Reviewing, Revisiting and Revising (And Other Thoughts on Blogging Practice)

This is a post in everyone’s favourite genre: blogger blogging about blogging. It’s your lucky day.

As the two or three people who read this blog regularly and read both the new posts and the recent comments know, I sometimes (but not as often as I should) go back to bottles I have previously reviewed and add fresh comments (not to the original review itself but in the comments section); and in some cases suggest a new score based on the later tasting. Sometimes I find the whisky to be unchanged or not significantly changed, but usually I find a shift in emphases in notes (most commonly) or a complete disappearance of some notes (not unusually) or the appearance of completely new notes (rarely). None of this is surprising news to anyone who drinks bottles down slowly over time—whiskies change in the bottle with time and air and their mutability is part of what makes them interesting. But it does raise some (unoriginal) questions about reviewing and scoring (not just on blogs).

Most reviews are singular events, no matter what the venue of publication. You review something and then you move on to the next review and so on. This has the effect of making every review seem like a more definitive judgement than it really is. I am referring again to what we all know as drinkers: whiskies change with time (and unlike with wine, almost no one drinks a bottle of whisky down in one session, or even two or three sessions in quick succession). And when you are reviewing something as volatile as whisky you are recording your subjective responses at a particular moment in time—and no matter how hard you try you are not going to be able to keep out all kinds of confounding variables. This means that at the moment of review you are recording subjective responses (that are the intersection of various variables) to the whisky in its current state (freshly opened bottle, open for a few/many days, weeks or months with a lot/little air).

In other words, no review is ever going to be an accurate representation of a bottle of whisky, only of the pour(s) the reviewer had. And most of the time we have no idea what part of a bottle a reviewer’s pour came from. This, by the way, is a large part of why I insist on posting the (usually unattractive) image of the exact bottle, original or sample, that I am reviewing—I think it better conveys the fragile basis of most of my reviews. Most reviewers, professional or amateur bloggers, seem to review from samples, and leave alone readers, in most cases they themselves have no idea where in the bottle their sample came from. In the case of producer/importer/retailer provided samples I assume they come mostly from freshly opened bottles—these reviews might then emphasize notes that may diminish or amplify as a bottle is kept open for a while. In the case of blogger reviews from samples acquired in swaps we have a better chance of knowing the state of the bottle for sure but few of us (myself included) ever seem to include this information (probably because, like me, most of us don’t ask for it). And, of course, in all cases we’re at the mercy of however the source may have stored their bottle.

So, what am I getting at? I’m certainly not trying to arrive at some way of arriving at a truly representative review—I don’t think that’s possible; after all, even the same whisky over a short period of time may evoke significantly different responses and judgements. Nor am I suggesting that all reviews are therefore pointless or useless—though I do have a vested interest in believing that. As a reader of reviews myself, however, this is the reason why I don’t really worry too much about scores.

I do wonder though if as bloggers we should take advantage more often of the flexibility our format (and lack of editorial/publisher constraints) allows us: to revisit whiskies and “revise” our initial judgements via comments or even complete re-reviews. Of course, this is really only possible when we are reviewing from bottles and not from samples (unless we acquire large/enough samples to allow for multiple reviews), and I’m not suggesting that we stop reviewing from samples altogether. But even if it’s something we only do part of the time it may be worth doing.

The chief benefit of doing this, I think, is that it will foreground/emphasize the contingent nature of reviewing—as our initial reviews with comments over time will demonstrate what we all know to be true: that there is no such thing as a definitive review. I think perhaps we could also signal this in the language of all our reviews, shying away from the language and tone of definitive/authoritative pronouncement and embracing tentativeness and uncertainty (sometimes apple is the exact note you get, sometimes it’s the closest your brain allows you to get to a description).

Thoughts? I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and in August inaugurate a series of reviews of a bottle over its entire lifetime. And I’m going to try to do a better job of recording follow-up notes in the comments, whether my opinions change significantly or not.

10 thoughts on “Reviewing, Revisiting and Revising (And Other Thoughts on Blogging Practice)

  1. This is part of why I’ve gotten down to keeping only a handful of full-sized bottles open at a time. That forces me to finish one before opening another. One side-effect is that I tend to write my reviews near the end of the life of a bottle, rather than after a few pours from the very beginning. In some cases, like Tobermory 10 Year, that turned to be absolutely vital as the whisky changed dramatically from beginning to end. Wherever possible, I try to note those kinds of changes. Additionally, reviewing from full bottles has the added benefit that you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time that you’re drinking it. There will be some times that you’re just drinking to drink it, which the way most people drink. I think it can be useful to note those more hazy impressions as well – you’re not getting the same level of detail, but it’s important to know whether it’s enjoyable as well as being interesting. There are whiskies that I’ve been glad to taste because they taught me something, but I wouldn’t actually want to drink an entire bottle.

    I also agree that coming back to whiskies you’ve tried before can be really important. It’s a great gauge of how your tastes are changing (or not, as the case may be).

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  2. Some very good points here. I prefer not to score a bottle but the general public seem to rely on that figure to given them direction and context. As you say a whisky can develop in the bottle and the biggest variable in the whole review process is the drinker him/herself. Am I in a good mood or the right frame of mind to sit down and really appreciate this whisky?

    Earlier this year I had a 30 year old Teaninich and didn’t really enjoy it but returned a couple of weeks later and my negativity had reduced somewhat, although I still wasn’t a fan overall. I swear a sherry Bladnoch I had once over several months was a totally different beast after being opened for a couple of weeks. Even when I dislike something I try to take a balanced approach as what doesn’t work for me, might be a joyous experience for someone else.

