Would you like a second opinion? How about a third, fourth, or fifth?
There are competing schools of thought (I know; in whiskey, of all places!) on reviews. Specifically: how many of them are needed? Based on the profusion of reviewers across all social media channels, some folks in the whiskeyverse seem to believe the answer is “At least one more.”
Is this incremental review of any value? Ought we expect the marginal take on this or that well known and readily available bourbon to yield any insights that hadn’t been uncovered by the (in some cases) dozens of forerunners? Would even a fairly exotic tasting note or single voice of effusive praise increase your interest in a whiskey to which the majority of tasters have given middling marks and/or described as pedestrian?
For most whiskey consumers, I am guessing that the answer is “no.” The prevailing strategy seems to be one in which a consumer picks the critic or critics whose tastes correspond most closely to her own, eschewing others where there’s a greater difference of opinion. I’m certain that some of our readership have their favorites from among our team of reviewers.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that a few of them might have written my opinions off wholesale on the back of my positive reviews of whiskeys they disdained, or vice-versa. Don’t worry; I don’t take it personally. “De gustibus non est disputandum,” “vive la difference,” “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and any number of other threadbare maxims will suffice in this situation.
While this debate may be as old as criticism itself, the internet revolution has brought us a new twist: crowdsourcing. Defined simply (in this sense) as “aggregating or averaging the reviews of many tasters to produce a consensus review,” there are some obvious opportunities and challenges associated with amalgamating a set of diverse individual opinions into something resembling a useful recommendation.
We’ve toyed with this approach before here at Malt; I admired the gumption of the Whiskey Sleuth in putting together the tasting and collating the results, even if the results tacked toward average. As the Sleuth noted, this might have been the consequence of the fact that the drams themselves were middling; perhaps there might have been more deviation if the subject of the experiment were more polarizing.
Outside of our little corner of the world of whiskey, there are others attempting to square the circle of consensus reviews. One such site is Whiskey Raiders, which aggregates expert scores from across the internet by converting them to a 0-100 scale and then averaging the results. (for what it’s worth, I don’t see Malt cited as a component of any of their composites).
Has this methodology resulted in “the wisdom of crowds” emerging in a surprising or enlightening way? Looking exclusively at the Bourbon category, the highest rated drams are about what you might expect: members of the limited edition or allocated annual outturns from the likes of Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill (scores in the mid-90’s). The low end of the league table is populated by young craft whiskey, experimentally-aged concoctions, and the bottom-shelf bargain offerings from the large Kentucky distilleries. At a glance, it’s not clear that this approach has produced a different conclusion than might have been reached by monitoring the general buzz on social media and message boards.
I’m not prepared to write off any of the aforementioned approaches, however I will caution against the reliance on point numerical estimates for what is, essentially, a subjective personal experience. To pick on our own 1-10 scale, as an example: a whiskey that receives a score of 5 from two reviewers (averaging, of course, to 5) would be expected to be palatable (if perhaps unexciting) to a majority of our readers. However, a whiskey that receives a score of 1 from one reviewer and a score of 9 from another (averaging, again, to a 5) might be euphemistically described as “challenging,” “divisive,” or any other number of epithets. All that to say: all 5s are not created equal.
I mused on all this because it occurred to me that I’ll be the third member of the Malt team to review today’s whiskey: W.L. Weller Antique 107. Adam first took a look at this bourbon as a component of the “Poor Man’s Pappy” blend. John followed up with a pair of the old-style bottles, one of which bore the (since abandoned) seven-year age statement. I had previously reviewed a dusty version of the predecessor 107 expression from the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Given that this one comes from a different distillery with different production processes, I’m not holding out hope that the two will share much in common.
I already recounted the history of the Weller name and brand in my review of the underwhelming Weller Special Reserve; please consult that article for details. Speaking of crowdsourcing: Weller was the brand name chosen for Buffalo Trace’s “Choose Your Perfect Bourbon” (C.Y.P.B.) exercise, in which bourbon fans were invited to vote on mash bill, age, and proof. Eyes were set rolling when the result was announced; though the wheated mash bill is definitely in vogue, it strains credulity to believe that any bourbon enthusiast – much less a majority – prefer their whiskey aged eight years and at a bottling strength of 95 proof.
Though C.Y.P.B. was dismissed by some as a cynical ruse to move whatever excess inventories Buffalo Trace had already decided to get rid of, that didn’t seem to dampen demand for the bottle. Like seemingly every member of the Weller family of whiskeys, bottles of C.Y.P.B. vanished instantly and reappeared on “secondary” markets for substantial markups. I tried the whiskey in an informal setting; it was nice but not life changing; it certainly didn’t justify a triple-digit price tag, for my money.
On the topic of money (and getting back to the whiskey at hand): SRP for this is $50, though the overpriced bourbon watchdogs have flagged bottles on shelves for $300 and up (a price I will vehemently exhort you not to pay, no matter how good this ends up being). I’ll use $50 for calibration with our scoring bands, with the unfortunate caveat that you’d be unlikely to find a bottle at that price. As you might have guessed, this comes to us at 107 proof (53.5% ABV).
W.L. Weller Antique 107 – Review
Color: Burnt gold.
On the nose: In an immediate onslaught of the most delightful variety, the first sniff yields a dense, rich, sticky, medicinal note of cherries. This morphs seamlessly into gooey chocolate covered cherries, before transitioning once again to a creamy note of chocolate fudge. There’s another sweet note of butterscotch that harkens back to the dominant notes on the aforementioned early-1970’s OWA. I get some more curious wisps here and there; french fries briefly made an appearance, as well as an herbal note of tarragon and a savory whiff of chicken pot pie.
In the mouth: In sharp contrast to the nose this is very stern to start, presenting a marriage of those herbal notes (with some thyme and anise added in) with a mouth-puckeringly dry flavor of limestone. This starts to unfold lavishly as it reaches the center of the tongue, where a velvety texture reveals a reprise of the richly sweet butterscotch accented by a zesty squeeze of citrus fruit juice. Tannic woodiness is the dominant note as this enters the finish, where there’s once again a peppery lick of pink grapefruit momentarily before this settles down. Through a long, lingering, tingly finish, there’s the aftertaste of wood and some subtle insinuations of toasted and buttered wheat bread.
I’m pleasantly surprised to report that this whiskey did, indeed, have elements in common with its Stitzel-Weller forebears. While I wouldn’t mistake one for the other in a blind tasting (you can’t fake the funk), that butterscotch note is a lovely area of overlap. I’d be a repeat buyer of this at $50, though (as noted above) that proposition is a fantastical one in the current climate.
I’m scoring this a point above where John and Adam did, creating a Malt average score of 7.33. This number tells you that the whiskey is well above average, though unlikely to precipitate an out-of-body experience or a merger of your consciousness with the Buddha-nature. I think that it’s a delicious whiskey for the money (again, at the elusive SRP)… but, after all, that’s just one man’s opinion.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Trace.