Jim Murray on the single malt vs blend debate, and why India is at the vanguard of emerging whiskey nations
Indian whiskies are already there as far as international standards of quality go, says Jim Murray. In this conversation with Firstpost, the whisky connoisseur discusses the best way to drink the spirit, the characteristics of a bad whisky, and how he keeps his opinions independent
Indian whiskies are already there as far as international standards of quality go, says Jim Murray.
For those who are venturing into discovering whiskies, Murray's advice is to not be afraid of experimenting.
A good whisky should always have a degree of sweetness, he says.
When he was in Mumbai recently to helm two exclusive blind global whisky tastings organised by sommelier Nikhil Agarwal of All Things Nice, Jim Murray spoke to me from his hotel room in the city. Here was a man who had been zipping through time zones more than anyone from Star Trek (in his own words) for the last five weeks. After half a dozen interviews and a three-hour event the previous evening, he seemed far from tired while on this call. Passionate and raring to go better describe his state.
In a close to 40-minute chat, we spoke of all things whisky. Excerpts from the interview:
Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky was perhaps the first book to have a dedicated chapter on Indian whiskies. What is your assessment of Indian whiskies as they stand today, vis-à-vis their international counterparts, and their potential?
Indian whiskies are already there as far as international standards of quality go. Amrut already had a whisky in the top three a few years ago, and Paul John, likewise, has won major awards in the JMWB (Jim Murray's Whisky Bible). So the quality is already there, and the potential is absolutely enormous. There are more distilleries being planned and opened in India. I am probably contacted once every three to four months by an Indian group, exploring the possibility of setting up industrial-size distilleries. It’s hugely exciting.
What factors work for Indian whiskies today?
Being a country that is relatively hot, the whisky matures quite fast here, and so from a commercial aspect, in India, you can turn a whisky around quite fast. Whereas a distillery in Scotland or Scandinavia takes much longer because it is colder.
The other factor, and India has broken through this barrier now, is breaking through people’s perception of the best whisky coming only from Scotland. And on the same scale, that Indian whisky is going to be inferior. It is a form of snobbery; some critics have made up their minds even before tasting it. Yes, some of the best whisky comes from Scotland, but so does some of the worst. People have preconceived notions and perceptions that are carved in granite, when in fact there are quite a few top-notch whiskies coming out of India.
A longstanding debate is that of the single malt vs the blend. Do you take sides in this debate?
I have been very clear on this for about 20 years now. If you think about it, a single malt will only give you a certain style, i.e. a distillery can use certain kinds of barrels – heavily peated, or light, depending on their choice. But they can only make a whisky that covers a certain area of styles. A blend, if the blender is doing his job properly, gives you more colors on your palette and palate to work with. You can structure and layer in a way that you can’t really do with a single malt whisky. If a blend is done correctly, it has the potential of being better than a single malt. I am a massive fan of blends. That said, in recent years, with regards to Scottish blends, quite a few grain distilleries have closed down for economic reasons. This has led to blenders having lesser choice to use, leading to the quality of blends going down from what it used to be. So while once we could argue for the potential of blends to be stronger than that of single malts, today for lack of choice for blenders, this is becoming hard to do.
Is there such a thing as a bad whisky?
Yes, I am afraid there is an extraordinary number of them. If you find that a whisky feels dirty in the mouth or bitter, then it is not working well. A good whisky should always have a degree of sweetness. You need to find the honey and the sugars. And it’s not just the sweetness, you need to find a layering, an interaction. When you find it bitter and dirty, you know you have a problem.
There are so many ways to drink a whisky, usually influenced by personal preferences – what would you recommend as the best way to appreciate a good whisky?
The Murray method with all its 18 points (he chuckles). In India it’s hot and so if you want to use water and ice with your whisky, I get it. But, if you are spending a huge amount of money on buying a bottle of whisky, why murder it? You can’t taste the nuances when you add water and ice to it. With the Murray method, I show people what the whisky has the potential to do and maximise what it has to offer – and then it’s up to them.
For those venturing into discovering whiskies, what would be your advice to do it right?
