Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Scoring Points. Part One: Murky Mark(s)

I forget who it was, but when I was a stick-legged, trembling teenager, way back in the days before I became a stick-legged, trembling young adult, there was a teacher at my school who didn't give marks. As a matter of fact he didn't really give ticks either. All you got to imply he'd read the work you'd [delete as appropriate] (been up all night slaving over by the light of a stump of candle/hastily scribbled during registration) were a few illegible red notes at the bottom of the page generally implying half-hearted satisfaction. As I say, I forget who it was, but I hated the bastard.

I was by no means one of the overachievers of the year; indeed had the aforementioned bastard been a science teacher my attitude towards his marking deficiencies wouldn't have been half as partisan, but frankly I liked marks. Obviously I liked them a lot better if they turned out well, but crippling lack of self-belief aside, they were the most concrete way of establishing exactly where you sat in the firmament. 'It's the taking part that counts' was an opinion I viewed with suspicion and contempt, cynical stick-legged infant that I was. As far as I was concerned, that was the attitude of someone resigned to losing from the off. You knew where you stood with marks, and you could see the gulf on either side of you.

I'm happy to report that my attitude's mellowed somewhat as an adult, and my self-worth is no longer linked to the red pen at the bottom of a page. I'd claim to be less competitive in general, though sceptics would point towards a Risk board that came pretty close to being booted over last August. (Deservedly. Hand-of-God levels of fair play were being deployed by the other participants.) The point of this trip down memory lane is that I've been considering the practice of another form of 'marking' over the last couple of days; one somewhat more pertinent to the subject matter of this blog. The practice of scoring whisky.

*Pause, whilst the author moves to a subterranean Nuclear bunker, bolts the door, props a chair under the handle and dons a full suit of armour. (With fingerless gauntlets to facilitate further typing.)*

Whisky scoring is viewed by many, especially those who treat the drink with apotheosis, as something along the lines of requesting to hold someone's baby and then hurling it into a meat grinder. On some forums in the darker corners of the whiskynet both the act and its practitioners are discussed in such vile fashion that the discussers could justifiably be brought to the attention of the police. Obviously this is true of more or less every online-discussed subject in the world now as tiny numbers of borderline-people, emboldened by anonymity, scream their bile unchecked into the digisphere. But even the decent and moderate majority make their feelings on the matter known in no uncertain terms. 'You shouldn't/can't score whisky' is the fundamental battle cry, largely backed up by the line that all palates are different. (I do think that battle cry would be catchier if they didn't have to shout 'forward slash' between 'shouldn't' and 'can't'...)

It's true that no two palates are the same, of course, as is the point that whisky is subjective and therefore, in the eyes of those who decry scoring, above such mundane and cast-iron fetters as a simple number. It's a view shared by numerous experts, and indeed many who do assign numbers to bottles feel the need to offer a sort of apology for doing so, lest the wrath of the more fervent and slow-to-forgive portion of the whiskerati fall crushingly upon them. 'It's not my fault: you shouldn't have had your child in the same room as a large meat grinder in the first place.'

As I've noted before, wine's one of my other passions. Currently my job, in fact. And whilst, believe me, the vinous trenches are dug no less deeply where scoring's concerned, it's far deeper ingrained in wine. In fact the main reason that my mind wandered to the shadowy corridors of whisky 'marking' is that wine has just seen its annual scoring apogee, which is the release of En Primeur Bordeaux. (Nutshelled, the practice of selling not-yet-bottled fine wine, in theory offering a gamble on eventual quality in exchange for a lower price.) It's no exaggeration to say that fortunes have been made and lost on the En Primeur scores of the most influential critics; their numbers the increasing be-all-and-end-all for the Ch√Ęteau owners, vignerons and winemakers.

So what do I think about scoring when it comes to whisky? What are the pros and cons of the practice? Where is it done well, and where (in my opinion) does it need serious rethinking? Ultimately, what, if anything, is the point? And why do I currently avoid doing it myself?

Complex questions. I'll need two more articles to decipher them. Should be interesting!


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