Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016 Shocks World. Again.

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How Murray’s Tome Became More About Courting Controversy Than Highlighting Worthy Whiskeys

By Richard Thomas

Whisky Bible 2016

Has Jim Murray overreached himself this time?
(Credit: Cropped from Whisky Bible 2016 cover;
Fair Use)

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.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

The subject of dispute:
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
(Credit: Crown Royal)

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.

Pikesville Straight Rye

Missed in the fracas:
Pikesville Straight Rye
(Credit: Heaven Hill)

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.

Punditry Pitfalls
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.

Midleton Dair Ghaelach

Do either of those two measure up to Murray’s third choice?
No way, no how.
(Credit: Irish Distillers)

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.

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21 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I tried some at the bar and thought, in order:

    1. Nice. Nothing to write home about, but nice.
    2. I’ll never pay any attention to anything coming from Jim Murray again.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Even though I was surprised by his choice of Yamazaki Sherry last year, I wasn’t surprised that it was actually a whiskey coming from Japan making the top one. But, this year, the top five really confused me. Especially the Crown Royal Rye. It’s not as if he chose some moonshine made in the backwoods of Timbutku…but, it really is a far cry from hundreds of other better choices. I’m not so sure about it flying off the shelves either. I’ve noticed there’s still more than a healthy supply in most of the retailers I’ve been to recently. From one retailer I spoke to recently, he noted a bit of an uptick initially, but then went right back down to where it was. Unlike the Yamazaki 18…ever notice that hanging around the shelf…?

  3. Disagree with Murray all you like, but the notion that he is pursuing an agenda is patently ridiculous. Murray’s base of book buyers are Scotch snobs. Murray has said in at least one interview in the past week that there is no question his Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye choice will reduce book sales, not increase them. From a strictly self-interest standpoint, Murray has shot himself in the foot and he knows it. That is precisely why there should be no doubt that he gave his HONEST opinion.

    As for the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, I gave it an 89 rating. It is GOOD. Yes, Murray overrates it, but he has overrated other things far worse. He gave the super-cheap, low-end Ballantine’s Finest blended scotch 96 in past years. Where were all the people claiming that was part of an “agenda?” Taste is very subjective, and Murray’s Bible has ALWAYS been about “one man’s opinion.”

    And to Pranay, at least in Canada, CRNHR has definitely been flying off the shelves. Virtually every liquor store in Canada sold out its inventory within days of the announcement, and new shipments to stores sell out within hours of their arrivals.

    • And I bet you believe that Super Scrubber laundry detergent really does get your clothes so much whiter than any other detergent, or that this new amazing diet will help you shed those pounds!

      Naive. Most of the “facts” you trot out here are wrong too. And if Murray really did say that, well, it’s not like his book sales are the only way he gets his bread buttered. He has his speaking, hosting and consulting gigs too. Does the bad publicity hurt them too?

    • @Paulson — A silly reply, predictably. The facts I mentioned that you call “mostly wrong” are clearly sufficiently unimpeachable that you couldn’t even debunk a single one. Not one. And obviously if “bad publicity” lowers Murray’s book sales, his “speaking, hosting, and consulting gigs” will be hurt too. And why not? Murray can sell his time only as long as the whisky-buying community thinks he is a respectable authority. Articles like the one above diminish that respectability, and this article wouldn’t exist (or at least be so derogatory) if the author thought Murray’s choice was within the boundaries of reason. Neither you nor the author of the article even tried to explain HOW Murray is advancing his interests naming CRNHR as his Whisky of The Year. You didn’t because you can’t. Heck, you YOURSELF even prove my point. Did you not say above that you’ll never pay attention to anything coming from Murray again? Yes, you said that, proving exactly what I said about Murray hurting his credibility, thus making the whole “marketing ploy” claim that is being made in a lot of places absurd.

    • I can’t be bothered because I realized a long time ago that spending half an hour presenting facts to some anonymous guy on the internet is a huge waste of time. Period.

      HOWEVER, just to pave a roadmap on how such a thing might be done, statistics on book sales are readily available through many sources, and if you bothered to actually verify your own thinking before shooting your mouth off you would know the overwhelming majority of Murray’s book sales are in the U.S., not Europe, and it’s Europe that is the bastion of real Scotch snobbery.

    • Oh look. Two dummies arguing over Jim Murray. And one of them wants to talk about wasting his time….

