For a span of several months last year, Jim Murray, a whisky writer and reviewer, was unable to walk, stand, and even sit comfortably because of a simple and very telling mistake: for upward of twenty years, he’d spent full days spitting whisky out of his mouth into a spittoon that sat on his right-hand side. His whisky-spitting motion had become so one-sided that he’d shriveled a muscle in his back and thrown his spine out of alignment.
Murray is a principled whisky taster. He achieved some notoriety a few years ago for admitting during an interview that he does not kiss anyone during the writing of his annual whiskey tome, Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible. He says the germs run the risk of making him sick, which would trash his tasting schedule of up to 30 whiskeys a day. When I watched him give a tasting on Texas bourbons recently, he nearly inspired an uprising among a cadre of Southerners by barring any swallowing at all for nearly two hours, and also stringently enforcing a “no talking” rule. “Listen to the whiskey,” he said. Eventually, most of the Texans came to heel, and later began self-policing in so zealous a manner that it was obvious they’d become disciples.
The form of Murray’s tasting method has been built over his thirty-some years of writing professionally about whiskey. He proudly proclaims himself the world’s first-ever whiskey writer, and his Whiskey Bible is filled with some of the most entertaining, creative, and occasionally crass tasting notes around. (“The alcohol by volume of one of the sexiest whiskies on the planet is 69 … and it goes down a treat. Much harder to spit than swallow.”) You’d expect Murray to have a seriously stringent, coherent and comprehensive set of rules around his tasting. He does. He calls it The Murray Method, and whether you choose to follow it is entirely a question of your own whiskey-drinking principles. Several other notable tasters have at least minimal rules and guidelines for tasting, but Murray’s are especially rigorous; where many tasters bake in some level of personalization, Murray follows strictures.
There are eighteen rules in Murray’s method, chief among them: drink black coffee to cleanse your palate; find a tasting room without distractions and free of excessive smells; drink the whiskey out of a tulip-shaped glass with a stem, at body temperature, and never (never!) add water or ice; nose the liquid naturally, sip it twice, the second one for flavor, balance, shape, mouthfeel, and finish; always taste it a third and fourth time to confirm your suspicions; spit to avoid becoming drunk; and be honest in your assessment. Notably, one of Murray’s final rules is that you should hold your own review higher than anyone else’s, including his. (For the full list of rules, check out his Whiskey Bible.)
There’s a comfort in having a very clear ruleset for tasting whiskey. And Murray’s insistence on being true to yourself, and not being swayed by anyone else’s thoughts (hence: no talking, Texans!) gives his rules a certain “of the people” quality. Whether you agree with Murray’s method or not is an interesting question. Answering means that you’ve tried it, and that you’ve pondered whiskey and the way you drink it thoroughly. “If your old tried and trusted technique suits you best, that’s fine by me,” he writes in the intro to every bible, before listing his rules. “But I do ask you try out the instructions below at least once to see if you find your whisky is talking to you with a far broader vocabulary and clearer voice than it once did.”
After the Texas bourbon tasting, I asked Murray to name a handful of his favorite Scotch whiskies for sipping rather than for work. He agreed, but only if I would try his tasting method. So, below, you’ll find Murray’s guide to Scotch drinking, in more than one way: firstly, it includes several whiskies he favors himself — which, for someone who tries over a thousand new whiskies a year, is high praise. And secondly, it demonstrates his tasting method, which is worth a try. I came away from my demonstration impressed with the technique and surprised by how intricately I could describe what I was tasting. It was proof positive of Murray’s method, and a great course on some delicious whiskies. Just remember: listen to the whisky, or else.
Ardbeg 10 Years Old
An entry-level bottle comes from Ardeg on the Kildalton coast of Islay. Expect to pay around $45 for this non-chill filtered Scotch.
Color: Very light hay, almost like a pale IPA. Golden.
Nose: Sugary sweetness, ginger.
Flavor: Pop of oaky tannin upfront, zesty tropical fruit rind passing quickly into longer notes of peppery spice
Shape, weight, mouthfeel: What I believe to be oiliness very high here. Shape is relatively consistent, with very interesting nuances opening up in the finish, almost one at a time.
Finish: Butter, oak, rock candy sugars, very late, pinyness, some mint.
Jim Murray’s Thoughts: “Like when you usually come across something that goes down so beautifully and with such a nimble touch and disarming allure, just close your eyes and enjoy …”
Final Verdict: A bright, pungent whisky. Initial flavors are relatively straightforward, especially the tannin and the peppery spice, but the finish goes into long intervals with distinct flavors popping through. As Murray often writes of his favorites: lovely.
