How Murray’s Tome Became More About Courting Controversy Than Highlighting Worthy Whiskeys
By Richard Thomas
Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016 has been released, and the only thing more reliable for spawning strife in whiskey circles and splaying it onto mainstream headlines is the annual announcement from Buffalo Trace that they are short on stock and continuing to ration it.
This year, the controversy is over his naming Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as the best whisky in the world. What differs from previous years is that, in making this choice, Murray has brazenly overreached himself. No longer is he a man making a point, but instead one unabashedly chasing headlines.
The Editorial Agenda
This contentious trend began with Murray naming two Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskeys as 2013’s best, and following up on that by stating “[…] Bourbon has overtaken scotch. The best whisky is coming not from Scotland any more, but from Kentucky.” Murray then started another ruckus into motion when his 2015 edition of Whisky Bible not only named a Japanese whisky as the best in the world, but didn’t include a single Scotch whisky in its Top 5 for the first time.
Because Murray has been taking an annual swipe at Scotch for years now, each year brings about a repeat response in Europe from whisky journalists, reasonable bloggers, and within the industry itself: remember this is merely the opinion of one man, however expert that man might be. In a telling sign that this time the dissension is not confined merely to lovers of Scottish single malts, similar things are now being said in the United States.
While true, what that response misses is that Murray has also been pushing an editorial agenda these past years, one that is clear when viewed in hindsight: that Scotch whisky is no longer the undisputed top dog in quality terms. That agenda passes muster, because it rings true. Only the most blinkered of Scotch snobs even try to deny the emergence of American and Japanese whiskeys as good as anything coming out of Scotland.
Thus, if Jim Murray said no Scotch whisky made in 2015 was worthy of getting into his Top 5, the choices for that list made it a case worthy of argument. Some could and did contest his opinions, but the whiskeys chosen were highly regarded by many, so the list itself could only be quibbled over in the way such things often are.
From Editorializing To Pot Stirring
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Murray’s 2016 Top 5 list, and the problems start with his best whisky of the year, Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. Once again, Murray is spotlighting one of the traditional whiskey regions that rarely gets center stage, this time Canada. Yet his choice of a specific whiskey is one that literally no one (except, perhaps, inside Diageo, Crown Royal’s parent company) agrees with.
Murray scored the Crown Royal rye at 97.5, and he is alone in regarding it so highly. We graded it as a B-, and after Whisky Bible 2016 was released, I went looking for reviews that predated the furor. While I disagree with Christopher Null, Josh Peters and Bobby Childs from time to time, I respect what they do and their views mirrored that of our own writer, John Rayls: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is a nice, but middling whiskey. A great, all-time classic it is not.
Deepening matters is Murray’s runner-up this year, which has gone unnoticed in the dispute over his top slot. In naming Pikesville Straight Rye as second best, Murray’s agenda expands to not just to spotlight Canadian whisky, but rye whiskey generally. It also repeats the same calumny as naming the Crown Royal rye as No. 1.
While we haven’t written the new Pikesville Rye up at The Whiskey Reviewer yet, I have tried it. Once again, this is a whiskey that is quite good, but not the stuff of greatness. And once again, a survey of reviews predating the release of Murray’s new edition more or less concur with that opinion. So, Murray has really made not one, but two calls in his Top 5 this year that aren’t even a matter for argument, because they really are the opinions of just the one man.
In response to Whisky Bible 2016, accusations that Murray deliberately chases controversial headlines and the book sales that go with them have become more vocal and much more frequent. Making that case is certainly easier this year than it was in the past, simply because Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye and Pikesville Straight Rye are not Midleton Dair Ghaelach or William Larue Weller (ranked third and fourth respectively), and this is a point everyone not named Jim Murray can agree on.
The punditry industry is surprisingly forgiving. While the job description calls for expertise and honest, well-reasoned analysis, the media is jam-packed with examples of pundits who are hardly ever right about anything, and their careers prosper because their real task is to entertain, not inform. Stirring the pot is part and parcel of the profession.
Yet it is still possible for a pundit to overreach, and even within the confines of whiskey punditry there are a couple of recent examples of a writer inserting his foot in his mouth and seeing his following shrink because of it. Murray should pause whenever he sees headlines of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye being swept from store shelves to wonder just how many of those customers will be repeat buyers of that product, and just how the ranks of the disappointed and confused will translate into lasting damage to his brand.
Sure, Murray will survive. Whisky Bible and other aspects of Murray, Inc. will soldier on. Even so, I believe Murray clearly overreached himself this time and scored a striking own goal, because there will soon be a lot of people out there who will remember his name solely because they know not to trust it.