Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scotch Whisky Appreciation is Empiricism Tempered by Subjectivism

Prague Castle and Straka Academy at night from Cech Bridge, Prague 

I received a visitor from the Czech Republic.  Well, he did not actually visit me, but rather this blog, which is kinda like an extension of my home.  If you like whisky, I welcome you into my online abode.  In any event, my Czech visitor wrote the following email:

Hi Jason,

I just want to give you my big thanks for how you unflaggingly keep your blog alive which is immensely inspiring for a whisky newbie like me. I  tripped over your blog when searching for a good whisky I could present my friend with on the occasion of his 30`s birthdays few months ago and based on your reviews I chose Highland Park 15. Another friend of mine, also now in his 30`s, was gifted Macallan 12 cherry oak and, luckily, Hibiki 17 and so we decided to conduct our very first collective tasting. To make it even more interesting I had listened to you and contributed to this event by buying a bottle of Cragganmore 12 and, just for comparison, I also brought a recently opened bottle of Tullamore Dew 12. The order was following:

 1. Tullamore
 2. Cragganmore
 3. Macallan 12
 4. Highland Park 15
 5. Hibiki 17

 I have to say that until this tasting I was a 60% bourbon drinker and 40 % Irish whisky drinker, all I have  tasted so far from scotch was Johnnie Walker Red and Black several years ago, so I was honestly a little afraid if I could appreciate this excellent, but to me quite unknown stuff. I felt kinda like cast pearls before swine, meant me :) To my relief I can say, that there wasnt any whisky I didnt like.

 Started with Tullamore we agreed that it was a nice stuff, maybe still a little harsh but overall easy drinking. We were still musing about Tullamore while I was pouring us the Cragganmore and when we raised our glasses to our noses it caught us utterly unprepared to what arrived. The nose was, compared to Tullamore, so rich, complex and pleasantly overwhelming (it felt like smelling a jug of honey to me) that we just unbelievingly stared at each other and I was silently  praising you for having reccomended this whisky as a good choice  for newbies. Tullamore was immediately forgotten because we were kicked several stores above. And the finish was so long, the taste of oak went on and on and on, great! With anticipation we proceeded to Macallan.  I was personally anticipated quite a lot from this whisky but honestly it didnt WOW me. Do not take me wrong, it was a good experience, the nose and the palate were in my humble opinion very nice, smooth and all the tastes well refined together, but then, right after swallowing it, it was gone. Nothing. Compared to Cragganmore, Macallan did quite poorly speaking about the finish. The another day, when we gave Macallan another chance, the finish improved a bit (maybe because the air inside the bottle did some work?), but still, quite short. 

Anyway, the next one was the Highland Park and I remembered your post about being in the presence of greatness :) Well, I have to admit that I could detect the quality hidden inside the bottle, the nose, the palate and the finish didnt dissapointed me a bit, but I just wasnt able to recognize so much flavors and scents out of it like for example from the Cragganmore.  Highland Park left me with a feeling that there are plenty of flavors, very well refined and mixed together, but due to my inexperience out of my reach its still a very long distance I have to make on my whisky-knowledge path before I will be able to detect them all. Anyway, an excellent whisky and I am looking forward to my next encounter with it! The last, but definitely not the least was Hibiki. The nose was absolutely fantastic! I couldnt help myself but I could mainly detect some punch-like cherry tones, strong yet smooth, something I definitely didnt expect to scent from any whisky. The taste was also very pleasing, no unpleasant notes there, blenders masterpiece I would say. The finish was very satisfying and we couldn agree if it was longer than in Cragganmore case or not. After various tastings here are the winners:

 1. Hibiki
 2. Highland Park
 3. Cragganmore (I still wonder if I didnt like it even more than Highland
 Park, but as I said, there is that definite quality hidden in HP I cannot deny
 4. Macallan
 5. Tullamore

 To conclude, this was a wonderful experience for all of us, like when you open a hidden door and find another world behind that you never new about before - the world of single malts (forgive me Hibiki) and since then we are all on the quest of discovering and relishing all the good things which whisky producers have prepared for us :)

Jason, thank you very much again because as my favorite blogger you have contributed greatly to this new hobby of mine and I will definitely stay faithful to your blog and will be looking forward to the post that you place there in the future!