    • @Paulson — Yes, wonderful things, statistics. They tell us that about 9 million cases of scotch are sold in the US every year, compared to about 6 million cases in the UK (big difference in the size of populations accounts for this, no doubt), and I have personally encountered a large number of Americans who won’t drink any whisky but scotch and look down on their own country’s whiskey. Scotch is the undisputed world dominant whisky in terms of sales, out-selling American whiskey by four bottles to one. (Again, wonderful thing statistics). I won’t even go into how small of a presence Canadian whisky is in world terms. The idea that Murray has hit upon a clever business plan of alienating scotch drinkers while kissing up to Canadian whisky fans or even fans of American whiskey is so stupid as to be quite laughable. If anything it would be in Murray’s self interest to make sure he stays in the good graces of the fans of what is the most popular type of whisky on the planet by a huge margin.

      @Gadfly — With nothing more to contribute than calling people “dummies,” your comment arguably shouldn’t have even be allowed by the moderator. But I suppose that is the level at which you are able to think and write and people might as well know it.

  4. Really, Crown Royal Harvest Rye, world’s best whisky. Wow! Jim is always right, he loves Virgin bourbon as well. Benchmark or Very Old Barton may win next year. Mammy Van Wrinkle kicks butt!

  5. Worst. Scoring. Ever.

  6. For my part, I would much rather say this about Murray: what’s with his eyes on the book cover? I mean, I know they made them whisky-colored, but get real! Didn’t anyone in the whole chain of people responsible for making this book stop and think they’ve made him look like a cultist from freaking Rosemary’s Baby?

  7. Let me toss a big target on my back now but I have to disagree with this commentary. This reads as an attack on Jim Murray, but it’s really a desperate defense of whiskey bloggers who pretentiously raise their impossible to find, expensive whiskies in the air only to score it higher than the previous reviewer. Have you not paused to think that maybe your scores are the product of price, availability, and the herd mentality scoring of your whiskey network? I mean we are humans, right? Or, heaven forbid, your scores are a reflection of the scores given by those who’ve gone before you? Does that all come crashing down when someone like Murray, who is not a slave to the industry, says that a cheap, not hard to find bottle of rye is really, really good? Maybe no one seems to think this bottle is world class worthy because nobody, until now, has told the masses what to think. If you thumb through Murray’s book, you’ll find the book littered with cheap bottles stamped with world class scores – Very Old Barton, Old Grand Dad, Old Charter, Ancient Age, and Bulleit Rye to name a few. The Bulleit received a 96 and as I understand it shares a similar profile with the Crown rye so it’s no stretch, given his history, that he gives Crown rye a 97.5. I’m shocked by how many whiskey experts want to disregard Murray’s opinion because it pokes at the very foundation the whiskey review industry has built. Perheps less knee-jerk defensiveness and more reflection is in order. Maybe you all could consider this conversation over a nice glass of PVW 23 (writer’s sample of course).

  8. I understand the desire to be controversial for the sake of getting attention, but this time he’s just gone off the reservation. Thanks for the shout-out, Richard!

  9. Damn it. I fell into the trap. I bought a miniature sample last night. (tons available here in NJ…full bottle for $17, miniature version for $2.50). Okay…so, it’s not bad as I thought. Value for money is a huge plus. Not too bad…would I buy full bottle? No. But that’s because I”m more a scotch guy, not really into rye as much.

  10. Very well written article. Murray’s choice screamed that something wasn’t right. “The fix was in.” Of course, there might be some reasonable explanation as well, but it just doesn’t pass the “smell” test. From my perspective, Harvest Rye isn’t even the best rye that Crown Royal produces. Try out the Coffey Still Rye. His number two rating is also very surprising. I love Pikesville Rye from Heaven Hill and it now has a permanent place on my shelf. However, it certainly isn’t the second best whiskey in the world. I have purchased my last Jim Murray reference. For a possibly better rye, try A Midwinter Nights Dram from High West.

  11. I guess pour your Weller & van winkle out and drink crown rye! What a joke!

  12. I’m amazed that some people swear by Murray’s integrity, when he has been criticized by others for consulting on a whisky and then reviewing the whisky he consulted on. But, you know, suckers born every minute.

    I don’t think the guy is corrupt, but he clearly isn’t above doing what every other journalist on the planet does regularly. Anyone who thinks otherwise should go back to whatever they were sniffing, and I don’t mean whisky!

  13. You know what I don’t believe. That any genuine person would come here and allude that these guys are somehow corrupt and Murray isn’t, when Murray must be getting a hundred times more of whatever is supposedly making them dirty. It’s so stupid because it’s so obvious, but logic never troubles a troll now does it?

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