Thursday, 12 May 2016

Scoring Points. Part Two: Pointless. (Sorry, too easy.)

I bear a grudge against Dead Poets Society. Granted, I could say that about a large number of things; a veritable cornucopia of niggling and (I admit) largely irrational irritations ranging from people walking slowly in London, to emojis, both concept and word, to incorrectly stacked burgers. (The people putting the salad underneath the meat need to reconsider how life works.) My grudge against Dead Poets Society is borne of the message it instilled in a young, impressionable Wellsy that poetry was something wonderful, beautiful and interesting; my key to Utopian possibility. It’s not of course; at 14 years old it’s the katana with which one commits social seppuku, with all the future fiscal promise of shares in floppy disks and useless for attracting anything besides hurtful remarks. After four years spent attaining an English Masters good only for hanging over the bed I’ve also wished more than once that they’d made a film called ‘Dead Software Programmers Society’. But for all that it played its role in the crushing of my youthful naïveté, the central idea of the film; that certain things are created – should be created – for some higher aesthetic purpose, untouched by the cold mathematics of precise analysis, has rattled around my head ever since. Alongside the shreds of Byron and Hardy and Shelley and Coleridge that I picked up like loose change in the street and left in my wallet to fester.

Having decided to stick my head into the tiger’s mouth of considering the practice of whisky scoring it’s only fair that we open with the case for prosecution. (Dead Judges Society would also have been a financially sound alternative incidentally...) The rallying cry of those opposed to assigning a random number to whisky tends to be fairly simple, and in keeping with John Keating’s approach to Mr J. Evans Pritchard’s analysis of poetry. ‘You can’t.’ For some people that’s as far as they want to go, and would happily say 'on that ladies and gentlemen of the jury we rest our case.' But let’s pretend for a moment that there’s one of those sour-faced pedants in the jury-box who actually wants such an assertion backed up by some evidence. Well here goes.

Whisky is subjective. Numbers inherently are not. And when subjective clashes with objective there tends to be something of an oil and water effect. Whilst it would have made my life far simpler if I could have answered such questions as ‘How effectively does Lawrence portray notions of cross-class sexuality’ with ‘er...67/100’ I’m not sure it would have cut the mustard with my 20th Century Literature professors. (I wouldn’t have given the self-satisfied preener such a high mark anyway.) You wouldn’t give Van Gogh a score, nor would you numerically rate a song or a building or a view. So why insist on trying to nail down a whisky with such
definitive precision?

Beauty, we can be certain, is in the eye of the beholder. I for one am very grateful that the ladies of Nottingham University didn’t wander round scribbling scores and docking points off for faults. (Or if they did, they have my gratitude for their discretion.) So far as whisky is concerned, like anyone else with tastebuds I have favourite drams, and drams that leave me cold. (Ish. I’d probably still drink them happily enough!) However a quick consultation with Dr Google throws up numerous haters of the whiskies I admire and just as many disciples of my less favoured tipples. I have even, and you’ll have to strain credulity to believe we live in such a world, come across people who don’t like Salt and Vinegar as a flavour of crisps. Though I’m not friends with any such folk.

Moving on now to the matter of the scores themselves. Presumably they are at least standardised so that the consumer, who you’d like to think would be the beneficiary of the scores, knows what’s what? Ha. Hahaha. Hollow laughter resounds throughout the Nuclear bunker in which I type. (See part one if confused.) Far from it, I’m afraid. By and large scores are given out of 100, and so far so reasonable. But it’s where we go from there that throws the whole mucky business into turmoil. In the first place, ‘by and large’ doesn’t mean ‘all the time.’ I’ve seen people score out of twenty, out of ten and out of five, 'star-style'. And that’s not even the end of it. Because in some instances in which the score is given out of ten - both the prominent examples which I can think of off the top of my head in fact - the ten is broken down into decimal points. So you get 7.9, 8.4, 9.7 etc. (Actually they never go as high as that last one really.) And that’s fine, but what’s the point? Why not simply mark out of 100? Albeit that’s more a stylistic complaint than an actual ‘problem’ per se.

Most people who’ve had an interest in whisky for more than five minutes can probably think of a fairly prominent example of someone who marks out of 100. Except that they don’t really, because once again those 100 points are broken down. Not quite into tenths of a point, but into halves. Which means that really it’s a mark out of 200. You’re possibly wondering why that’s an issue, and it isn’t necessarily, but it begs a question. Can the person awarding the scores explain the difference in quality between a whisky awarded 90 points and a whisky awarded 90.5? Presumably there is a discernible gap in quality to this critic's mind, however fractional, and surely one must be able to explain the reasoning behind the mark, if one is to justify awarding it in the first place? 

And there’s the real rub of scores, namely, what should the ‘right’
number to mark a whisky out of be? Five is surely far too small - there clearly are more than five levels of whisky quality. But how high can we go before it passes belief that an individual could distinguish between marks? I read recently that a wine body had plans to mark wines out of 1000. If there is someone, or in this case a collection of someones, who can distinguish wine quality to a thousandth of a degree then I take my hat off to them. However I do find it difficult to rein in my scepticism. Oh, and by the way. That 100 points I said people score out of. It’s not 100. Not all the time anyway. Most 100 point scorers follow what I understand to be the American school system, wherein you achieve the first 50 marks just for showing up, and your actual work is graded using the next 50. So 60 points becomes an utterly rubbish result, as opposed to the 2:1 it represents to the overwhelming majority of British university students. Yours truly included. I’m an academic herd follower. 

