This year we have seen some ups and downs with scores which have reflected a greater number of opinions on the site and a much greater geographical distribution of reviewers. On top of that we have a more wide-ranging coverage of releases.
Individual writers have debated the merit of scoring, commenters have challenges scores based on their own considered quality, influencers have written about dropping scores due to misinterpretation of these scores. I personally reflect hard on the scores I give before each published review and continue to go back to thinking about my benchmark dram which scored a 6/10. When I score anything else six out of ten I reflect on whether it deserves to be aligned with such a fine dram; when I score above I think about what qualities elevate the dram above that dram. Once you get into 9s or 10s, the whisky really must stop you in your tracks and demand your attention.
It has been established that presentation, environment, prior expectations, experience, mood, season, time of day, misconceptions and diet can all affect our experience of a whisky and therefore the ratings we provide. Some of the routines and rituals that tasters and reviewers go through prior to and during a whisky tasting can remove some of these factors, others remain more intangible.
Photo courtesy of Master of Malt.
Then we have to consider price, which may or may not result in the deduction of points, along with other, less-often-used factors that may result in points being added or subtracted.
Nevertheless, I propose for discussion a scoring grid that goes beyond the “we use the full 10 points of the scale” statement and help people understand and comprehend why 6 means a great dram and does not translate to 60/100 on a 100 point scale, which only really uses 20 points between 75 and 95 in practice. The descriptors should assist and support the scorer and give clarity to those who are reading the review.
I have produced it below and followed with some indicative tasting notes from previous reviews, and a few additions to illustrate the point. I’d love to hear from readers and Malt writers about the usefulness of the descriptors and any suggestions. Perhaps we could reach a broad consensus? We’ll never agree on scores, but at least we can understand what each score really means to the reviewer.
Fujikai Japanese Single Malt Whisky
43% ABV; about £50 in 2015. Photo Courtesy of Master of Malt.
On the nose: Window putty, rubber squash balls, chemical cupboards, wood shavings, ozone, permanent marker, hot lamination machine, Crayola crayons.
In the mouth: Sharp, jarringly unnatural, hairspray, contact adhesive, paper ash, damp newspapers, new car tyres. Finish is slightly solvent driven and vegetal.
Certainly deserving of 1. It’s probably not whisky at all, as it is rumoured to be aged rice spirit rather than malted barley. It is barely palatable and tastes rather like some cleaning chemical was accidently sprayed into your mouth. Interestingly, the week I complied these notes I sent out 2 5cl samples of this whisky to people who had heard about this legendary fail.
Kingsbarns Cask 1610869 – Review
Bourbon barrel. 8/9/16 to 2019. 61.7% ABV. £75.
Colour: Pale straw
On the nose: Strong bourbon influence of vanilla and light toffee, crisp green apple, lemon peel, a richer weightier note developing too, some riper orchard fruits, soft brown sugar, and apple blossom. With water the fruit is elevated as are the more floral blossom notes.
In the mouth: A little tight at full strength, but again some weightier flavours here. Honeycomb, vanilla fudge, some oak notes giving quite a bitter finish. Still quite tight with water, coming across as quite young; unwaxed lemons, peppery heat, foam shrimps, still bitter.
The nose hints at the development of flavours but this has been bottled too young. I’m not exactly sure why this barrel was chosen as a showcase single cask in 2019. Not really any enjoyment in this for me.
Cadenhead’s BenRiach 2010 – Review
10 years old. Cognac Butt Finish for one year. 57.1% ABV. £45. Released as part of the shop collection (Edinburgh) in 2010; sample provided by the Whisky Sleuth. Image courtesy of The Whisky Shop
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Glazed danish pastry, madeleines, bread and butter pudding, really rich, almost sherry-like, toasted sugar almonds, and a slight funk of bruised orchard fruit.
In the mouth: Good body, sweet and spicy from both wood and spirit, more sugar notes, golden syrup, very sweet, more chilli heat with youthful spirit, oaky, drying finish with some soft baking spices.
