‘Whisky awards are the source of lots of discussion online, but it’s not that well known how they actually work. Time to bring some light into the darkness’.
‘Billy [Abbott] and Elise [Craft] are both judges for The Spirits Business Whisky Masters SBWM, and earlier this year spent a day tasting their way through tens of whiskies, giving scores and awarding medals. They have secured some of the top whiskies from the awards and will be pouring them in a very special Whisky Squad, where you will be the judges’.
‘It’ll be an evening of drinking whisky, like usual, but you’ll be telling us what you think about the drams, scoring each one and helping decide who will pick up an award’. Whiskysquad.com
Keen to point out that there is absolutely no bias, bribery or underhand politics involved in the process, all the whisky [and other spirits] at the SBWM awards are judged blind by independant judges LINK, who individually rate & score each whisky placed in relevant categories/classes. After the individual evaluation & scoring is done, consensus regarding each whisky is reached after a collective discussion between all the judges at which point the collective scores are converted into medals.
The categories/classes include:
- Whisky type: Grain, blend, single malt etc.
- Price bracket: Ultra-premium for example is around £100+ whereas premium-ish starts at around £40.
- Age range: From NAS to 40+ with specific age brackets in-between that include 13-18yo & 19-30yo for example.
- Region: Highlands & Islands, Islay, Speyside etc…
Scores for each whisky are out of 100. Each whsky is scored on:
- Appearance [colour]
- Aroma [nose]
- Palate [including the finish]
Colour typically carries a maximum score of 10 points and as a general rule [unless it looks blue], scores 10.
Tonight, things were made easier for us by dividing the remaining 90/100 points three ways, meaning aroma, palate and balance each carried a maximum of 30 points. All the awards systems are organised in a fairly similar fashion with only marginal scoring differences, though Billy favours the SBWM system best [possibly 10, 20, 30 & 40 points respectively],
And what do points make – medals.
- 90: Masters
- 80-90: Gold
- 70-80: Silver
- 60-70: no medal
- 60: Borderline faulty
Tonight we tried three sets of two scotch whiskies, blind. First up were two Speysiders that fell into the premium-ish price category [£40-80 i think] and the 13-18 year age bracket.
- N: Beautiful oily sweet citrus Speysider with malty grassy>hessian toffee>fruity>chocolate traits.
- T: Strong & prickly ethanol hit. 16yo? 50%? Water only helps it initially. Turns quite dry.
- F: Short & dry sultana finish. Probably all bourbon casks, maybe a touch of sherry.
- C: Straight forward simple whisky with an average balance. The wood is prickly – 1st fill?. I guessed Aultmore 16yo and scored it at 83 points using my personal scoring system.
- As a collective of four [to a table], two of our team had this down in the high 70’s at best. Nick and I held this in higher regard which meant our table collectively awarded this Aultmore 18yo with 81 points. Medal-wise that gives this decent yet fairly modest whisky a gold medal, a shitty gold as i put it. In reality the SBWM awarded this a silver medal. At this point, the scoring/medals system debate begun in earnest.
Scores 83 points
- N: This has ‘blend’ written all over it, which in reality isn’t far off – a single distillery blend of all-sorts i’d imagine. We unanimously agreed that it was pretty flat. I also found it sweet, a little eggy [the whites] and doughy with salt n vinegar potato crisps,…
- T: Old, malty and oak steeped with a rather short middle.
- F: Only now does the oldness of this whisky come through.
- C: I’m a sucker for these old=>young style single [blended] malts, and despite the flaws I find it really well blended – which tends to gain it quite a few more marks in my book. Our table gave this a solid 86/gold medal. The SBWM however awarded this a low silver.
Scores 85 points
The next pair were two ultra premium well-aged blends at around £100+
- N: Glenfarclas-y at first. Then sweet vegetal with a spirity phenol touch.
- T: Soft & prickly at first but it soon picks up. Later it beds in with sweet stuff and a secure oaky consolidation.