The JWMB has tasting notes on whiskies from around the world. When I first came out with it in 2003, I took quite a bit of flak for comparing a range of whiskies – like blends, Bourbons,
single malts etc. People felt the comparison was not right. But to liken it to the World Cup of Cricket – to say that you can’t compare West Indies to Pakistan or India to Australia, would be wrong – yes you can! Each has its own strengths. They play their game slightly different, but it’s still cricket. It’s the same with whisky – they are different members of the same family having varied personalities, so of course you can compare them. What you are comparing is the excellence of balance, the amount of entertainment they give on the palate. That’s what I encourage people to do – don’t be afraid to experiment.
What are the emerging whisky nations of the world today?
I think the countries that are pounding through are India – which is leading the way; England, specifically Wales, is coming up with some great whiskies; Australia has some great potential; there is some great stuff coming out of Taiwan. But I have got to say it is the Wales and India who are at the vanguard at the moment.
Are there whiskies that you have tried, over your 25-year journey that you would like to see resurrected?
The two most endangered ones have already made a comeback. Rye whisky was vanishing at one time. I started the campaign for its revival in Kentucky. While most felt it was a lost cause, some decided to give it a crack and now it is loved all over the world. The other is the Irish Pot Still which has now made a comeback. The one I am most worried about is blended scotch, which thanks to the shortage of grain distilleries may fade away.
Over the years of writing the JWMB, have your parameters for judging a whisky evolved to include something new?
No, I visited my first distillery in 1975 and the first JWMB came out in 2003. In 1992, I became the world’s first full-time whisky writer. I spent 15 years between 1975 to 1990 working on how to taste whisky, and must have tried 500 different ways to extract the best flavours. When I did the JWMB in 2003, I was certain that I had the best parameters. Since then, I have not found a better way to do it.
When you are working on the JWMB and tasting over a thousand whiskies, how do you ensure that you don’t have palate fatigue and that you experience each whisky for what it offers?
I will now be tasting the 20,000th whisky for the book. You can only judge what is in front of you. You may see it one year, and not the next. It is physically impossible to taste every single bottling of a whisky that comes out in the world. My research team will receive the sample and will type either the batch number or the bottling and you can then see which one I have tasted for the book.
Considering that many a marketing campaign worldwide is hinged on the JWMB, how do ensure that your opinion remains independent and relevant?
It’s quite simple. My name is trademarked and everything I write is copyrighted. I don’t write for anyone else. Every single thing I write, I own. Now if someone wants to use my tasting notes, they have to pay me. If they want to put on their bottle that according to Jim, our whisky is not good, I will charge them the same amount that I would someone who wants to print that I have said theirs is a good whisky. What no one can do is tell me what to write, I am old school that way and I do not listen to marketing spiel. The only thing I am interested in is what is in the bottle, the rest of it is fluff.
Your choices of the top awarded whiskies do not enjoy a general acceptance. How have you taken this in your stride?
I make it clear in the book that it is my personal opinion. Most times people haven’t tasted the whiskies that are being awarded. Well it is simple, if you haven’t tasted it, how can you possibly make a comment on its worthiness to win? There are vested interests at play. People are entitled to their opinion and you have to wonder what formulates that opinion. I have been disrupting the industry for a long while now. There are distilleries where I am banned for having criticised them, those who don’t stock my books for the same reasons, but I don’t lose any sleep over this. I just ensure that I give an honest opinion on the whiskies in front me. The JWMB is not perfect, it is my opinion and it is up to the individual to accept it or not.
What do you drink when it is not a whisky?
I drink great wines, I love rums and British beers. What you will never ever see me do is drink whisky while eating a meal.
How do you ensure that so many tastings don’t lead to a dip in health?
I spit all the whisky I taste. I try to walk most days. I don’t when in cities like Mumbai because fumes from the cars can interfere with my taste buds. But when I am elsewhere, I try to do 10,000 steps a day. I used to be an athlete and fit, but now I am not where I want to be weight-wise. That’s because when I am working on the Bible, I have to eat spice-free stodgy food and I tend to put on weight. So I try to get as much exercise. I have a staff that tries to look after me. I work a six-day week. I have had one vacation in 27 years and am not an alcoholic but rather a workaholic. I do try to eat healthy and exercise. And I have never smoked in my life.