So, the 2015 Whisky Bible awards list is out (ahead of the Bible itself). And as always many whisky geeks are falling over each other to see who can get their underwear in the most self-righteous and virtuous knot possible over Jim Murray’s latest excesses. And some of the luminaries of the whisky blogverse have also chimed in. The Whisky Sponge had a characteristically biting takedown right before the announcement; Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun has run a little graphic announcing that “the best whisky in the world simply does not exist“; and even Sam Simmons (aka Dr. Whisky) has roused his blog from suspended animation to note that Murray’s “controversial choices…are no promotional accident“. And here I am, just as predictably, with a contrarian response.
Let me note first of all that the Sponge at least is consistent—he mocked the Bible last year as well; and he also mocks everything else to do with the whisky industry and those who peddle, promote and obscure its twaddle. It’s less clear why Serge is so exercised about the idea of “the best whisky in the world”—after all, one might say that the Malt Maniacs Awards do much the same as Murray’s lists albeit in different language; and, of course, it’s not clear why the notion of someone proposing a “best whisky” should be so outrageous per se in a world where there’s a best everything, from movies (Crash!) to polka albums to butter sculptures. As for the good Dr. Whisky, one wonders if he and the rest of the Scotch whisky industry—Simmons is a brand ambassador for Balvenie—are as quick to note the promotional aspect of Murray’s announcements in years when Scotch whiskies are at the top of his lists and/or he’s not taking shots at the Scotch industry’s practices (as he did this year).
This is not to say that Simmons is wrong: the Whisky Bible is a commodity—independently produced and marketed—and controversial or at least big, bold statements are what Murray utilizes to get people to notice it and buy it (which is not to say that those statements might not be true). It’s also true that there has to be a fair amount of churn on his lists and a fair amount of departure from what might be expected—otherwise why should people buy this thing every year? It’s not like the whisky world is in fact changing so dramatically, if at all, from year to year. There’s also nothing original about these observations—people have been pointing these things out for years.
To be fair, Murray has also taken on a lot of causes that are in fact close to whisky geeks’ hearts: his naming the Amrut Fusion the third best whisky in the 2010 Bible did more than anything else to put Amrut on the larger whisky map; he’s similarly done more than anyone else to get whisky drinkers in the UK and Europe to take bourbon seriously; he champions the cause of quality blends; and he’s railed against sulphur-taint, the use of caramel colouring, chill-filtration etc. when other well-known writers have mostly stayed quiet. Now, of course, being controversial is a large part of his image/brand but still—these are all things that I think most of us would normally get behind. And it’s not as though Murray’s annual ratings and awards are the most dubious out there—there are plenty of spirits competitions which claim “objective” methodologies and give out medals by the cartload to bog standard product. Murray’s awards, at least, have the merit of being idiosyncratic. (And saying that the Yamazaki Sherry Cask is the best whisky of 2014 is less of a head-scratcher to me than people giving the 2014 Ardbeg Supernova 90 points—the Yamazaki Sherry Cask, I at least thought was very good.)
I am not, however, saying that the above renders most whisky geeks’ antipathy towards Murray mysterious. As I’ve said before, the guy is more than a bit of a dick (see Oliver Klimek’s write-up of a Murray-led tasting he attended); and there’s something galling about the only whisky writer known to the general whisky drinking populace being the one whisky geeks would be least likely to elect to that position. And there’s no denying his reach—the Whisky Bible and/or its scores are prominently displayed in liquor stores and on websites; his awards raise prices and move product. Still, it can seem like Jim Murray is really promoting Jim Murray and not whisky. Put simply, he makes it hard to like him.
There’s no reason, of course, that he should be likable: likability and critical acumen have no necessary relationship—the worst writers of any kind are the ones who are trying too hard to have everyone like them. But I don’t want to focus here on Murray’s very real flaws (there are plenty of other places where you can read about those). I want to suggest instead that there may be something else happening here as well and that might be a kind of discomfort whisky geeks have with the writer as professional. Most whisky geeks want to believe strongly in the notion of a community, and particularly in a horizontal community of amateurs who are only driven by a love of whisky; and this is a notion that the industry has largely exploited very successfully, with brand ambassadors and other industry figures “embedded” in social media. But unlike most other well-known writers, Murray has kept his distance. Unlike Dave Broom or Martine Nouet or Charles Maclean he has no affiliation with the Malt Maniacs; unlike Dominic Roskrow or Ian Buxton he’s not all over Twitter (his last tweet seems to have been in 2012 and the one previous from 2010); he’s definitely not part of #WhiskyFabric.
He’s made no attempt, in other words, to join the putative community of whisky geeks. (By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with the kind of community I describe most whisky geeks as wanting to believe in; it’s just that I think it’s a bit of an illusion.) Indeed, he has kept an antagonistic distance from the secondary class of amateur writers/bloggers, and their readers, who’ve sprung up in the last decade or so (forget fifth-tier bloggers like myself, Murray has no time for people’s heroes like Serge). And this has in turn kept him from receiving the goodwill of leaders of this whisky geek community that has often insulated other professional writers against criticisms that everyone feels free to aim at Murray. Unlike Broom and co. Murray does not seem like “one of us” and more troubling still is that he doesn’t want to be one of us and if anything is scornful of us.
But my point is not merely that Murray is disliked because he hasn’t made any attempt to play nice—and I’m certainly not trying to paint him as a victim: this is something he cultivates. Nor am I suggesting that I think that Murray’s antagonism towards whisky geeks has some principled basis, that he’s articulating some critical point about the the whisky geek world—mostly, I suspect, his attitude arises from the same uneasy and self-serving source as that of people like David Driscoll: they know there’s a much larger market out there than whisky geeks comprise and so they don’t want to bother. (Unlike Driscoll, of course, Murray didn’t start out trying very hard to be part of the whisky geek world.) But I think it might be the case that he is disliked by whisky geeks also because his attitude belittles how many whisky geeks would like to think about themselves: as one happy community with the bigger names merely more exalted versions of themselves. Look, for example, at the particular ways in which the late Michael Jackson is sanctified—it’s always his warmth and relatability that are cited more than his critical views, and he’s always presented precisely as the anti-Murray.
What I’m getting at obliquely is that the antipathy towards Murray actually masks the fact that whisky geeks might need Murray more than he needs us. He serves as a way of negatively articulating what we would like to see ourselves as. More obviously, he gives us an opportunity to state our virtue. Think, for example, of the number of times each year you read or hear someone’s account of how they were asked by less knowledgeable people about Murray’s awards and they set them straight. He’s also a convenient scapegoat on whose person we exhaust almost all of our critical energies (saving a little bit for Blair Bowman every spring). If he didn’t exist we’d have to invent him. We’d have to, as otherwise we might be in danger of noticing that many of the people we hold up as alternatives also have feet of clay.
So we should stop attacking him. Instead, for fulfilling these roles for us we should say “thank you!” to Jim Murray.