Francis Bacon, Self Portraits, 1973
With enormous sweat, and luck, the most noble of us distill and mature whisky. With a measure of fortune, that whisky might land in your glass, release its aromas, and travel across your palate. My belief is, on that path, there are no numbers, no metrics, no ratings are possible.
So I wonder. What is the actual difference between a spirit rated 89 points, and another rated 91 points? In those three centimetres, is there some distinction that flows immediately and intuitively from our senses?
We each have our own unique preferences and sensibilities. That’s what taste is. Taste in two manners: both in the sense of the nose and the tongue, the olfactory and gustatory qualities of a sensory thing, and taste in the sense of aesthetics — how, you may just prefer one Francis Bacon portrait over another. When pressed, you might not have a good reason for your choice, but still, it remains, untouched. Taste, when it’s pure, doesn’t happen by consensus, and it doesn’t happen by authority. The root grips within you, alone.
So then, aren’t reviews of aesthetic things essentially futile, and pointless?
Well, yep. But I do them anyway.
My whisky rating system uses 4 categories, and here’s what they mean:
A par rating reflects a good spirit, showing a very baseline level of interest. Not bad, but not elevated. In my books, par is still a mark of approval, but not an enthusiastic one. Though many spirits fall below the level of par, my efforts on this website are dedicated to whiskies that are par and above.
A fine whisky has characteristics that lift it above the level of par. It has the quality of fineness. We know this feeling. The texture of a quality woven fabric on the fingertips, the sight of a well cobbled pair of full grain, oiled leather shoes, a plate of vindaloo that is inexplicably, but nonetheless better, than the usual.
The next level of things, a higher level of fineness. A fully tailored suit made of the smoothest wool, a glistening piece of sashimi carved to perfect proportions, melting on contact with the tongue. A cocktail with impeccable balance, and complexities that go beyond explanation. Fois gras and a cool glass of Sauternes under a fig tree.
The highest possible rating, and the most exuberant, sensational experience. This is where we start to travel to a place without words, it’s the outer space of taste. Things float effortlessly, orbiting masses explode and collapse.
In whisky, I prefer intensity over accessibility, and my ratings will reflect that bias. For an accessible whisky to reach into the realm of superlative, it needs to be extremely profound. Usually that means it’s also extremely expensive. Macallan M comes to mind as an accessible whisky that I would rate superlative. Intense whiskies, on the other hand, are not hard to find, and can be had for much less money, and they reach into the superlative more readily, to my taste.