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.