Which again would be fine, if everyone scoring out of 100 worked on that same system. But they don’t. Effectively everyone I’ve come across individually awarding scores to whisky is singing from a different hymn sheet. Or perhaps more accurately singing from the same hymn sheet to a different tune. And having attended end-of-term services at school I can confirm that such a phenomenon ends up sounding like some sort of mad, droning lawnmower symphony. A bit of fun, but you’re glad you’re not paying to hear it.

One final word on the scoring system before moving on to the next point. Even allowing for starting on 50 points, even allowing for differences in what people are scoring out of, no whisky critic that I have come across actually uses the full spectrum of what their points would permit. Let me put it this way - if I handed in one of those pieces of homework which you deliver whilst simultaneously explaining that your grandmother fell down some stairs whilst the dog choked on a chicken bone and then you had to save a child and the house burned down honestly miss...I’d expect a rubbish score. 2 or maybe 3 out of ten at best. By the same token if I handed in a piece of work which could not be done better I would expect full marks. Yet the scores applied to whiskies, with very, very few exceptions, range from about 70 to about 95. (So, if you’re doing the American School system, 40% to 90%. And of those, the overwhelming majority range from about 85 to 95. A wonderfully optimistic way to look at things, but I wonder how realistic?

 Another thing. I’ve never drunk a whisky which I would pronounce ‘objectively undrinkable,’ and I’ve never drunk a whisky and been unable to imagine a better one. But my experience is not nearly as wide as the experts who taste for a living. At my best estimate I anticipate tasting about 700 whiskies in 2016. But the people whose little black books tally in the thousands per year, and the tens of thousands in their life to date - surely they have an idea of where the floor and the ceiling are? Or, after years of professional tasting, have they never found a whisky which didn’t leave them wanting more? The wine critic Robert Parker, by far the most powerful critic in any field, the man who essentially invented the notion of scoring drinks out of 100, has spoken out on the subject of awarding full marks, and says that professionals have a
responsibility to award full marks when they believe, in their immense experience, that a drink is as good as it gets. I’m with him. You can’t mark out of 100 unless you are prepared to mark up to 100. If you don’t, you have to offer an explanation for where points have been lost. Too often I see words like ‘faultless’ and ‘perfect’ applied to whiskies which are not then given full marks. Or the negative equivalents applied to whiskies which still achieve 70-75. To me, this smacks slightly of bet-hedgery. 

At this point please bear in mind that I’m just making the case for the prosecution, and that my perfect world would split fairly evenly between Mariokart, Table Football (at which - sorry to boast - I’m a king) and miscellaneous mucking about. I am absolutely in favour of doing something for the sheer damn hell of it. I keep a blog for goodness' sake. But if you're going to go as far as keeping and publishing whisky scores I think you have to ask yourself ‘Cui Bono?’ Or, if you’re not a ponce who speaks in italics, 'who’s benefiting?' 'What’s the value of doing this?' Going back to wine again, I mentioned in my first article that my thoughts drifted to the subject of points because it’s the middle of Bordeaux En Primeur season. Now I completely understand the point of scoring en primeur. If you’re buying en primeur you have a very short window to make your selection from an enormous range of wines which will never be priced so low again, which will change enormously over the course of their lives, which haven’t even been bottled yet, and - crucially - which you won’t have a chance to taste for yourself before purchasing.

In that instance it’s hugely valuable to have a bank of scores from an experienced expert to use as a bit of a crutch. Someone who has tasted across the field of play, has a good sense of the vintage, and who can tell from tasting this unfinished wine how good it is, how good it will be (roughly) and for how long it will continue to age. And by applying scores across the board he can help you quickly sort out the wheat from the chaff amongst the hundreds of wines available, enabling you to make your purchase before it has sold out, and before your very short window closes. Time is of the essence, quick-to-process information is of the essence. Big thumbs up to scoring en primeur.

When it comes to whisky, there’s not really an equivalent. People might point to special releases, but to be honest either there’ll be a decent number of bottles released, in which case you’ve a good chance of tracking down a glass before you buy, or there’ll be so few bottles released (e.g Yamazaki Sherry Cask) that knowing
whether it gets a good score or not is completely irrelevant to whether you get your hands on one. And you don’t need that rarefied palate that can accurately predict the future when it comes to whisky. Once it’s bottled, that’s that pretty much. It’s as it will ever be. So should you taste a glass and not like it, never mind, move on. Nothing lost. If you do like it, happy days. Get online and chances are you can sort yourself out with a bottle. Where do scores come in?

 So. Whisky scores. Probably subjective. Definitively un-standardised. Possibly unnecessary. A damning prosecution indeed. Need we even hear the case for the defence before throwing the book, donning the black cap, passing the sentence and chopping the rogue’s head off? (We’ve a merciless old judicial system at Pilgrim Towers.) 


Not only do I hope to prove that scores can be objective (up to a point), but that they can be invaluably useful. Whether I can succeed in doing that is, of course, another question. One that I’m afraid will have to wait until part 3. Table Football calls.

Oh, and by the way, Dead Poets is worth a watch if you haven't seen it - Robin Williams' performance almost matches his turn in Good Will Hunting. I give it 837 out of 1000.


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