Keep writing!
It is worth reading ;)

Best regards,

. . .

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/objective basis.

Absolute Truths
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-Classs 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 is located.

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!


Jason Debly

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.


  1. Nice post, Jason. Good quality raw materials and careful, intimate production will always produce a spirit objectively superior to riff raff squeezed out for bulk consumption. Who the hell honestly thinks that Clan Macgregor is superior to...well, in that case, nearly any other whisky? Incidentally, I await that review! (I jest...I don't take you for that much of a sadist).

  2. Nice to hear from you!

    Yes, excellent production is a large part of the equation.


  3. One of your better posts, Jason. A very good read and on point.

    I have only tasted three of the five whiskies rated by your Czech friend and his buddies. I would go with Highland Park 15, Cragganmore 12, then Macallan 12.

    Here in Arizona, liquor distributors do not provide retail outlets with Hibiki, but in Nevada they do. The next time I go there, I'll get a bottle of the 17 and see how it measures up. I'm intrigued at the prospect of a blend trumping a couple of pretty darn good single malts.

    Keep drinking and keep writing. It's much enjoyed.

  4. Try Hibiki with an open mind. Technically it is a blend, but it does indeed trump many single malts. When you do taste it, let me know your impressions.


  5. Thanks for accompanying us and guiding us on this very personal journey for the holy grail of scotch. You again make tremendously salient points on this post. One of the great reasons I am attending to your blog is that you make so much sense: like not dissin' blends just because they're blends. My re-entry into scotch seriousness was lit by Oban 14, six months ago, and now has encountered 13 other, mostly well regarded scotches in that time. Now while I agree on your parameters for good to great, I think there is another factor that I am coming to terms with now. Like other worthy pursuits, this can be a damn expensive hobby! Great has to be somewhat relative to price: at a certain age and price we should find most every dram fairly excellent, but which whisky distinguishes itself by great character and dollar value?

    Further, some days I just want a really good tasting, straight forward, reasonably priced scotch to throw back (the every day dram?) and I'm not sure how to get back there. I grew up on Chivas Regal 12, a loving affinity for my Poppa (my mom's dad) and his drink of choice and its been so many years now that I'm afraid to go back to it and be disappointed. I've kind of figured out how not to waste money on the higher end MB vs BMW (like ask your opinion) but what about the "Honda Accord" of scotches, that truly great, very satisfying, well put together, reliable, somewhat sporty and entertaining if you push it a bit, and in everybody's budget, scotch? For Car and Driver's 10 Best you don't qualify if you cost more than 2.5X the average price that year, and you can be a sedan, a sport coupe, an SUV, even a truck for goodness sake, and they're all bests even though they do something different for their drivers. Oh I want to find that scotch too...ah holy grail I'll know you when I see you in me and I in you...

    1. The "Honda Accord" of Scotches is truly elusive and becoming very hard to find these days. At one time it was Teacher's Highland Cream until recent owners tinkered with the ingredient single malts resulting in a change for the worse. Black Bottle was another gem, but they too have underwent a change. White Horse and Islay Mist 8 yrs are two great "hondas" in the blended scotch category. They are my go-to Islay influenced blends for the daily dram.

      Johnnie Walker Black still tastes great but the price where I live has creeped up to ridiculous levels (e.g. $50) making it not worth the money. Mind you in Los Angelos or Florida it can be bought for a mere $25 on sale. Great value for money play at that price point.

      For single malts, all seem to be creeping up but there are gems among the less trendy distillers like Cragganmore, GlenDronach and Aberlour.

      It is certainly getting tougher to find the accords, so until I find a regular stable, I will just have to keep on test driving the benzs and exotics!