I find few things in life more tedious than yet another article seeking to dissect and rationalise review scores – particularly those coming at the topic with the pre-programmed agenda of “our method is the bestest because…”. Irrespective of whether whisky, wine, restaurants or movies, all reviewer scores possess three characteristics – they’re arbitrary, they’re largely incomparable outside of their given context, and they’re usually utterly meaningless without explanation.
The arguments for and against the assignment of scores are well enough understood that I’m not going to regurgitate them here. But what I am going to do is to focus on the last of those characteristics – for without explanation – no review, be that scored or not, can reflect any type of genuine, morally-based criticism of any art form.
Yes, I score. Yes, I use a WSET-based systematic approach based on the 100-point scale. And yes, it’s my website so I can do as I please. In my wider reading, I utilise scores as a short-hand – sometimes as a crib as to whether I should invest the time to read a longer article. However, within the context of believing that the quality, personality, and aspect of whisky can be analysed and presented in an easily understood and consistent manner (within the confines of a single reviewer’s experience and opinions), I also do strongly believe that there are many facets of whisky experience which cannot be so easily graded or qualified – and that therefore necessitate the all important explanation.
Taking two different whiskies which present near identically in terms of the common analysis points of colour, intensity and definition, arrival, mouthfeel, development and finish yadda yadda – one could easily be tempted into producing two nearly indistinguishable reviews. And sometimes, in all honesty that’s potentially correct, from a purely systematic analysis point of view. However, by only talking in terms of a linear examination, any notion of a whisky’s ability to please both the palate and the intellect and its ability to hold interest over time is often foregone. Or simply bundled up into a catch-all conclusion akin to "I like this."
But those experiential points *are* important – they’re usually what differentiates a whisky into being something that is individually adored or hated. They are not the same as a technical review score – nor do I think that it is possible to actually grade one person’s intellectual stimulation against anyone else's
Simply noting a whisky as “complex” can and does lead to reviewers grading (on whatever scale they chose) higher. But why is it complex? How is it complex? And what does that complexity mean to the reviewer in this particular context? Whisky can be complex because of its structure, its abundance of character (I.E. long tasting note), its merger of flavours or simply through possessing an array of intricacies which only become discernible after repeated tastings. So, which is it?
Distillery character is something I and other well-regarded reviewers actively look for. Can that be scored? And can that be scored consistently? Of course, whilst one could easily see a reviewer knocking a point or two off their tally for a lack of perceptible distillery character (usually due to an overly heavy cask influence). How does the converse work? Would points be added for representations which feel truer to the producer’s DNA? How many? The point being that without the elucidation into why a lack or presence of distillery character is viewed as a negative or positive, that it quickly becomes hard to truly appreciate whisky from the mindset of the reviewer.
Only through clear explanation by the writer and a consistency of the reader to regularly engage with the mindset of said reviewer do either their reviews or their scores have context or meaning.
Throughout the life of The Dramble I have actively endeavoured (and hopefully improved over time) to hone my views on whisky – be they in the glass or often outside of it – to make these views as understandable and appreciable as possible. And in particular to qualify both my beliefs and my eventual conclusions. However, I’m all too aware that within every review segment there are features of whisky which can easily transcend the standard construction of nose, taste and finish. No tasting note or review, no matter how detailed or well-constructed will replicate the precise experience you will have when supping that same dram. None.
Whisky's creation and individual appeal are both a product of fortuitousness - and so when you're looking for thoughts and guidance from others - frankly, scored or not, you *should* expect the inquisition.
We last looked at The Firkin Whisky Company almost exactly a year ago – with a piece wrapped around a focus on cooperage. The bottler takes the spotlight again today for a dive into their 2008 Ledaig. This ‘Firkin Rare’ (man, I still can’t get my head around this silly brand name) release clocks in at 12 years of age, having been initially matured in ex-bourbon and then re-racked into a marsala wine cask. Bottled at 48.9% ABV (a standard for nearly all of the bottlers’ releases) and with 325 bottles produced – whilst the UK allocation seems have all been and gone, friends in Europe will still find this available via Whisky Hort for € 84.90.
Nose: Instantaneous summer barbeque. Charcoal, BBQ extract and salt beef followed by preserved limes and candied stone fruits. Smoke is pervasive – medicinal, sooty and conjoined with iodine, sea breeze and a kick of Szechuan chilli. The marsala influence is a scattering of red berries at best – however, its sweet, supportive influence grounds the whole experience into a triptych of peat, meat and sweet. The addition of water offers a ‘muddier’ composition with ozone, petrichor and muted semi-industrial smoke alongside raw cereals and cinnamon gobstoppers.
Taste: The arrival comes with palpable cling (at cask strength this would be near glutinous one feels). And it immediately indicates that the palate will be taking a somewhat different direction to the nose. Fruits are forward – gels and jellies alongside spit-roasted pineapple chunks. Then sooty smoke, tempered by tangy grapefruit and lime juice. The development reveals a creamy core that touches and harmonises with every element. It leads into gentle chilli and pepper and asides of limestone. Reduction softens things up quickly resulting in the addition of char and alluvialness but dialling back on both the bright fruits and also the peat.
Finish: Medium to long in length with dry (but not tannic) cask and marsala wine spices, persistent soot, and wisps of iodine alongside lingering fruit sugars.
It will come as no surprise to many that I will be rating this Firkin Whisky Company Ledaig highly. However, as indicated in the pre-Dramble above, I will attempt to qualify this. Despite my preponderance for all things peated Tobermory, there is nevertheless a clear divide between expressions from the distillery which are middling and expressions which transcend. The same can be said of any producer – some releases will enter, some will compete, and some will triumph.
This Firkin release excels. But despite its high level of instant likability, defined profile and absolute equilibrium throughout – this is only partly the reason for that. This Ledaig works above and beyond for me - outside of the score that I’m going to give it - because I find its allure near impossible not to submit to. I’ve had this bottle since just before Christmas - and I’ve willingly attacked it again and again. Of course, it's already attuned to my predelictions (something which should be noted, but not scored) - but where this expression truly shines is in its long-term likeabilty, which after 3 months I'm still finding to be near continual. Oh for a bottomless bottle.
Review sample provided by Top Whiskies