As a whiskey reviewer, I am often asked by both friends and strangers alike for opinions about whiskey. My reaction is I’m flattered that someone is actually interested in my thoughts. There’s a little bit of chest puffery that happens.
It used to be that I quickly gave my opinion and, while most people were gracious, I would sometimes be taken aback by the responses that followed. I soon learned to realize these weren’t simple questions. When you are asked, “What do you think of…” you really have to figure out what the inquirer is after. It may take probing, but in the end, it usually boils down to one of three questions.
Question 1: I need a recommendation for a whiskey. What do you think?
This is always a fun one to answer. I have a side-job on weekends working as a Whiskey Consultant at a boutique store. I answer this question all day long. I’ve been able to hone my skills by asking them the right questions and, based upon their answers and what the store carries, I’m able to offer a recommendation. As luck would have it, I’m able to offer samples to customers of everything we carry, so they’re sure at the end of the conversation that they’ve made the right choice (and prove to them I know what I’m talking about).
I also have no qualms sending customers to a whiskey that’s not carried in the store. The goal is to make the person happy in their pursuit for great whiskey. If you’re good to people and are honest with them, they’ll come back. Moreover, I’m very particular about my reputation.
Question 2: I have heard about a new (or new to me) whiskey. What do you think?
This one is trickier. It may be that I haven’t tried the whiskey yet, and can’t render an opinion. I sometimes run into this at the store. A customer will tell me they like such-and-such, and I’ve not tried it. I’m always upfront with people if I’m unfamiliar with it. With some whiskeys, such as Scotch, I can at least narrow down the region and provide useful recommendations based on that. With Bourbon or Rye, there is so much variety out there it can become difficult to guess.
When I let someone know that I’m unfamiliar with a whiskey, some are surprised I’ve not tried every whiskey out there, even stuff that hasn’t been released yet. The truth is, a whiskey reviewer is occasionally lucky enough to be provided with a free sample from the distiller. Most of the time, we’re just drinking stuff out of our own collection, a friend’s collection or have tried at a bar.
If I have tried the whiskey, I always try to qualify my answer. I won’t just say, “Wow it is delicious,” or “I hate it.” Rather, I’ll offer some flavor notes, tell them about the nose, etc. I may not take as much time explaining why something was awful or even mediocre. But, if it is great, I’ll give details.
Question 3: I have a favorite whiskey. What do you think?
This question makes me cringe. Here’s the thing about whiskey reviewers. We’re curious about whiskey, we’re passionate about whiskey and we enjoy writing about whiskey. Some of us are even brave enough to get in front of a camera and film a review. We aren’t gods, but we do enjoy spreading the Whiskey Gospel.
If I love your favorite whiskey, I’m happy to talk about it all day long. If you live nearby, swing on over, and we can chat about it over a pour together.
If I don’t love your favorite whiskey, believe me, I don’t enjoy telling you that. I’ll try to explain that it just isn’t something I enjoy drinking. If you love, it, that’s awesome.
There are whiskeys with cultish followings, such as Elmer T. Lee, that don’t do anything for me. There’s nothing wrong with Elmer T. Lee, but I also don’t understand the hoopla over it. Yet, when I don’t agree with someone that Elmer T. Lee is the best Bourbon on the planet short of Pappy Van Winkle (don’t even get me started on that), the anger that seethes from some folks is nothing short of amazing. They’ll argue with me like this is some sort of debate. I’ve even been accused of not knowing anything about whiskey because I don’t like what they like. People are passionate. I get that.
There’s another common question that doesn’t fit into the realm of the above, but I’d like to touch on it since we’re on the subject:
Question 4: I have a choice between Whiskey X and Whiskey Y. What do you think?
Usually, this question comes from someone who has tasted neither X nor Y. They see the bottles on the store shelf, both bottles cost about the same, and they want me to tell them which one to buy. The first thing I will tell people is price means nothing as far as whether or not something will taste good – remember, I’m always on a #RespectTheBottomShelf campaign. If I’m unsure of one or the other, I’ll suggest they visit a good whiskey bar (or a friend’s house), try them both, and then pick the one they like best. I know this isn’t the answer they’re looking for, but it honestly is the best advice.
It doesn’t matter if the reviewer is Jim Murray or Jeff Schwartz. Everyone’s palate is a little different. If you find a reviewer whose palate closely mirrors yours, follow them and their recommendations. We’re going to steer you right more times than not, but we’ll never be perfect. On the other hand, if you find a reviewer you rarely agree with, find another and follow their recommendations instead. In the end, our desire as reviewers is for you to find the whiskey that’s right for you.