Just a bit too sweet for me. I can see that there is some influence from the cognac cask but not enough to save this dram; maybe one of these less active casks that has been well used before having whisky in or maybe the spirit needed more time. The price should be acknowledged as very fair and therefore…
Oddbins Tomatin Whisky Meets Sherry – Review
53.4% ABV. £25 for 350 ml. Photo courtesy of Oddbins.
Colour: Light Oloroso sherry.
On the nose: An initial puff of spirit quickly followed by deep rich sweetness; warm dates; ginger loaf, and then light citrus and distant peach.
In the mouth: Sherry — distinctly, good sherry — and an alcohol burn; some maltiness, and a nutty finish. The full-strength spirit cuts through the richness of the sherry nicely. There is a gentle bitterness on the finish. A decent slug of water greatly improves both the nose, mouthfeel, and finish. Tongue-suckingly delicious.
This dram is a lesson in good sherry and decent whisky being brought together for the right amount of time. It’s not multi-dimensional; the spirit does not sing through the sherry and elevate it to another level. This is a respectful 50-50 marriage of flavours. It’s keenly priced, tasty stuff, and a well sized bottle for an experiment too. I understand the last few bottles are still available.
Loch Lomond 12 years old – Review
46% ABV. £35. Photo courtesy of Loch Lomond.
On the nose: Smooth sherry and gentle peat, rich dessert syrup, raspberries, gummy strawberries, dried ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon. Slightly ashy with a hint of leather.
In the mouth: Smooth and juicy, gentle wood spices, mesquite chilli, smooth and fruity again on the finish with some peat spice and cask giving a remarkably length of spirit for a whisky of this price.
One of the earlier drams I tried on the evening, and it certainly took me by surprise. There is a lot going on here. I am pleased that, at the time of writing these notes, I am still really salivating over this. I could compare this to McNair’s Lum Reek 12 year old blend at over £50, perhaps to help demonstrate the value for money here. It says “Perfectly Balanced” on the bottle and it’s certainly a session whisky.
Oban 12 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
From freshly charred American oak casks. 56.2% ABV. £105.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Grassy and herbal, light butter toffee, vanilla, meringue, sugary and sweet, no char detectable on the nose.
In the mouth: Bang, super fruity and rich, pick’n’mix jellies, fizzy sour sweets, M&S Colin Caterpillars, getting more complex on the finish with oak spices, a hint of charr, blood orange and a pinch of salt on the extra-long finish.
I’d say this has a lot going on; best taste profile too. Plus, it’s pretty hard to get Oban at cask strength sadly. At the distillery the bottle-your-own is only 20cl, and many whisky enthusiasts have gone right back for a second bottle of that having tasted it. This will be very popular.
Gordon & MacPhail Port Ellen 40 Years Old (1979-2019) – Review
54.7% ABV. SRP of £2,495. Photo courtesy of The Whisky Exchange.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Gentle peat intermingled with delicate fruits; actually the peat is more prominent that I expected at this age. Very old varnish, elastic bandage, BBQ charred beef fat, a light fruitiness bringing it all together.
In the mouth: Delightfully fruity at first, soft ashy peat and wood spice, nutmeg and allspice, then mineral notes, a slight waft of earthy autumnal bracken, more sweet wood spices, peaty chimney smoke on the breeze, oak influence growing alongside the peat which dances across the middle of the tongue on the finish.
What an incredible whisky, which has been opened and shared. Kudos to CJ at Single Malt Vault for that from the outset! This is a whisky from a time before the internet, when Islay was a remote and unknown place, before the influencers arrived. Liquid history that cannot be googled or found on Wikipedia.
I was recently asked the criteria for giving a high score and I said it would have to be whisky I could “get lost in.” This is certainly one of those, a beguiling nose rewards patience and time. The palate surpasses the nose, which is often not the case with modern whisky. It is surprisingly well balanced and not too woody despite 40 years in a cask. It is a testament to Gordon & McPhail’s cask management for eking out these barrels to such a ripe old age.
Lead image courtesy of BBC.