    There are folk out there that enjoy drinking Jura for instance, or so I’ve heard.

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  3. Good post. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Up until recently I have been reviewing only from bottles that I own and now I am starting to review some samples. Two ships passing in opposite directions, we are.

    I miss having all that time and bottle development. I have seen first hand how much a bottle can change and worry about a review that captures some strange phase of a particular whisky. I also sometimes like to just drink the whisky with less focus and garner general impressions. But the advantage with a small sample is that you have to taste in a hyper focused manner. It is helping me to not spend so much time on a single review and to gather my thoughts more quickly.

    On a few posts where by the end of the bottle my opinions changed I added a short note to the end of the review. Overall that opinion once the bottle is now gone is the one that matter the most. Do you miss having the bottle? Were there secrets still left to uncover or was it just something to tick on a list?

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  4. You know, I have been thinking of doing something similar (though perhaps slightly less thought out and structured) since discussing the Laddie 10 (and the way in which I had seen it change over the course of its bottle-life) with you on here somewhere a little while back. I did end up buying another bottle but haven’t yet found time to open it. Perhaps that will be a good place for me to start.

    [Your site in particular offers a good platform for this kind of thing, of course, in that any added comments to old posts are immediately visible and noticeable to the reader. Great feature.]

    Being relatively new to buying samples in any great number, I must say I still enjoy the opportunity they present to experience, test and challenge, but agree that they can exist in something of a vacuum in relation both to others’ experiences and to our own at any other point in time, given their inherently transient nature.

    As to authoritative authorial pronouncements, I agree that sometimes less is more in this regard. I often really enjoy reading reviews that reveal the uncertainty of both the reviewer’s own judgements and experiences, as well as that of the very liquid in question.

    Of course, a score is really what most people are searching for in a review and can indeed really complete a review in terms of a narrative account, but they are by definition extremely subjective.

    Nice post, cheers.

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  5. I think the main issue/problem, which I have run into myself, is that any review is a static picture (appraisal), no matter how accurate, of a moving object (an expression’s level of quality and flavour development). Expressions change, usually more slowly than the experience/standards of the reviewer, but each review IS only a snapshot – a hopefully valid description of a changing product at the time of review. Re-reviews and amending reviews over time are valuable for this reason and to give the reader some idea of how a product develops/stales.

    Although both have their place, I prefer scores over descriptors, probably because sites/reviews which deal only in descriptors sometimes seem to me to be in the business of finding something good to say about every whisk(e)y without giving any real assessment of overall quality, or one which is very open to interpretation due to the malleability of language. The general effect is often a “weighting” toward the positive whether deserved by any given product or not. I usually avoid many of these sites, if only because of the logical disconnection between the reviewer’s ability to give detailed descriptors but inability to simply rate product – what, I’m supposed to trust that you found “the finish is drool-inducing… it draws us out like a foreboding scream in the woods does teenagers in horror movies… or like a non-herbaceous spit poultice that replaces the liquid it removes with melted caramel… actually, what it leaves behind is richer than that: it’s cantaloupe cognac with bacon… by “with bacon” here, I mean in the mash and as a side dish” but accept that you CAN’T give it a rough score out of 100? (with apologies to Malt Imposter)

    Whether I agree with a score or not, once I understand the reviewer’s scale, I have been given a definite idea from that reviewer on overall quality while, in dealing with flavour descriptors, many products of widely varying quality can read much the same (I think the term “hint of vanilla” should be outlawed for this reason alone). I don’t think that reviewers being tempted to take an authoritarian tone is a problem for me as a reader because I AM voluntarily going to them for a definite call (much like going to a referee or an umpire) – I do want to know exactly what they think, whether I agree with it or not in what I do realize IS a subjective assessment. I WANT a pronouncement instead of fuzzy language and then I can judge for myself, both about products AND reviewers and I don’t give either products or reviewers equal weighting within their groups in any case; some opinions matter more to me than others. I want a reviewer to make the most accurate call they can AT the time they make it and, while allowing for later review amendments to further detail product development, to otherwise let the chips fall where they may. I understand that it boils down to a matter of degrees, but I wouldn’t want any reviewer’s embracing of tentativeness and uncertainty in the interests of not putting a foot wrong in an absolute sense to undermine what, for me, is the practical part of any review in terms of guiding my purchases.

    All that said, I look forward to your new series of reviews and what comes out of them.

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    • I don’t care very much about scores…but I have read reviews that are full of aroma and flavor description, without ever giving you an inkling whether the reviewer liked the whisky or not.

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  6. Thanks all for the comments, and I hope more people will chime in over time.

    I’m a little pressed for time right now and so can’t respond to the very interesting points raised but just want to clarify, in case I’ve given a different impression, that the regular fare on this blog is not going to change very much. I’m not going to stop reviewing from samples; it’s just that when I do review from bottles I will try my best to make those reviews dynamic over time with added comments; in some cases, if there’s significant changes, I may do a completely new review (not as a replacement but as an addition). The one absolutely new thing I’m going to do in August is to begin a series of reviews over the life of a particular bottle—but that’s going to unfold slowly over months and probably years. And I’ll try to do that more often whenever I open new bottles. But most of my reviews will continue to be as they are now.

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  7. Great write up. As someone who is part of /r/scotch in reddit, I also post reviews there. So I have an idea of what you’re thinking. I think bloggers who post their reviews of whiskys should be allowed and should allow themselves to re-visit certain whiskys. It could be said that it’s even part of your responsibility to inform your readers if you encounter the change in the same whisky of the same bottle and also the same whisky but of different bottle that’s different in quality than the one you’ve reviewed before.

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