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.



Josh Feldman said...

That's an admirable - even beautiful - sentiment, Sku. However I prefer the interpretation that you are just a hard a$$ed curmudgeon; as ornery as a chaffed mule.

Steffen said...

I suspect a "why does Sku hate whisky" tasting coming up ?

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the comments on the OFBB '13 post, but I agreed 100% with your review, SKU. I first got into the OFBB releases in 2008 and really enjoyed that particular bottling. However, I thought 2009 was one of the worst Bourbons I ever had. I literally had to marry it with another bourbon, THEN use it for mixed drinks.

I wrote off the expression until 2012 when I tried a pour at a bar. It was much better than the '09. Maybe I was being too harsh and needed to revisit OFBB.

Well here came the great OFBB 2013 reviews. I was excited! Tried a pour from a friend who purchased a bottle and nosed it for about a half hour, absolutely heavenly. Took my first sip, and I was rushed back to the '09. Just an awful dry, bitter taste overpowered everything else. I had several pours that night and my palate was just fine. I've had tainted bottles before and this one didn't seem tainted. Just chalked it up that maybe OFBB isn't for me.

I did love Stagg Jr, though. Just a little water dissipated the heat and opened up the Carmel, vanilla, clove goodness.

Sadly an accurate assessment of the American Whiskey landscape is in your post above.


Carlton said...

Very cogent post Sku. You've convinced me that you gave OFBB 2013 a fair shake.

One issue I struggle with in sorting through reviews is the idea of quality vs. personal preference. In other words, how much of a reviewer's score/comments relate to a whiskey's quality (as discerned by the reviewer) and how much relate to how the whiskey tastes to the reviewer (i.e. aligns with personal preferences). My feeling is that quality should be somewhat less subjective than personal preference. Certain Scotch producers generally earn better reviews because they have better attention to quality throughout the entire process. If I don't "like" heavily sherried whiskies, then a Macallan wouldn't line up with my personal preferences, but, at the same time, I would find it difficult to give it a poor score if it exemplified a good example of its type. Given two Scotches with a similar style, one from a distillery with rigorous production standards and a good wood management policy and one from a distillery with neither, I think I could likely tell you which one had the better quality, irrespective of whether the style was a personal favorite. It follows that I would give the one I identified as being higher quality a better score.

We don’t have the number and variety of American whiskey producers that exist in Scotland, which leads me to wonder whether reviews of American whiskeys might necessarily be more focused on personal taste than discerned quality. Most bottom-shelf and high-end American whiskeys are made from the same ingredients using the same processes on the same equipment and go into the same barrels; it is primarily type of warehouse, location in the warehouse, and length of maturation that result in the differing taste profiles. I guess someone could argue that some American distillers have better quality than others (although I think the differences are much smaller then among Scotch distilleries), but I think it would be difficult to say bottom-shelf products are inferior quality-wise to top-shelf products. If I can’t necessarily taste quality (except when it deviates from the norm), then all I have left on which to base an opinion is personal preference. Here, dislike of a common theme throughout a distillery’s offerings, Beam’s distinctive yeast for example, might well lead me to rate all of that distillery’s products poorly.
If the above has any validity whatsoever, then I would expect experienced whiskey drinkers in blind tastings to score Scotches more consistently than bourbons. Any statistics types out there have such data to analyze?

Jordan said...

This is why I tend to feel that it's important to be able to go through a reviewer's back catalogue and get a sense of their preferences and palate. If they line up well with your own experiences, then future reviews stand a better chance of providing you with useful information. If you find yourself disagreeing with past reviews frequently, it probably just means that you have different tastes, so their reviews will be less useful for you.

This is also why I find aggregate reviews nearly useless. Unless the tastes of every reviewer involved line up with your own, the aggregate review won't mean a whole lot.

With all that said, Sku's theory about negative reviewers hurting resale value doesn't seem too far off the mark. The hype machine is mighty and those looking to make a buck want everything to be rosy. Especially with so many new drinkers coming on the scene, if the consensus on a particular whisk(e)y is good, but a new drinker doesn't like it, that drinker is likely to chalk it up to an inexperienced palate or somesuch and continue to buy. Dissenting views crack that fa├žade.

sku said...

Carlton, you make some really interesting points.

There is a difference for me in a whiskey that just tastes bad to me and one that I recognize is simply a profile I don't care for. For instance, I will sometimes note that I find a whiskey too sweet or too fruity, but that others who like that profile might enjoy it. That wasn't the case with the OFBB which I just plain didn't like.

As to the concept of quality, I'm not sure it's as objective as you make it sound. Other than ensuring the whiskey is free from things like bacterial taint, I'm not sure you could find agreement on what constitutes quality among reviewers or distillers.

Many in the Scotch world talk about how wood management has improved tremendously over the past decade but also lament that there aren't as many truly great malt whiskies as there used to be.

