Some score whisky like gymnastics, starting at top marks before marking down for any imperfections. Points off for plastic-y smells, rubbery tastes, and lack of spiritual enlightenment. It can feel negative to only deduct points, but the system works well for some. Other whisky raters go the opposite route, beginning at zero and adding points for anything and everything. That’s 25 points for showing up, 25 points for presenting as liquid, and 10 points for not being vodka. Bottom-up rather than top-down. Despite the differences, these scoring methods can lead to similar results.
It’s likely that anyone debating whisky scoring is at the point where they thoughtfully assess the quality of the drams they drink. Even those who refuse to score have an idea of what makes a whisky good, great, or excellent. But there is likely a huge gap between how they assess whisky now, and how they assessed whisky when they first started drinking it.
People who aren’t experienced with neat spirits come at them from a different perspective. New whisky drinkers often aren’t looking for the best whisky around. They’re just hoping that the whisky in front of them won’t give them a tough time. While we grapple with flavour descriptors and quality assessments, they try not to choke as they swallow. We’ve all got to start somewhere.
Think back to when you started drinking whisky. It’s possible that you were happy with a whisky because it had “no burn”. You might even have used the S word to describe it. To be – whisper it – smooth is to be without bumps and lumps and jagged edges, so in whisky smooth can mean the lack of anything bad rather than the presence of anything good. It’s a selling point because it means 'not bad', and many whiskies are bad when you’re not used to drinking whisky.
Entry level whiskies, then, have a different goal to the premium drams that whisky obsessives hunt for. They’re not trying to be good. They’re trying to not be bad, or if they aim high, to be not bad. And budget blends, primarily composed of relatively neutral grain whisky, do a pretty good job of not being bad, even though whisky scorers rarely think they’re any good.
Today’s whisky is one of the largest selling Irish entry level budget blends, Bushmills White Label, also known as Bushmills Original. It’s a no age statement single distillery blend of grain and triple distilled malt whiskey, bottled at 40% ABV. It knows what it wants to be: the phrase “Smooth & Mellow” is front and centre on the label. In the UK you'll regularly find White Label in the supermarket booze aisles, priced somewhere between £15 and £20 - depedent on which supermarket you frequent. Or, if you're something of a glutton - Master of Malt can sort you out 4.5 litres of imposing glassware and the equivalent of 6.4 bottles of the stuff for a cool £129.95.
Nose: Good first impression – light and fruity on pineapple and apple, with hints of guava. A few moments later, not so good – the grain whisky gets louder and the nose is dominated by sawdust, cardboard, and wood varnish.
Taste: Sweet and simple to start with. The fruits are quiet behind the grainy woodiness, but a small portion of the pineapple is back, together with green apples and banana. The development brings malt and peppery woodiness, followed by a back palate blast of cinnamon and cloves.
Finish: Short on sweet malt and bitter wood spices.
Bushmills White Label is not good. It’s not terrible either. Being a budget blend means that the bulk of this dram is grain whisky, which means it doesn’t have any of the harsh and in-your-face flavours that it might have were it all malt. There is a pleasant fruitiness from the malt whisky content. However, there is some bad here, as the sawdust and bitterness from the young grain matured in bourbon casks is a turn off. It’s not bad but it’s not quite not bad either.