Monday, April 4, 2011

Industry reviews –crooked or clean?

I'll admit in the spirit of full disclosure, I've purchased things based solely on what someone else said about it; e.g. the whiskey experts. I'm not sure the whiskey tasted better because someone else said so and I'm not sure in the end, it was a good buy. In some cases maybe so but I'd have to say I've been disappointed too many times. Whose fault is it? Mine. After years of buying and tasting I've come to one conclusion and that is the worlds best whiskey expert is………me. That's right, when it comes to who I listen to time and again, it's me and me alone. I know what I like and no matter how many taste descriptors an expert puts in their review to jazz up the anticipation, I read every review with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I'm not a conspiracy theory nut job but I have to ask the question. When a distillery or Micro reseller sends a sample/bottle to be reviewed, is it picked blind or are the selections handpicked? Based on some reviews, I'd almost have to assume the latter. Obviously reviewers always know what they are drinking. I would also argue that in some cases there is going to be unwanted influence of marketing dollars. I’ve seen some reviewer’s state emphatically that their reviews are not influenced in any way. Ok, I’ll take your word for it. But there are cases where a whiskey is “highly rated” or “ 4 out of 5 stars” or “Best of class” only to find out that it doesn’t ring my bell and when speaking to other enthusiasts, that’s the going consensus.

Here would be my challenge to any expert reviewer. Receive a blind sample and tell us the following: Approx proof, age and mashbill (Rye, Wheat) and distillery. If you're good at what you do, those 4 questions should be fairly easy to answer. How many comments of a similar nature have you seen in reviews?

"Tastes young" or "spent too much time in wood"

"This bourbon doesn't drink like its stated proof"

"This is classic <fill in the distillery name> taste profile"

"A big high rye whiskey (or bourbon)"

So, my challenge would be this. Reviewer man/woman, take a blind sample and tell us what it is relying solely on your palate, experience and subsequent impressions. I throw down that challenge because I've done this many times and I’m certainly no expert. To get a true impression of what you are drinking, do it without any pre-conceived notions or information of any kind on the sample and see what shakes out. My bet would be nobody would be bold enough to take on that challenge (any takers????).

The title and posting are meant to be somewhat provocative and was done to generate some discussion on industry reviews. So, what's your take on experts’ reviews and how do they influence where you spend your dollars? I'm going to follow up this post with some examples of tastings I've participated in to give you flavor of what it means to taste open and blind and how our group stacked up against the experts. By the way, see here for my last posting with respect to expert reviews.


  1. Greg,

    Andy and I have been doing this for some time. We send each other 3-4 unlabeled minis and then have to guess exactly what you stated: age, proof, mashbill, distillery, suspected bottling.

    It is humbling, but at the same time, it has made us better at discerning key traits in the whiskey. When I was at my best I was probably 70% right on the various aspects. That's a "C" average... I can handle that.

  2. Ben - you are correct, it is humbling. Reviewing on taste alone produces some interesting results and sometimes offers suprises about how we view whiskey.

  3. I think that at the end of the day reviews are simply what they are - an opinion. I read reviews of restaurants, wine, and whiskey all the time. It gives me a general idea of what I can expect but by no means is it the word of God or anything. I simply, like you stated, enjoy what I enjoy and stay open-minded to expanding what I enjoy.

  4. Greg, you are an astute and knowledgeable whiskey guy. This post is littered with great points. May I ramble?

    As a guy that reviews whiskey, I can say that there's nothing I've ever written down on a review that I don't smell or taste. Absolutely nothing has ever graced my site that’s fabricated. How can you know? You can’t necessarily, and I’ll get there in a moment….

    Now, in reading your previous post linked above, I concur wholeheartedly that folks smelling "wet dog fur matted with the earth of southern Ireland" is just a load of crap to me. I sure as hell scratch my head a lot of times. Herein lies the rub about whiskey reviewers. The defense is easy, and exactly what I mentioned in the second paragraph of this comment; "It's what I taste." With 4 words some reviewer can quickly rebut any questions.

    Bottom line- YOU are exactly right. Trust your own tastes no matter what anyone says. When it comes to what you like, you the drinker are the expert.

    As for my viewpoint on what I do: Hopefully when I review a whiskey I provide some information that might help a potential buyer make a more informed decision. And maybe that ultimately enables them to enjoy their experience a little more. If that happens, then I think, as a reviewer, I’ve provided some value. The opposite is also true. In this way, trust becomes a factor. Which interestingly, who can you trust more than yourself?

    There’s a real desire by whiskey newcomers and experienced novices to learn more. I’ve seen a lot of folks wanting to know what I taste and then test themselves. That does help to build your flavor recognition a bit as a whiskey appreciator. It’s something I do consider a good thing.

    Review style also matters. Greg you’ve succinctly summed this up before. It’s difficult for me to taste lavender infused honey drizzled wildy over apple crumb cake. I don’t taste things like that MOST OF THE TIME. I favor a more “flavor list” approach. I list the flavors and aromas I detect as I detect them. And I do this over 2-3 tastings to determine what might have been environment (what I ate that day, other scents etc) and what are actually present. Sometimes there are exceptions like Van Winkle 12 Lot B (which I'm about to post a review of this week).

    Now as for your challenge.......... Via email, you described what you meant with the portion of your challenge related to distillery. One might use the wine term Terroir, but certainly distilleries have a distinct footprint. I didn’t originally understand the full context of this part of the challenge/post, but I get it after you explained.

    The second part of that paragraph is fun and focused more on brown bag blind. That’s certainly something I’d not only love to do on my site, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It needs to be done and I think I have a good format to do it.

    Final point. I buy 90% of the whiskey I review. Do I hope that changes? Sure – I would love for more companies to send me stuff to review. It would give me that many more opportunities to review new products. Does that mean I’ll treat them differently than ones I buy? Heck no. How irresponsible would it be to ruin hard work building trust to give a great rating because I received one little sample bottle of whiskey released once a year? There again is something that a visitor can only learn about me with some level of established trust.

    Anyways - sorry so long to everyone. Greg, this is a compelling topic and one I wanted to give justice towards. Hopefully I didn’t come off as snippy at any point as that. If so, please know that wasn’t intended. I’ll get back to your email on the blind stuff. Let’s do it.



  5. Well Greg, Jim and I are self proclaimed Idiots, so we expect to be wrong just about every time...probably less than chance. That said, I love drinking whiskey and telling all who are foolish enough to listen or read, what I think. And If I tried to do a blind tasting, I am sure of 2 things 1) I would be wrong on every account and 2) my head would explode. ;)

  6. Don - Actually Don, you wouldn't be wrong. When doing a review, you review what you like, not what you think other people would like. If I like a whiskey, I'll say so. What I've found doing the blind tastings is that I'm surprised on a regular basis....or wrong if you want to put it that way. I'm just saying that reviews and marketing hype can influence the perception of what is good, e.g. my link above on Spinning the Spice Rack. Going in blind gives you unadulterated, raw feedback on what you are tasting with the question hanging out it good or not? Forget the label or what anybody says about xyz product, We always throw in a ringer with the blind tastings just to see how it stacks up against the "great" bourbons and believe it or not, sometimes the ringer comes out in the lead. I'll be posting some blogs on the blind tastings and talking about the contrast between industry experts and what a group of yahoo's who love bourbon have to say about it...from the blind. My intent isn't to point out that experts are right or wrong, just that the individual palate is the only expert around.