I don't think there is anything wrong with the quality of ingredients or the production of Old Crow, but that doesn't mean it tastes good. Likewise, there are some craft distilled whiskeys that go to great lengths to ensure the quality of their ingredients and process (using only local, organic grains that they have personally sourced), but that still taste terrible.

In the end, I see my role as very simple: telling you how much I like a whiskey and why.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Yay for you, SKU! Just give us your reviews and some tasting notes along with what you think and why; and, I'm very happy with that!

Certainly tastes vary! What a boring world it would be if it wasn't so, eh? I agree with many of your reviews to a large extent; but, certainly not all... and, That's OK! I do appreciate all you do, and suggest you keep up the good work.

Jason Pyle said...

Exellent, well thought out post, and yet another example as to why you are one of the best writers on the interwebs, about whiskey or otherwise.

To your point I'm always amazed as to why folks have so much venom over a post that's as subjective as a whiskey review.

The sample you hated was the 2012 Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel if I recall correcly. I can't remember the yeast but I remember the email where you said, "Hey Jason, I think somethign was tainted in that sample. Was something previously in the sample bottle? It tastes very medicinal." I was thinking, "well crap I've sent him a screwed up sample bottle. How can he not like that one?" I sent another one and you felt the same, confirming both that I did not screw that sample exchange up AND to each their own.

This all goes back to learning about a reviewer and what he/she likes and don't like. Regardless of what we think we know to be "bad" vs. "not to our tastes", we can never alter that opinion.



AaronWF said...

Not only do preferences vary between individuals, but a person's own preference changes; there is definitely a palate evolution over time. What you like when you start out with little knowledge or experience often changes throughout the years as you expose yourself to more and more whiskey and learn more and more about what you're drinking. In that way, it's very hard to truly compare whiskey over time, and certainly hard if not impossible to nail down a best-of list that will prove to be relevant for all whiskey drinkers regardless of where they are in their whiskey-drinking journey.

risenc said...

Great post, Steve. For my two cents, I've never understood anyone who, from a consumer point of view, takes issue with an individual review. Generally speaking, reviews have to be considered in the aggregate - if I want to know if a movie is worth seeing, I don't usually rely on just one reviewer, but try to get a sense of the consensus of reviewers. I'll give a little more weight to people who have similar tastes to mine, but movie reviews - and even more so reviews of things like wine or whiskey - are inherently subjective. If you want to know if something is good, you have to interpret multiple sources.

Anonymous said...

Let us all turn to Rev. Van Winkle's epistle on fanatical whiskey blog commenters: “I mean, get a life. These are grown men acting like little old ladies, stirring up the pot.” Julian Van Winkle. Louisville Magazine. July 2013.

Anonymous said...

Sku I like your reviews but I ignore any review of Beam or BF products. The fact that you could make a post entitled "Why does Brown-Forman whiskey suck"..or something to that effect.. and to remind us constantly how much you hate Beam and BF..that is ample reason to call BS on calling the new OFBB 2013 swill.

I don't think there is anyway two unbiased semi-professional reviewers can have such divergent views of a whiskey unless one is psychologically predisposed to hate the whiskey.

Sku said...

"I don't think there is anyway two unbiased semi-professional reviewers can have such divergent views of a whiskey unless one is psychologically predisposed to hate the whiskey."

Wow, really? There is no other way that two experienced palates can have different views of a whiskey? Does that theory hold true of movie critics? book critics? I've definitely heard some music critics argue it out over a song that one thought was a classic and another thought was crap, but I guess one of them was just psychologically predisposed to hate the song.

I've made no secret of the fact that I don't like most Brown Forman whiskeys. I just don't like the flavor profiles they tend to favor for their core brands, which is something people should know about me (Love the Rittenhouses they made thought!). But why can't that just be my honest opinion of their whiskeys?

Do you really think there is such a thing as an objectively great whiskey that no one can have an alternative opinion of?

Lazer said...

As someone who has been reading this blog for a couple of years, I've known for a while the simple fact that Sku doesn't hate whiskey, he just has bad taste. :)

Justin Victor said...

Great post Sku. Please continue your good work and don't feel the need in the future to apologize for not liking the "newly released and highly praised" whiskey of the week. I appreciate many points of view when reading about whiskey.

As an aside, it is interesting that Jason named your "tainted" sample of the FRSBLE 2012. I had similar experiences. A fiends bottle tasted overly minty, piney, and bitter to me. I recently opened my own bottle and it is awesome stuff.

Maybe bottle to bottle variation can exist.

Anonymous said...

@Justin V. - "A fiends [sic] bottle tasted...bitter to me." Indeed, what a fiendish thing for them to let you sample such a bottle!!

Justin said...

I can't type. But sometimes this ipad changes stuff I don't need it to correct. Nice catch though anon.