Glen Grant 12 Year Old
A Speyside distillery, Glen Grant is owned by Campari. It offers 5- and 10-year options, but the 12 Year Old is its standard entry-level Scotch.
Color: Just a touch darker than the Ardbeg. Still very light, hay-colored.
Nose: Minty and floral. Some earthiness and peat. Honey.
Flavor: honey upfront, a medium attack of pepper and peat, then finally moving into some of those aromatic flavors. Orange peel, and some floral notes. Lavender?
Shape, weight, mouthfeel: Much lighter than the Ardbeg. Starts quieter, with the sweet honey, then grows in spiciness (again, not as intensely as the Ardbeg), and eventually calms back down to those nice floral and citrus notes.
Finish: Orange peel, floral notes, and underlying earthy peat.
Jim Murray’s Thoughts: “A subtle nose; a little cream of toffee, but a wonderful sleight of hand for a citrus slant as well as a totally unexpected hint of weak lavender … remains refreshing and determined to show the fresh barley in all its stunning dimensions.”
Final Assessment: The pepper lingers longer the more you drink it, adding some body. Otherwise, it’s a much less vibrant, more mellow whisky than the Ardbeg. Those who like the pairing of floral and peat, along with this mellowness, will like it more than I do.
The Ardmore Port Wood Finish
Ardmore is a Speyside distillery owned by Suntory Beam. Its 12-year-old Port Wood is finished in port casks.
Color: Golden amber.
Nose: Honey and port. Honeysuckle.
Flavor: Sugar sweetness up front. Darker fruits settle in the middle, and later, spice that is more red pepper than black.
Shape, weight, mouthfeel: The port immediately adds a heft to the flavor profile – like I could feel it land on my tongue.
Finish: The sweet sugars that a good red wine leaves behind on your tongue, plus oak’s dryness. Occasional hits of a taste that can only be described as grape gushers.
Jim Murray’s Thoughts: “Here we have a lovely fruit-rich malt, but one which has compromised on the complexity that has set this distillery apart. Lovely whisky, I am delighted to say… but dammit, by playing to its unique nuances it could have been so much better.”
Final Assessment: The port is big in the nose, and the sugars upfront, and the darker middle, and underlays the later spices. It’s what the finish is all about. This is whisky’s love letter to the grape, and it made me pine for a great red.
Chivas Regal 18
The only blend on this list, Chivas Regal 18 Years is made from many whiskies — all of which are at least 18 years old.
Color: A brown that I’m only calling uniform because I know it’s a blend. Beautiful ambergris.
Nose: Honeycomb, oak, light pepper.
Flavor: Traditional Scotch flavors upfront: Light and sweet with honey, with loads of vanilla. There’s no tannin dryness at all, and it’s very wet and sweet. One pop of hot black pepper, just for a moment, and then it’s gone.
Shape, weight, mouthfeel: It’s lighter than I expected given the nose, which was heavy on the traditional Scotch flavors. See finish for note about oiliness.
Finish: The most pleasant wave of sugar ever. Almost maple syrup, almost creme brulee. It’s oily as hell.
Jim Murray’s Thoughts: “A true whisky lover’s whisky.”
Final Assessment: Wow! I sensed in the nose that this would have the traditional “Scotch” flavors, and boy, it did. Honey, vanilla, and slight earthiness, backed with black pepper. As a peat guy, I find it’s missing those smoked flavors. But for those who don’t like tasting dirt, it might be perfect.
Aberlour is a Speyside distillery owned by Chivas Brothers. A’Bunadh means “the original” in gaelic, and the whisky is a sherried homage to Aberlour’s founder.
Color: Deep dark mahogany.
Nose: Rock candy sugars and oak staves.
Flavor: Did I just drink a flavor serum? A barrage of flavors that hit in quick succession. Honey and maple syrup, peat and clove and pepper. Caramel, always.
Shape, weight, mouthfeel: My senses are under attack. This is a big whisky at 60 percent, but it’s also a shapeshifter, bouncing from sweet to spicy to almost savory and back. My tongue can hardly keep up. Also, it’s thick like molasses.
Finish: Vanilla and creme brulee sugars.
Jim Murray’s Thoughts: “The first ten seconds register among the best deliveries of the year!… A blend of concentrated Manuka and ulmo honey absorbs malt and grape in equal quantities and then blasts off into the palate while simultaneously a bourbon-style licorice and hickory note merges with a surprisingly demure fruitiness.”
Final Assessment: A huge amount of flavor is packed into this one. Murray asks reviewers to remember