When wine meets whisky

A wine aficionado talks to whisky critic Jim Murray.


WORDS  SHERWIN A. LAO

The biggest and most influential whisky writer and critic in the world, bar none, is Jim Murray of the United Kingdom. His reputation in the whisky industry compares to — perhaps even exceeds — that of “wine demigod” Robert Parker. When Whisky Live, an international tasting show, was staged in Metro Manila for the first time this October, local organizers led by Johnssen Li and Grand Cru Wine & Spirits, Inc. went all out to acquire the services of the renowned Mr. Murray himself.

Jim Murray, The Whisky Guru
Jim Murray, The Whisky Guru

High Life was fortunate to score a one-on-one interview with Mr. Murray in Shangri-La at the Fort, Manila, where Whisky Live was held. Mr. Murray has written several books on whisky, with his first one published in 1997. These books include: Classic Irish Whiskey, Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky, Classic Bourbon Tennessee & Rye, Classic Blended Scotch, and The Art of Whisky. In 2003, the de-facto world’s leading whisky guide book, the annually updated Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible was first published. While his writing can intimidate because of his scathing and amusingly candid takes, Jim Murray, the person, was charming, quick-witted, and brimming with so much enthusiasm that even a nonwhisky drinker and hardcore wine fanatic like myself was persuaded to reexamine whisky in a new light.

On the day of the interview, Mr. Murray was wearing his trademark Panama hat. The hat, he told High Life, is a very important part of his whisky tasting routine as it keeps his long blond hair from interfering with his nose and mouth during his tastings. The hat, it turns out, took the place of an odorless hair gel, now discontinued, that he used to keep his hair out of face. The hat, which is light and handwoven, cost around £800 and it has accompanied him to over 1,200 tastings.

DEDICATED TO WHISKY

Pleasantries over and done with, the casual and unstructured conversation ventured into the beginnings of Mr. Murray’s legendary status in the whisky industry. As early as 1974, before he was legally allowed to drink in America, Mr. Murray was trying all sorts of bourbons, even coming across a rare single malt whisky made in Maryland at the age of 16. And in 1975, at barely 17 years old, he went to his first distillery in Scotland, taking a train and hitchhiking his way to the distillery. By then, the young Jim Murray was already enthralled by whisky. “I would spend a big part of life from 1975 to the late 1980s researching on whiskies. I would visit all the distilleries in Scotland, talk to the master blenders and taste all the whiskies I could get my hands on. I would make notes already of these whiskies and keep them for historical reference.” He became a journalist, contributing articles to British newspapers, namely the Sunday People and Daily Star. His secondment to Scotland in the 1980s afforded him the opportunity to explore whisky thoroughly. During those times, whisky was the domain of wine writers, who, Mr. Murray felt, were getting things mostly wrong. “I asked myself: who am I to say which whisky is good or bad. Then, a highly respected Scottish blender told me that I should publish my tasting notes. The blender told me that I was creating a new language for whisky and that I should make it public. It was only after this validation that I started publishing my notes and comments on whiskies.” In 1992, he left his newspaper job to become the world’s first truly devoted whisky writer. There was no guarantee for such a profession, but Mr. Murray had a vision that there was a future in this field. 

Not All That Rosy at First

When he wrote his first book, Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky, he bewailed how extremely arduous it was to research and make appointments with distilleries. “Back in the old days I did not have the luxury of the Internet and Google. I had to make telephone calls to distilleries through numbers given by my friends or through the use of the yellow pages. It was a lot of hard work.” A newly single father, since his wife divorced him within a month after he left his newspaper job, he would take his son with him when he traveled. Aside from visiting all the distilleries in Scotland, Mr. Murray was also the first critic of import to take a look around Canada’s whisky scene. To date, he has visited more distilleries in the world than anyone ever. “During my time, distilleries didn’t employ marketing people to do the advertising and selling for them. I got to meet the distilleries and their blenders, and to talk and learn from them about their tradition, their skills. The reception I got was amazing. Nobody before me had actually gone to the distillery to talk to them the way I did.”         

Love-Hate Relationship

Mr. Murray has declined several invitations to join the Keepers of the Quaich, an exclusive and international society founded by leading distilleries that recognizes those that have shown outstanding commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. “I refused this title as I want to keep my independence and impartiality. To be a Keeper, you have to be sponsored by a whisky company, so I see conflict in that,” he said. Furthermore, his publications do not accept whisky advertisements. It is this impartiality that allows Mr. Murray to opine that while Scotch whiskies are still the benchmark of high-quality whiskies, he feels that many distilleries in Scotland have, in the past 20 years, bought poor quality sherry casks that deteriorated the quality of their whiskies. “If you make a really high-quality spirit and put it into a poor barrel, you get poor whisky. And if you make an average quality spirit and put it into a great barrel, you will get great whisky.”

On the other hand, he remarked that the “water pitch” — the hype surrounding the purity of Scotland’s water and its effect on the final whisky — is exaggerated. “Let us just say it takes one week of distillation, and then the spirit is put into the barrel for over 10 years. Which one is a bigger factor? Water or barrel? Of course the barrel,” he said.

The Murray Method

Unlike Robert Parker who scores wines using an American grading system starting at 60 points (by mere presence of a wine bottle), Jim uses his 100-point scale based on four factors equally weighted at 25 points each: Nose, Taste, Finish and Balance. Nose is simply the aroma, but includes a thorough reexamination in the glass to uncover hidden aromas. Taste describes how the whisky arrives in the palate, and involves flavor profiles up to the time it reaches maximum intensity and complexity. Finish is the tail and flourish of the whisky’s signature, often revealing the effects of ageing. An often misunderstood part of tasting, the finish often reveals a whisky’s flaws and tarnish. Of the four criteria, balance is the most subjective as it is where a critic’s experience comes into play. For a whisky to work, it should not be one-sided. An older whisky, for example, should have evidence of oak, but not too much as to drown out the other flavors and aromas.

Unlike wine, which is also rated on sight or color, whisky’s visual appeal is “superficial” as only American bourbons do not add caramel coloring to their whiskies. In the 2017 edition of the Whisky Bible, one will find a whisky scoring only 37 points — a dismal score unheard of in a wine rating context.

These ratings come by way of a specific tasting ritual. First: no adding water to whiskies. “If you add water, even a few drops to your whisky, it will no longer be whisky, as you will drop the spirit to below 40% alcohol.” The Murray Method also includes drinking black, unsweetened coffee before whisky tasting so that the palate is cleansed of sugar. The 18 steps of the Murray Method are found in the first few pages of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, a compact guide that runs to about 400 pages.

Mr. Murray was instrumental in raising whisky’s profile all over the world. His high ratings of American bourbons, Japanese whiskies and other non-Scotch variants have truly expanded the diversity of choice for all whisky lovers. When asked what kind of whisky he was having with his meal, he quipped: “Haven’t you heard of wine or beer to go with your dinner?” 

  

The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010.