Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Point Scoring. Part three: Primal Instinct

28,000 BC. A cave in France.

Ugg and Ogg pace nervously. Outside, thunder rolls and mammoths trumpet, but inside is utter silence, as three cave art experts, Paul Cezugg, Claude Monugg and Eugène Delacrugg scrutinize the wall. Ogg and Ugg have sweated many moons for this moment, and the road has not been easy. You try persuading a cave bear or woolly rhinoceros to sit still for preliminary sketches. And that’s without all the pressure from those snooty Spanish cavemen and all their noise about cubist and surrealist cave art. It’s no good telling him that pictures of sabre tooth tigers with the sabres bursting upwards out of their nose won’t catch on; Pablo Picassugg just goes right ahead and smears them on the wall anyway.

Eventually, just as the silence has pupated from awkward to excruciating, it is broken by Paul Cezugg. ‘That one,’ he announces, stabbing a finger at a stencil of an Aurochs. ‘It has more dynamism, more...more...je ne sais qugg.’ Ogg clasps his defeated face in his hands whilst Ugg lets out an elated exhalation of pent up nerves. He has triumphed. His cave painting is the finest.

Whether or not this tale of stone age watercolours is apocryphal or not is a question for archaeologists and ancient historians to answer. But I think it serves to demonstrate humanity’s inherent obsession with ranking the unrankable. With putting the subjective in order. With being the best – or at the very least, being able to discern what is. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty and despair’, says Ozymandias. (Poetry again...) Translation: ‘read these and weep you snivelling pack of no-hopers. Next to my digs, yours aren’t fit to house a gangrenous swine.’

Put any two whiskies next to each other, and you’ll be able to tell the difference between them. We all know that – it’s a given. But I’ll go one further. I contend that you can put any two whiskies next to each other, and in all likelihood one will be objectively better than the other. (I can already hear the screams of protest and gnashing of teeth.) With this in mind I’d like to open my case for the defence of using scores in the evaluation of whisky.

I imagine those who disagree with my contention would ask three things. 1. How can scores account for differences in style? 2. How can scores account for differences in palate? And 3. Why don’t you use scores if you think they’re so great, you hypocritical craven?  

The answer to the first question is pretty simple. They can’t. Simply sticking a number next to a whisky tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever about what the whisky’s going to taste like. If there’s one aspect of whisky scoring that absolutely everyone can agree on it’s that the score is by no means the be all and end all. It has to be accompanied by a tasting note, or it’s essentially worthless. Assuming you write scores as an aid to your reader.

Question two is slightly more complex, and rather feeds into question three. Ostensibly the answer once again is ‘they can’t,’ which makes things look a little bleak for scores, except that in this case there is, or ought to be, a rather important addendum. Which is to say ‘they can’t...unless the whisky is dealt with entirely objectively, in the context of the full whisky spectrum.’

The moment you start giving scores based simply on ‘I like this flavour’ or ‘I don’t like this flavour’ the whole idea goes out of the window. But that’s not an easy switch to flip. Take me for example. I hate cheese. Hate it. Every so often at a Christmas Dinner I end up with the stilton lingering close to where I’m sitting and I’m afraid the smell puts my turkey at risk of making a surprise return trip to the plate. I’d love if it didn’t, but there it is. So I’d be utterly useless when it came to making clinical assessment of the quality of a stilton, because to me it all smells disgusting. On the flip side, never in the time that I’ve been friends with him has Greeners been objective about Liverpool’s chances in any given Premier League season. If you can’t detach yourself, at least for the time you’re actually scoring the whisky, then your score means nothing. And, though I’m sure we’d all publicly exclaim our remarkable powers of detachment, privately I expect we’d be a little more candid. Because it’s not an easy thing to do, and not everyone wants to anyway. And why should they? Takes half the fun out.

