Is that “award winning whisky” really an award winning whisky?

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Imagine you are on a road trip and a sign reading “Bottle Shop” catches your eye. You slow down the car, to the sound of your partner’s sigh. ‘Lets go have a look’, you say. After some excellent negotiation on your part, you both venture into the shop to look at all the goodies. There, you find all sorts of “award winning” whiskies that sell out like hot cakes in more wealthy inner city localities. You cannot believe your eyes! Two whiskies catch your eyes: a single cask single malt and a rye whiskey. The single cask single malt which you see won the title of the world’s best single malt, while the rye whiskey that sits before your eyes was named the best whisk(e)y in the world by the world’s most famous whisk(e)y critic. Since the awards, the prices of these whiskies have skyrocketed and they are nowhere to be found. Until now.  There they sit, with the words “world’s best single malt” and “world’s best whiskey” on the bottles. It is enough to get any whisky aficionado excited.

Your reaction is to buy! After all, they are the best whiskies in the world.

Or are they?

  1. Batch variation means you might be buying different whisky

All whiskies are part of a specific batch – they are (except for single cask whiskies) drawn from certain barrels and married together into a batch, bottled and then sold. Each batch of whisky will vary, however slightly, from batch to batch. Over time, a specific brand of whisky can taste different because it will come from different batches.

The flavour of a whisky depends on many different things, and just as wine can vary from vintage to vintage, so too can whisky vary from batch to batch. A whisky’s flavour comes from the grain used, fermentation, distillate, oak barrels, and interactions between the distillate and oak barrels. Because each batch of whisky will likely be the product of different distillate and different oak barrels, the batches may taste different.

When I found old bottles of Jack Daniel’s Old No 7, from the 1980’s and 1990’s, in my Dad’s garage my immediate thought was to open them and compare them with Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 released in 2014, 2015 and 2016. While the differences between Old No 7 from 2014, 2015 and 2016 were subtle, there was a huge difference between the Old No 7 from the 1990’s on the one hand, and, the late 2000’s on the other. The 1990’s Old No 7 emphasized the corn whiskey and wood vanillas, whereas the late 2000’s Old No 7 emphasized more oak barrel flavours (toasted oak and caramels).  Despite them all being “Jack Daniel’s Old No 7”, they all tasted different; lovely, but different. I have had the same results with old bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label from the 1990’s, and other single malts – despite all having the same name, many different releases of the same label or line of whisk(e)y tasted different over time.

Having tasted different batches of the “same” line of whisk(e)y side by side, in my experience whisk(e)y will sometimes taste different from batch to batch – so a Glentastic* 15 year old from last year may taste different to a Glentastic* 15 year old purchased this year.

There is no guarantee that you will be buying the same batch that won the award unless you take efforts to find out. Because the taste of a whisk(e)y might vary between different batches, an “award winning whisk(e)y” that is from a different batch to the batch of whisk(e)y that won the award is probably not an award winning whisky – its probably best viewed as a different whisk(e)y.

2. Cask/barrel variation means you might be buying different whisky

Whisky that is drawn from different barrels or casks is, despite being named the same thing (i.e: Glentastic* 12 year old “Chairman’s Dram”), actually different whisky. For example, suppose – as I said above – that a whisky named the “world’s best single malt” is a “single cask” whisky. This means that each bottle of this whisky is drawn from one cask. So, one bottle may be from cask #345 while another may be from cask #654. I have tasted many single cask whiskies that are named the same thing, but were from different casks. They were each different in their own unique ways; quite clearly they tasted like different, albeit similar, whiskies.

It is thought that whisky gets in excess of 60% of its flavour from the oak barrels or casks in which it matures. Two barrels/casks aging the same distillate side by side can therefore mature in different ways, and end up tasting different. This is because the wood making up each barrel/cask is different.

So, if a whisky that wins an award is from a specific cask or barrel  then, unless you happen to secure a whisky that is drawn from that exact same cask or barrel, the whisky is likely to be different to the whisky that won the award.

Suppose you do find the single malt that is from the same cask as the whisky that won the title of the world’s best single malt. Based on what I have just written, the whisky that you will be buying in this situation would be exactly the same as the whisky which the judges assessed as the world’s best single malt – there will be no batch variation, cask/barrel variation, etc. Suppose you also find the same batch of rye whiskey that the noted whisky critic named best whisk(e)y in the world. Have you found the Holy Grail of whiskies?

3. There is no such thing as the world’s “best” whisky and taste is subjective

Elsewhere, I have argued that taste in “good” whisky is wildly subjective. Whisky will likely taste different to different people, for a number of reasons I raise in my post ‘Is your taste in “good” whisky subjective and are whisky awards reliable?‘.

That post relies on a number of academic studies, and it basically argues that taste in wine or whisky is subjective. That is, if you enjoy the taste of a whisky that a whisky critic (or, worse, “expert”) dislikes, so what! There is nothing wrong with that whisky or your senses. Enjoying whisky, and wine, depends on your personal tastes and preferences.

In that post, I also make the points that:

  • “experts” in whisky are likely to differ in the criteria they use to assess “quality” – so much so that different critics differ in their opinions of the same whisky;
  • studies have shown that wine critics have scored the same wine differently, and that they have been found to “score” wine randomly and inconsistently – basically, the person conducting the study made each judge taste wine from the same bottle and pretended it was different wine, and some judges scored the wine from the same bottle differently;
  • people will likely perceive the same whisky differently. That is, different people may perceive the same whisky in different ways depending on whether they can or cannot perceive certain compounds;
  • whisky or wine experts are probably the worst people to give awards because their cultivated palates will likely differ to the uncultivated palates of most people; all these “experts” can really do is pick out flavours from fermentation, fruit, distillate or oak, but not measure how “good” or objectively enjoyable a wine or whisky is.

