Whiskey Scoring In A Nutshell
The first thing to know about scoring whiskey is that your own palate is way more important than anyone else’s made up number. And yes, they are all completely made up. This includes my numbers, wine expert’s numbers, and everyone else’s numbers. There isn’t a governing body that says “X type of spirit must have a color in hues ranging from blah to blah blah to and must be clearly dominated by A, B & C flavor profiles to be considered for a 90-95 rating.” It just doesn’t exist and it also doesn’t truly matter because at the end of the day your own palate will be your judge, jury, and wallet executioner. Scores are nothing more than a numerical representation of a reviewers personal tastes… that’s it.
That being said ratings do serve a useful purpose. For starters they serve as a way a for a reviewer to compare the quality of whiskey (or wine, beer or other spirits) relative to their own tastes and for readers to easily see how a reviewer believes an individual whiskey, or other beverage, stacks up against another. Every whiskey will be unique to itself in some manner and because of that it becomes very laborious to write reviews by saying things like “It has more caramel in it than a Wild Turkey 101, less vanilla than a Larceny and more wood than a Bulleit 10”. It’s much easier to say “It has a high caramel that hits up front with vanilla coming in second and a lot of oak holding it together” and then slapping an 84 on it. Then when you want to compare Wild Turkey 101, Larceny, Bulleit, and anything else there is some kind of a numerical representation that accompanies the description to make comparison easier. Scoring is a factor of convenience.
Truthfully, the numerical value is much more useful to the reviewer than the reader as it’s a representation of their palate and their likes and dislikes. As a reader they serve as a nice guideline and you can get a lot out of reading other’s reviews, comparing your own notes, and even comparing scores. Sometimes you’ll find a reviewer whose tastes you align closely with and so you follow what they recommend and use them as a North Star to help guide you to new whiskeys you might have otherwise passed on. I have several folks I consistently rely on for just that purpose.
Though to be honest even if they call it crap I’ll still try it. I’ll just try it at the bar, a friend’s house or as a 50ml mini before I consider buying a whole bottle. The reason I do this is because if I (or you) only tried what everyone called “the good stuff” I’d never expand my palate and truly know why I like what I like. You have to know what sucks to know what rocks. You need a comparison.
Now armed with the knowledge that I believe, for the most part, that whiskey (indeed all alcohol) ratings are rather pointless you might be wondering why I assign whiskeys a numerical value on this blog. Well, like I said, it makes it easy to compare and when you’ve tasted 100, 300, 500+ whiskeys it’s nice to have some sort of rating system – be it 5 stars, 10 point system, whatever – to look back and reflect on when you’re trying new whiskey and that’s exactly why I do it.
To sum it up: Scores are just a representation of a reviewers personal tastes, are a factor of convenience and numbers have no meaning to your palate. At the end of the day the whiskey, wine, liquor, and beer you like to drink is up to you, your personal tastes and no one else. You may love something I give a piss-poor rating to and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that so long as you enjoy it. Now that we’re past the philosophical stuff I’ll give you the dirt on how I go about scoring.
Constructing a Score
I rate on a 100 total point system. I give 100 possible points to each applicable segment of the review (nose, palate, bbf (balance, body & feel) and finish) and when I’m going over each one I take some time and think about how it compares to other whiskeys in it’s category.
If it’s in a category all it’s own (like say a quinoa whiskey) then I look at how much I enjoyed it overall and pull from all of my past whiskey experiences to figure out where it lands on the scale (see what I mean by ratings being subjective). Once I’ve spent some time with the whiskey and sipped it neat, with water, with ice, etc. and feel satisfied that I know what the whiskey is all about I then rate each attribute on that 100 point scale and then average them together. That helps keep one single factor from completely dominating a score.
This is where, like with wine or any other alcohol, it becomes very helpful to have a well established baseline in place. A baseline are the whiskies that, for you, define a style. They are the whiskey by which all other whiskeys in that category are judged. It’s important to have that baseline for each category because you can’t compare a scotch to a bourbon and say one is better than the other because they are completely different drinks. It’s like comparing an apple to a ham sandwich. sA 95 point Scotch and a 95 point Bourbon won’t taste the same at all because they have very different and unique qualities to them. The 95 just means that they are exceptionally good for their category.