- F: The table is fairly unanimous about banana chocolate with a little smoke on the finish. Sweet waxy.putty mouthfeel. There’s some seriously old stuff in here.
- C: It has all the things you’d want from a blend: a decent palate spectrum, some complexity, easy drinking, consolidation and balance. I did wonder whether this was JW [18yo] at first but leaning more firmly towards a well matured Dewar’s. Now getting more au fait with the medals system, our table were comfortably in agreement that this was also a solid gold medalist and indeed, it won gold at the SBWM.
Scores 86 points
Reference Series III.2 Maverick 47.5% [50cl] WB0
- N: A little smoky with a rounded vegetal cardboard maltiness.
- T: Chocolate and malty woody vegetal delivery.
- F: Cottonwool rubbery mouthfeel. Long chocolate finish.
- C: There’s balance but none of us found it particularly awesome. Again for me, it was in the low 80’s which [uncomfortably] meant gold again. However, collectively our table scored it at 79 points which meant a very shiny silver. I scored this blend an 88 points some time back [May ’16].
Scores 82 points
Two whiskies left, both very different and separated by category. First up a malt from the Highlands & Islands:
Scapa ‘Skiren’ Batch SK02 Ob. 40%
- N: Rose water jam & quince jelly, fruity sweets, rose leather, wafer thin sweet light meat, soft and floral.
- T: Some cardboard for sure. There’s nothing terribly wrong here except that the palate doesnt quite deliver – a little lacking in body.
- F: Rose water/quince jelly icecream-putty, dry cardboard icecream but some seriously salivating action at the end. Malty quince, a little vanilla.
- C: Unique, stylistic whisky but once the wow factor had dissipated it was demoted from an initial [Rosebank-y] super-league status to something far more modest, though one table scored this at 90+. The palate let it down in the main for me, but anything that starts and finishes well can be dangerously quaffable. Hazarding a guess, i firmly ruled out Scapa. Turns out it’s a Scapa, one of their NAS range that i’d not tried before. I scored it an 84 with a collective group score of 86, another solid gold. At £32 it won a SBWM solid gold.
Scores 84 points
Last up a single malt in the NAS Islay category.
- N: An impressive salt ’n’ vinegar & sweet onion heavily peated vegetal number. An Octomore perhaps?
- T: Pickled onions and salivating smoked barley.
- F: Dry smoked popcorn. Long finish.
- C: A fabulous peated malt. Not overly complex but brilliant in its own right, though no master in my book. Happy with my score of 88 points and having firmly ruled out Bunnahabhain, I guessed SMWS Laphroaig. Collectively we gave it 89 points, just missing out on our Masters award. The SBWM gave this a solid master award. [£61]
Scores 88 points
Things observed, lessons learned, conclusions made:
For years I’ve primed my personal scoring system [out of 100], initially based on my interpretation of how peers have used the 100 point scoring system in the past. I’ve currently arrived at a system that works for me and reflects how i see & grade whisky. Beside SBWM ratings, my current system is medal irrelevant. Do i re-adjust/re-calibre my scoring system to the likes of the SBWM and other competitions or swap between the two? Maybe i should & maybe i will – i will certainly consider all the things. However i do have a difficulty grouping an 80 point whisky and an 89 point whisky in the same medal league, but i may be missing the point. I’m continually tempted by the scoring systems deployed & discussed in detail by ToMoH and that of Philip Storry, but for now i’d sooner re-calibrate the SBWM points table and demote the medals as i see it:
- 90+: Gold [‘Masters’ smells of Premier League antics]
- 85-89: Silver
- 80-84: Bronze
- 75-79: No medal
- Below 75: Life’s too short, back to the drawing board.
This is basically how i score whisky. A five tier system [A-E if you like], with a points range of 25 starting at 75.
Tonight’s brilliant Whisky Squad session reinforces the importance of tasting blind.
Whisky Squad is wonderful and Billy and Elise are fabulous. Thanks for an enlightening night.