So, even if you do happen to find the same batch or cask/barrel number as the whisky that won an award, there is no guarantee that your taste will be the same as the judge or judges who scored the whisky. In fact, it may well be that your taste will likely differ to the tastes of the judge who scored the whisky.

4. Could whisky awards just come down to luck?

Suppose you happen to find a whisky critic who seems to share your tastes. If you find a whisky from the same batch or cask/barrel number as the one they named the “world’s best”, will you have finally found the Holy Grail? Probably not, because the whisk(e)y that won the title of the world’s best may simply have been a lucky chap.

Let me try to explain.

Whisky drinkers will often concede that a whisky that did not impress on opening the bottle, for whatever reason, later became a firm favorite. Others will often claim that a whisky they usually enjoy, on some occasions, simply does not “taste the same”; they are “not feeling the love” they usually get.

The latter phenomenon might occur because the whisky is simply tasted at the wrong moment – the drinker might not be in the mood for a whisky of that style, or his or her senses might not be as they usually are due to illness, or they may be in a particular state due to consumption of certain foods, exposure to certain pollutants (tobacco smoke), fragrance use etc. It might also be because the whisky was tasted after a certain whisky of a certain flavour profile. For example, go brush your teeth, or eat jalapenos, or dark chocolate, or drink a peated malt, and then taste a whisky. Try a whisky when you are feeling a little down, or after a disagreement with another person. Then taste it when you are feeling happier. Context, mood, and all sorts of influences, can effect how a whisky will taste to you.

The former phenomenon might occur because the whisky was opened and tasted at the wrong moment (as just discussed). Then, it might taste better a week or a few months later. This might be because of acquired taste, oxidization effects on the whisky after the bottle is opened, or simply because the whisky was then tasted at the right time.

So, a person’s appreciation for a certain whisky may change.

Admittedly, changes in appreciation will likely be in the form of smaller, rather than larger, shifts. For example, it is unlikely that one day a person will give a whisky a score of 97 and the next day the person will give that same whisky a score of 50; that is to say, it is unlikely that a person will hate a whisky they usually love, rather they may not like it as much as they usually do.

The “score” a whisky receives might vary by, say, 1-8 points (however each point is measured is beyond me) each time the scorer tastes the whisky. This is what some studies found with wine judges: they each tasted the same wine (thinking it was different wine) but scored it differently.  So, even expert wine judges have been shown to inconsistently score two samples of wine poured from the same bottle. 

If our “mood” for a certain whisky fluctuates, the score we give a whisky will depend on whether we are tasting it at the right time; that is, when we are in the “mood” for that whisky or when all the circumstances are right and our taste buds as well as olfactory senses are working properly (or in a way that is right for that whisky). This fluctuation in “mood” or tastes might mean that on Monday we might score a whisky 97 and then on Tuesday we might score that whisky 97.5.

One point, or half a point, difference in a whisky’s score may not seem like much, but it means the difference between the world’s “best” whisky (the 97.5 point whisky) and the rest. So, not only have academic studies shown that wine judges have scored the same wine differently (which has obvious parallels and relevance to whisky scoring), but experience suggests that a person’s appreciation of the same spirit can change depending on time of the day, changes in mood, food consumption, etc. Experience also suggests that context, “mood” etc can make a certain whisky more preferable – if it is cold and rainy we might feel like a smoky malt, whereas on a sunny afternoon we may feel like a lighter honeyed malt.

What’s more, comparatively speaking, judges who assess whisky in major awards only taste a whisky for a fleeting moment and are very unlikely to get to know the whisky over the course of the entire contents of the bottle. It is, one thinks, hardly enough to fully appreciate a whisky’s character by a quick sniff, slurp, and spit (or swallow) of a whisky and then move on to sample number #987. This process of enjoying whisky is artificial and it does not replicate how whisky will be enjoyed by most people at home. More importantly, this process of assessing a whisky – which lasts a very short time as compared to the way a person would usually enjoy a whisky – makes it more likely that “mood” or other influences might taint the score attributed to that whisky.

Could it be that receiving a whisky award is just a great deal of luck, because the judge or judges happened to taste the winning whisky at the right time and the losing whiskies at the wrong time? If the difference between the world’s “best whisky” and the rest is half a point or even several points out of 100 by a judge or judges, perhaps the world’s best whisky would not be the world’s best whisky if the scoring occurred on a sunny Saturday and not a rainy Sunday. Perhaps it all comes down to, to use a legal realist phrase, what the judges ate for breakfast?

So, is that “award winning whisk(e)y” really an award winning whisky? Seems to me that it is better to avoid paying a premium for award winning whiskies and, to borrow from Freakonomics, blow whatever you save on the lottery.

Of course, you could flip the bottles on eBay. Then, as a seller, you’d probably have a reason to embrace and push the awards… so, there is a “good” reason for awards, after all.

Further reading:

One thought on “Is that “award winning whisky” really an award winning whisky?

  1. This is an excellent exposition and I’m inclined to agree. I have a friend who often shares with me his experiences on tasting different whisky. When I disagree with what he says on a particular whisky, he may say it’s because his palate isn’t as developed as mine. He is admittedly new to the spirit, but I keep telling him, compared to other folks I know, so am I, and there is no “wrong” description of any particular whisky. And that’s the beauty of it!

    Anyway, I loved this article.

    Cheers! – Peat

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