Every year since 2003, whisky writer and critic Jim Murray releases his self-published annual Whisky Bible, and his top choices for the 2021 edition have just been announced. As usual, media organizations around the world immediately issued out headlines about ‘the best whisky in the world’. This year, the winner is a Canadian whisky, the Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.
In the past, his best in show choices have raised some eyebrows. For example, when he picked a Japanese whisky in 2015 and a cheap Canadian rye whisky in 2016 he managed to create something approaching genuine controversy, at least within the whisky world.
However, he has few defenders within the whisky fan community. Blogs and whisky social media groups race each other every year to see who can start bashing the Murray bible first upon its release, complaining about his scores, making fun of his ‘Murray Method’ (a rigorous 14-step process for tasting whisky), and accusing him of taking bribes from brands (a longstanding and unfounded claim that Murray strongly denies).
Though these specific complaints are often over the top (they are written on the Internet after all…), the Murray bible’s main problem is the sexist language it employs to describe whiskies, and many brands are ignoring this problem as they rush to display his score on their bottles and marketing materials.
This needs to change, so let’s dive into the issues.
Why is Jim Murray a big deal in the first place?
There’s no questioning his credentials. He was one of the first writers who really did substantial work about whisky when very few others were doing it. The Whisky Bible, which has now been going for 19 years, is impressive in its scope, with over 4500 entries (Murray claims to add 1200 new entries a year, editing out old ones or re-reviewing certain entries). It’s now sold over a million copies.
The angry whisky fans
There are famous athletes who despite their experience and success come off as a little egocentric and arrogant, and perhaps the same can be said for some whisky writers.
His use of the term ‘best whisky in the world/best scotch/best XX’ in every edition of his book annoys some whisky fans, as the subjective judgement of one person, no matter how qualified he or she is, does not translate to the objective reality of what the ‘best’ whisky should be.
Others will point to Murray’s caricature-like tasting regimen. When going through the months-long process of tasting for his book, he claims to eat only bland, flavorless food, and he apparently does not have any cooked dinners in the house so as not to disrupt his nose. He abstains from sex, because ‘from kissing you can pick up something’, which will throw him off his tasting game. He has said that eating a bad salad once stopped him from tasting whisky for a month. And of course, there’s his use of the word ‘Bible’, and the fact that he calls himself a ‘guru’. The use of those spiritual terms and monastic approach to tasting makes for an easy target to mock, especially online.
Then there’s his ratings, which set off a firestorm in the online whisky communities every year. For whisky consultant, writer and World Whisky Day founder Blair Bowman, the fast-growing cadre of extremely highly rated whiskies cheapens Murray’s 200 point-scale scoring method (Murray scores out of 100 to the nearest half decimal point):
“With so many whiskies now awarded 94+ by Murray the actual meaning of his ‘Liquid Gold’ award has lost meaning. The use of his 100 point scoring system doesn’t really mean anything to consumers and is confusing. A simple bronze, silver, gold without any decimal points would be a much more practical way of analysing his scores.”
A few years ago, even the whisky world’s top (and only) satire site, Whisky Sponge, was so incensed by his scores that it published a completely serious and critical post of his work, claiming that he picks his favorite whiskies in order to generate headlines that will then boost book sales and assigns arbitrary scores in an inconsistent manner.
Some whisky fans also don’t like his relentless preaching against sulfur flavors found in whisky (and the Scotch Whisky Association once issued a statement on the matter responding to this), but I personally can’t fault him on this specific point. I also think certain sulfurous notes are unforgivable in a dram.
Sexism in the (whisky) bible
In an interview last year, Murray likens his Murray Method to sex while hypnotized, and it comes off as pretty smarmy. Then there are his tasting notes, which sometimes make for downright slimy reading. Here’s a few sexist excerpts from this year’s edition:
On the Canadian Club Chronicles: Issue No. 1 Water of Windsor Aged 41 Years: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not. It is hard to imagine what could be, as this whisky simply seduces you with the lightness and knowledgeable meaning of its touch, butterfly kissing your taste buds, finding time after time your whisky erogenous zone or g spots … and then surrendering itself with tender and total submission.”
On the Glenmorangie Artisan Casks: “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.”
On Fannys Bay Tasmanian Single Malt bourbon cask, barrel no. 39, bott 2 Oct 18: “No Port. No sherry. Just the wonderful opportunity to taste naked Fannys.”
And here’s another one from 2017, on the Highland Park 40 Year Old: “Like a 40-year-old woman who has kept her figure and looks, and now only satin stands in the way between you and so much beauty and experience…and believe me: she’s spicy…”
There are plenty more examples like this from both past and present editions of the book.
Becky Paskin is a whisky expert, Keeper of the Quaich, and founder of #OurWhisky. She campaigns against sexism within the whisky industry, and is angered by Murray’s language:
“The whisky industry is working hard to encourage more women to enjoy the whisky it produces, but the explicit, lurid, and sexist way Murray chooses to review whiskies in his ‘Bible’ is prehistoric, and frankly vile”, she told me.
“Whisky reviews are no place to boast the gross details of sexual conquests, or compare a drink to a woman’s body shape. He is damaging the progress producers have made to modernise whisky’s image as a drink anyone can enjoy.”
Should this really be the ‘whisky guru’ that newcomers (especially women) to whisky should turn to?
A Flawed Giant
That I’m even writing a piece like this about him is testament to Murray’s reach with consumers. The ambition of his work over the years, despite his questionable tasting notes, is truly impressive. He also has a legitimate claim that he has helped draw serious attention to certain styles of whisky.
However, despite his large influence, he is unfortunately a flawed ambassador for whisky. His reviews, scores, and comments do not deserve to be promoted by the industry.
It’s high time for consumers and especially brands to move on.
So where should a new whisky fan go to see scores and find out more about whisky, if not to Murray’s bible? The work of respected veteran writers Charlie MacLean and Dave Broom are certainly great places to start, as is the now-defunct website scotchwhisky.com formerly helmed by Paskin, which is still online and is a treasure trove of information (disclaimer: I have previously written for scotchwhisky.com). Website Whiskyfun.com has also been reviewing whiskies on a 100-point scale since 2002, and has over 15,000 entries. Whiskybase and Distiller.com serve as the closest thing to IMDB-style ratings of whiskies.
The most important thing to remember though, is that there is no such thing as a ‘best whisky in the world’ despite what you might hear from hyperbolic media headlines or read on the pages of the Murray bible. There are just a number of subjective opinions from different sources that you may or may not agree with as you go on your own personal whisky journey, and that is the gospel truth.