and buy a bottle of the whiskey we were reviewing to taste it for themselves.
Given the prominence of bottle flipping on places like Facebook and Craig's List, I also wonder if negative reviews of scarce bottles are now seen as income killers by those folks who bought cases as fast as they could with the hopes of making a quick profit.
In the end, I, like Hansell and Pyle and Serge and Cowdery and everyone else, can only taste what I taste and do my best to communicate that to the folks who are kind enough to care, and that's what I will keep doing.