It is worth reading ;)
. . .
I am very flattered to have received that email! Sure, it is always nice to hear someone likes what I am writing, but the real reason I post the email from David is to argue that whisky appreciation is not simply a matter of beauty in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, I wish to challenge the generally held belief of most people that one's likes or dislikes of a given whisky are purely subjective and have no empirical
I believe that there are some absolute truths in this world of ours:
(1) it is always wrong to torture children;
(2) never drink wine from a paper cup; and
(3) knowledge of good and inferior whiskies is obtained via sensory perception.
And guess what? David's email is support of that final immutable proposition.
If you gave me the very same line-up of whiskies that he and his friends tasted and evaluated, I too, would have ranked them in the very same order. So would most of my friends. That's not a coincidence. But, let's say someone would rank Hibiki second to say Highland Park 15, I could accept that and still believe my argument holds water that there are objective criteria distinguishing great from not-so-great whiskies.
The Myth of Subjectivism
If the beauty of whisky was truly in the eye of the beholder, then it would be true and self-evident to all that Ballantine's Finest
or Bell's Blended Scotch
is just as good a scotch whisky as say Royal Salute 21 years
or Johnnie Walker Blue Label
. No one seriously believes that, nor does the fundamental economics law of supply and demand support such a view.
Why? The two cheap blends are grainy while the latter two are not. The two bottom-shelf residents are terribly sweet with no relief or flavor development. The reasons are endless. In other words, the high-end whiskies provide a much more pleasant tasting experience. So, it is a myth to say that the merits of a whisky are solely in the eye of the beholder. With so many examples of great versus terrible whisky comparisons that we can all agree on, it can't be true that it's all just in the 'eye of the beholder
The Reality of Subjectivism
Having said the above, let's not dismiss entirely what we, ourselves, bring to the tasting experience. We bring our own opinions, some held critically, while others dogmatically (i.e. Islay peat bombs are simply superior to Speyside honeyed malts). A peat and smoke freak will invariably rank Laphroaig 18 higher than say Hibiki 17. They are two very different whiskies. So are Hibiki 17 and Highland Park 15 years. A person who derives more delight in robust toffee and heather flavors will rank the Highland Park higher than the Hibiki. Is this wrong? I would say 'no
.' Am I contradicting myself? No.
You might be thinking:
"Jason, you can't have it both ways. Whisky appreciation cannot on one hand be based on objective criteria that we can all agree on, and on the other, be based in part on our subjective thoughts and feelings.
. . .
And, that my friend is exactly what I am saying. Appreciation of great whisky is a two-step approach. First, objective and then subjective.
Hibiki 17 versus Highland Park 15 yrs
These are both fantastic whiskies. Which is better? It's kinda like saying my Mercedes S-Class
s sedan is better than your BMW 7 Series
sedan (by the way, I own neither). One vehicle is not better than the other, just different. One vehicle might accelerate half a second quicker, but the slower luxury sedan has a quieter engine. They are both majestic automobiles.
At the same time, we can easily agree that the Mercedes S-Class is superior to the Hyundai Accent
. We have objective, sensory based data that we can measure. The Mercedes drives quieter, has more horse power, all-wheel-drive versus front wheel drive, softer leather, greater aesthetics (ie. wood grain dash versus plastic). Like the Ballantine's Finest
versus Royal Salute
comparison, the list of reasons goes on endlessly too.
However, when we compare the Mercedes S-class to a BMW 7-series, it is no longer readily apparent that one vehicle is better than the other. Both have beautiful leather seating, quiet ride, immaculate handling, etc. The vehicle you rank higher will now depend on your second phase
of analysis that involves your own personal preferences, like an affection for sports car performance (BMW) or placing a premium on a serene driving experience like floating on a cloud (Mercedes). Whichever one you end up ranking as the best is just as valid as my own opposing view.
The Hybrid Approach
Similarly, in the appreciation of whisky, there is an objective basis for declaring some whiskies are great (Royal Salute 21
) and others not (Bell's
). But, between two great whiskies, the competition becomes based upon the likes or dislikes of the individual. Between two great whiskies, the beauty in the eye of the beholder view has merit. Accordingly, we need to recognize that we practice a two-phase or hybrid approach to whisky appreciation. First, there is an initial objective review followed by a secondary subjective review.
What can we take away from this discussion?
I think it is fair to declare some whiskies are not as good as others. We can make that determination about other consumer goods, why not whisky? Of course, once a whisky meets a certain benchmark of excellence of craft, the decision of whether or not one is better than the other is not verifiable, except by reference to your own likes and dislikes. Hence, I can declare with authority that poor old Bell's or Ballantine's Finest cannot hold a candle to a great many other scotch whiskies, but not authoritatively state Royal Salute
is better than Johnnie Walker Blue
, without relying heavily on my individual likes and dislikes. Difficulties arise when we try to decide which whiskies among the great are better. This is because we have a differing sense of where the 'certain benchmark of excellence
' a whisky must obtain
For me, a whisky can be great where it exhibits the following:
- smooth but interesting;
- no raw alcohol taste;
- no nasty bite or bitterness;
- there has to be an evolution of the flavor profile; It has to go somewhere. It can't be just smooth and sweet. The whisky needs to transition from sweet to big sherry or big peat or slight sherry, slight lemon or whatever. It can start sweet but become drying by the time of the finish.
- There needs to be some texture, tapestry of flavor woven in with that smooth overall character;
- Finally, a great whisky needs to be 'complex'; The meaning of this term is most elusive, but I will try anyway: an intricacy of flavor that is original, attractive, and takes time to understand.
How's that for a stab?
And for the record, the Hibiki 17 years is superior to Highland Park 15, but only by the slimmest of margins!
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for the photograph of Prague and various automobiles. The photograph is used with permission of the photographer, Vlastula. He retains all copyright and license to this photo. Please click on his name for a link to Flickr where you can enjoy more of his great photography. Photographs of Hyundai and Mercedes were taken by Wikipedia user IFCAR. All rights to these images have been released into the public domain. Photograph of BMW 7 Series was by Wikipedia user Mariordo who has granted a license for its image to be used here.