Your baseline (which can take years to set and might keep changing over time) isn’t the best whiskey out there, but something that is a solid and sturdy representation of what that style of whiskey is all about. For example, when it comes to high rye bourbon Wild Turkey 101 is my baseline. For normal rye bourbon it’s Buffalo Trace, for Rye it’s the High West Rendezvous Rye, for Irish it’s Bushmills black, for Speyside Scotch it’s the Glenlivet 12, for blended Scotch it’s Chivas 12 and so on. None of them are what I would consider “best in class”, but they are very good representations of that style of whiskey and embody everything I look for when tasting something from that category.
One big area where I differ a bit from other reviewers is that I never assign a number to something I have only had in passing. Such as something I have at a bar or at a tasting where I’ve only have the tasting standard 1/2 oz and just a few minutes to enjoy it. I will ballpark it into one of the ranges below. Speaking of those ranges, now that you know how I build a score it’s time to let you know what they actually mean.
What Do Whiskey Scores Mean?
98 – 100 (A+) = Booze Nirvana.
This is the promised land where every sense is satisfied and, unless it’s a perfect 100, you have to search and nit-pick for what’s wrong instead of what’s right about this whiskey because it’s so on point.
93 – 97 (A) = Exceptional – Superior in every way
These are the best of the best and within spitting distance of Nirvana. They embody everything that category is about and then elevate it to another level. These are ones I HIGHLY recommend.
90 – 92 (A-) = Excellent – want to buy a case
Whiskeys that hit this rating are extra awesome. They’re delicious and complex Daily Drinkers and even though they are not quite best-in-class, they’re among my favorite whiskeys and I would wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone at any time.
87 – 89 (B+) = Great – always want to have a bottle
These are whiskeys that as soon as you taste them you say “I want to own a bottle” and if you already own the bottle you just smile because it’s yours. It’s not a record breaker by any means, just a good solid delicious whiskey.
83 – 86 (B) = Good – not a “must”, but a nice-to-have
The majority of my baselines are found here. This range is where the “daily drinker” status starts to emerge and where I find whiskies that’re good to drink, but may rotate in and out of my collection. They’re not something you’d miss when it’s out, but good enough to give a moment’s consideration when at the liquor store.
80 – 84 (B-) = Not-too-bad – no major flaws, worth tasting
This is the stuff I’d recommend you try at the bar, an event or at a friend’s house before buying a bottle. There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just not… quite… there.
77 – 79 (C+) = Average – not good, not bad, just is
There might be some minor flaws, all-in-all it’s not offensive, but it might be boring. There’s just nothing at all noteworthy about this whiskey.
73 – 76 (C) = Below average – drinkable, but better as a mixer / party booze
It’s not like you or I actually WANT to drink this stuff, but sometimes you’re at a wedding or a shitty bar and it just happens to be there and a beer just doesn’t sound great so you grin and bear a glass or, when possible, ask for it in a cocktail. If the bartender sucks you might even take a bit of solace in the knowledge that they didn’t ruin a good whiskey with their terrible cocktail.
70 – 72 (C-) = Not good – nearly undrinkable, wonder why the hell they made it
When I drink this stuff I wonder if the Master Distiller is actually proud of what they’ve put out or if it’s something they just shove out to make a quick buck. I then wonder about the person who habitually buy it and wonder what admirable qualities they find in it that I can’t.
60 – 69 (D) = The only thing this should be used for is making Jungle Juice, and even then…
Seriously… I start to wonder if it’s even safe for human consumption at this point. It’s just plain gnarley.
59 – 0 (F) = Horrifically flawed – the worst
This is when I call the FDA because I’m pretty damn sure it’s not safe to drink this swill.
- Daily Drinker = A whiskey you could sip everyday and never get sick of. Something you actually look forward to having a glass of after a long day at work.
- Must Have = A whiskey that you “must have” in your home bar at all times. The kind of thing that goes on to a shopping list as you near the end of the bottle.