On scoring whiskies

Over the last year or so, I’ve gotten some questions about whisky ratings. In general, as to what means what, why most things score in the eighties, but also about my ratings in particular.

Some people find my ratings a bit all over the place, others consider them to be on the high side. I don’t think I disagree with any of them, but I though it high time to explain a bit more.

How we got here

Back when things were in Dutch

When I started this blog some 12 years ago I used a ‘star system’ in which I rated some different aspects of a whisky, and then attached zero to five stars to the outcome of that. The score was a combination of nose, palate and finish, the general experience (10 points each) and a +2/-2 for price/quality ratio.

I firmly believe the cost of a bottle has something to do with how well it scores, contrary to some others who go by ‘you can’t taste price’. While that is technically true, if I score two whiskies at 87 points, and one costs about 25% of what the other costs, I feel that should be reflected in the general outcome. I guess I could have wrapped that up under ‘experience’, but whatever…

After a while of using that star system I stopped scoring whiskies altogether. I wrote a short summary of the experience of tasting the whisky, that was the leading thing in my opinion. This was completely based on my own experiences and how I read other whisky blogs. I look for the ‘comments’ instead of the tasting notes and the scores.

However, I did get some feedback on that. People were missing scores and found it hard to compare one whisky to the next based solely on my ramblings. Understandable, but I didn’t want to go back to the ‘split scoring’ of before, so I adopted the general 100 point scale.

The 100 point scale

In a way, the 100 point scale is based on Robert Parker, famous for being a wine critic and coming up with a sort-of consistent rating system. And, apparently, for loving cask aged reds, but let’s not go there.

Technically, it’s a 50 point scale, since it starts at 50. The system works like this:

  • 96-100 – Extraordinary
  • 90-95 – Outstanding
  • 80-89 – Barely above average to very good
  • 70-79 – Average
  • 60-69 – Below average
  • 50-59 – Unacceptable

Of course, there are whisky adaptations for this, which I found in several spots. I also wanted to grab one of my old Whisky Bibles by Jim Murray, but I think I’ve thrown them out a while ago. Apart from that the Malt Maniacs / Whiskyfun seemed a good place to go and there I found this list:

  • 95-100 – The best of the best
  • 90-94 – Fantastic malt
  • 85-89 – Great malt
  • 80-84 – Good malt
  • 70-79 – Medium quality
  • 60-69 – Questionnable
  • <60 – Highly avoidable

I found several others and while they have varying descriptions and slightly shifting ranges per description, in the end, they boil down to very similar scales.

As you can see, there are some similarities between all lists, but the breadth of the scoring system used is slightly different for all of them.

The vast majority of all rating systems sit between 75 and 89 points. After doing this for a decade, and after reading whisky blogs and reviews for longer, I’ve noticed that scores below 80 are far more rare than drams circling 85. Since every website uses a different make up, it’s a bit too much effort to scrape all date into some form of statistics, but I don’t think many people will disagree. Most scores fall in the 80-87 range.

Good whiskies go over 87, great ones go into the 90s. Bad whiskies, or ‘lesser’ whiskies if you will, start going under 80. Under 75 is a rarity, since most people avoid tasting those, and after being at it for years, people tend to know what to avoid.

In the end, it becomes a bell curve, something like this.

Image gotten from the internet

Serge Valentin, one of the mose prolific whisky tasters out there, published his statistics from the first eight years of Whiskyfun, after tasting 6000 (!) whiskies, and it turns out like this:

Of course, take my interpretation of this all with a grain of salt, since this is my personal experience of how things turn out. I dare say this will probably not cause too many raised eyebrows, but there might be some slightly different perspectives.

What’s with the bandwidth?

The weird thing about this curve, is that it indicates that you barely use a very large chunk of the 100 points. Parker doesn’t even go below 50 points, but for everyone else, including yours truly, a score of 70, or 40, or 25 doesn’t make much a difference. I consider all of them to be a waste of money, and would very much prefer not to drink these drams. Generally, when I encounter something with such a shit score, I pour it down the sink.

Now what?

Recently I got into a conversation about a whisky that I rated at 80 points, and people thought that the score was on the high side, according to how the rest of the review was interpreted. I don’t think these people are wrong. I guess I was a bit too ‘accommodating’, even though I wouldn’t know who I’d be nice to.

Hence this post, since I think it was about high time that I spent some time contemplating this.

What I have done is write down my own version of what was described above. I didn’t want to make my own version of this list, but looking back, and taking my own ‘reach’ into account, I feel like I need to.

Sticking to Whiskyfun’s 95+ to be the best of the best, which is obviously true since you can’t go higher than that bracket, I don’t think I’ll get to the whiskies that Serge puts in this range. As in, the actual booze is unreachable because of price or rarity, often both.

So, to me it would be more like this, without moving away from the earlier lists:

  • 93-100 – The best of the best
  • 90-92 – Fantastic malt
  • 87-89 – Great malt
  • 83-86 – Good
  • 80-82 – Medium quality
  • The rest – I’m disappointed

I very much realize the bottom bracket is insanely large. And yes, there is a vast difference between something scoring 78 or 25, but at some point that stops mattering. Below 80 I regret spending money on it, and I would have been better of not trying it. To me, at this point it no longer matters where it sits on the list, since I am simply not going to drink the rest of the glass (hopefully it wasn’t a bottle). After all, I only have one liver, and I’m trying to make it last.

It might be a bit more harsh than the tables above, but in the end I think it boils down to this for everyone. Even if the range of 70-79 points is described as ‘average’, and it might be that that actually is an average of what is out there, it is not the average of what we’re looking for. Ralfy generally doesn’t review anything under 80 points, because it becomes very hard to be nice about the subject.

On a side note: I thought to check out Thijs’ scoring system on Words of Whisky, and apart from using decimals, I think we’re almost 100% aligned.

Concluding

So yes, I do think that I should have been a bit more on point with that Aberlour. I also think there are some others that I might have rated too highly. In general it’s not too far of, and thing I like, I still like even after reflecting on the scoring bit.

I’m glad people pointed it out, and I now think there’s a bit more of a baseline to go by and fall back on.

About Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer

I'm very interested in booze, with a focus on whisky. I like to listen to loads of music and play lots of Magic: the Gathering, and board games too. I'm married to Anneke, have two daughters Ot and Cato, a son Moos and a cat called Kikker (which means Frog, in Dutch). I live in Krommenie, The Netherlands.
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