The second part of the addendum is the real reason I don’t give whisky scores personally, and is, in my opinion, a pitfall for some people who do. It’s impossible to give accurately objective scores if you don’t have a thorough idea of how the land lies. If you’re not pretty au fait with what you might find, and where the upper and lower levels of quality are. Which in whisky terms means having an in-depth knowledge of all the major distilleries, and a thorough working knowledge of the smaller ones. You need to know what they’re aiming for, what they’re capable of, what they’ve made in the past. You need to know how their spirit ages, and how it typically reacts with varying styles of cask. Most importantly, you need a perfect knowledge of what shouldn’t be there. The difference between a flavour you don’t like, and a flavour that denotes an objective fault. And you have to tread carefully on that front, because otherwise you’ll run into the ‘I might not like that, but someone else will’ counterpoint. Yes, someone might like the taste of a fault, be that from a dodgy cask, a feint-heavy spirit or simply an unbalanced expression. But if there is a fault it has to be recognised and it has to be scored accordingly. In order to build up this immense body of knowledge you have to be in a position in which you’re tasting about 1000 whiskies a year, and have been for a while. I’m not, so I don’t. Simple as that.

I think one problem with whisky scoring is a lack of transparency. (Don’t know whether that’s appropriate or ironic...) What I mean by that is that I’m seldom sure from reading someone's score quite how they've arrived at that number. More often than not what you’re given is essentially a recipe list of perceived smells and flavours, with a figure tacked on to the bottom. This article isn’t the place for me to start banging my drum about my issues with whisky tasting notes, but the point is that all these lovely flavours and aromas aren’t actually an effective guide to objective quality. The WSET exams take you through a ‘systematic approach to tasting,’ which I think is pretty sound. For the advanced level you’re marked out of 25 for each wine you have to analyse, and of those, only 5 marks are given for aroma/flavour identification (6 marks in a white wine.) The other criteria you’re marked on is identification of levels of alcohol, acidity, body, intensity of aroma, intensity of flavour, balance, tannin, length of finish etc etc. Yet I almost never see whiskies analysed by characteristics. The closest you ever see is ‘don’t like this, want cask strength,’ or ‘don’t like this, think they’ve added caramel.’ If you’re going to give a score, show your working. Don’t just write a flavour list.

So no. I don’t think everyone should be scoring whisky. Actually, scratch that – people can do whatever the hell they want – what I mean is that I don’t think everyone should be publishing their scores. And as previously stated, I include myself in that. But those favoured few with the ‘requisite’ breadth of experience? Yes, yes, one hundred times yes! Apart from anything else I don’t want to think that some lucky so-and-so is sat somewhere making their way through 1000+ whiskies a year simply for their own enjoyment! Ok, so theoretically you could hunt far and wide for a bar that serves a glass of the particular whisky you’re considering, but if like me you live in something of a whisky wilderness (Reading’s more progressive bars occasionally get as adventurous as stocking up to two different Bourbons...) the opportunity simply may not be there. So being able to reference a few thousand tasting notes accompanied by an objectively considered score is invaluable if you’re to experience the water of life smorgasbord in its most dizzying entirety. Of course you shouldn’t lean entirely on the number – I think we’ve all experienced a highly scored whisky at some point in our lives and found it not to our taste. And you shouldn’t lean on the scoring of just one critic any more than you should get your news and opinions from just one paper. Nor should you feel obliged to stick to what anyone, however expert, recommends once you feel happy choosing your whisky for yourself. But for my own part I know I can still remember taking my first steps into a wider whisky world, and being grateful for the guidance I could find through the objectivity of a confidently assigned score.

Scoring whisky, indeed analysing whisky in general, is far from a cut and dried art form. There is still, I believe, a way to go before the most accessible form of whisky communication has been properly nailed. Possibly it never will be. Possibly it can’t be. Possibly – the horror – it doesn’t actually matter. Scoring or no scoring, whisky will endure, and continue to grow in popularity. After all, the most effective way to get information about a whisky is to have a chat with someone who’s tasted a few. At the very least, as we’ve seen, scores mean nothing in isolation. But hey. A number assigned to a bottle which, whilst it won't tell you what it tastes like or whether you'll enjoy it, at least gives us a little more insight on what the juice inside might be like. Where have we heard that before? I, for one, don’t think it’s worth complaining too loudly. At the end of the day, your actual purchases are still entirely up to you.


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