Bourbon rating systems are bull crap! There are several reasons for me saying this. The first is that nobody has the exact same sense of taste so everybody is going to have different experience. The second is that most ratings are published by organizations that take money from the industry and are not going to give a true rating of the products because of the money involved. Then there is the false system of ratings most use. It appears to be a scale of 1-100 but in reality it is a scale from 70-100. The average rating is between 75-85. It is really a 30 point scale.
Ratings can be made somewhat useful if these issues are addressed. The first problem is unsolvable and that is a good thing. I would not want to live in a world of clones where everyone has the same senses of aroma and taste. That would lead to boring food and drink. The best we can hope for here is that people will realize that they can and should disagree with ratings if they like something that got a poor rating or hate something that received a high rating.
Next the ratings should be done by a completely neutral organization that takes no money for advertising and such from distillers, distributers or any other business with a hand in the game. The ratings should be completely free of tainted results.
Finally the results should represent a true scale. For a 100 point scale the average is 55 so 51-60 should be considered “Average” scores. There is nothing wrong with being an average Bourbon. Jim Beam White and Evan Williams Black are the biggest selling Bourbons in the world and should be considered the average Bourbon with a score in that range. That sets the base line for all other Bourbons. Next a score of 61-70 should be considered “Above Average” and 41-50 as “Below Average”. Scores of 71-80 would be considered “Good” Bourbons and 31-40 as “Poor” Bourbons. The “Very Good” range would be from 81-90 and “Very Poor” range would be 21-30. Only the best Bourbons would earn the “Excellent” rating of 91-100 and the worst Bourbons the ranking of “Awful” of 11-20. Anything under 10 would be considered “Undrinkable”. That would be an example of a 100 point scale. The majority of the Bourbons on the market should fall in the 51-60 scale as that is the meaning of “average”. There should be very few Bourbons that earn the highest rankings and hopefully even less earning the lowest scores.
These are reasons why I feel that a true ranking system does not exist and probably never will exist. The only ranking system that will ever meet all three of these conditions is a personal one done by you for yourself. You know what you like, you are free from the influence of advertising dollars and you can create your own scale. Make your own rankings and always take what other people rank your favorite Bourbons with a large grain of salt.
September 26, 2016 at 9:29 am
could not agree with you more. Paying some firm to rate your product gives the product zero credibility. However, there does need to be some system. I have tasted many craft products that would be rated “awful” while having few rated excellent. That being said, I don’t know many, if any, bourbon enthusiasts that pay any attention to rating. It is primarily a thing that bourbon writers do to promote themselves. Of course I have excluded the writer of this article.
September 26, 2016 at 12:22 pm
Don’t worry about offending me as I don’t do ratings on Bourbon.
September 26, 2016 at 1:22 pm
You summed it up perfectly. I don’t do ratings on my blog, as well, especially, as I discuss different types of spirit – how would you compare a 90 point tequila with a 90 point bourbon or beer? Additionally, always only looking for highest-rated spirits makes you ignore all those very well-done bottles that just don’t strive for extremes. I hope readers are clever enough not to look only for the hard number, but read the text in the review to find out if a spirit fits to their tastes.
September 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm
Totally agree with you. A similar thing happened at work at our yearly performance reviews. In the past, the majority of people were getting “outstanding” reviews, to the point where 1) getting an “outstanding” review was expected and 2) the people who truly were outstanding were not being recognized. When the leaders changed this paradigm to where the vast majority were “on target”, initially this was met with resistance. Yet, there is nothing wrong with being “on target” and more importantly, the people who were legitimately outstanding became recognized in the workplace and were rewarded for their efforts.
Same with bourbon ratings. The paradigm has to change. There likely will be resistance to a true “on target” rating at first but people (and distilleries?) will learn that being “on target” is a good thing and desirable. It will also separate the finer bourbons out there allowing the consumer to make a more educated choice when purchasing.
September 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm
You are absolutely right on target!! While I do like to read several reviews to get an idea
about others thoughts before I purchase an expensive new release I always take their review with a grain of salt. Also, I have narrowed down those whom I have found that my tastes pretty consistently agree with. Of course the best option is to purchase a dram at your local bourbon bar before buying the bottle.
December 7, 2016 at 4:27 pm
Very true, for some reason everyone has this crazy idea that a score is what everyone wants. At some point you also have to factor in cost/value. I’m at the point where I’m looking for a good bourbon at a good price, sure I’ll chance after a bottle every now and then but the value or the bourbon is what matters, not what everyone is bidding it up to be on the secondary market… for example Blantons was great when it was 35 bucks. Now that’s it’s 70 it isn’t as great…
January 9, 2018 at 1:31 pm
June 22, 2019 at 2:43 pm
The only true rating or opinion when it comes to spirits is your own. I never pay attention to whiskey reviews because they are not using my palate to test it with. Also, unless it is a blind tasting, judges can fall under the “Jedi Mind Trick Effect” like anyone else by assuming it is better because of age or a specific maturation technique. I always tell folks that if they want to know what good whiskey is, attend tastings with various brands and styles and let their own taste buds be the actual judge.
June 23, 2019 at 6:14 pm
Ratings have very little real meaning in my opinion. The best way to judge a whiskey is to take a drink for yourself. On expensive brands, go to the local bar and purchase a drink to see if you like it – if you do, then it is worth investing in a bottle.
January 30, 2021 at 11:32 pm
June 23, 2019 at 1:55 pm
Rating is for the birds. But what it does is start a conversation. A buzz, You just have to taste them for you self. Cheers! I’m trying to taste them all. Lol
June 23, 2019 at 6:15 pm
And the Bourbon Tasting Notebook has a place to write down your own impression of the whiskey as well as to help keep track of what you have tried.
January 30, 2021 at 11:32 pm
January 30, 2021 at 6:07 pm
Hi Mike – Good and timely article. I judged whiskey at competition years ago and ratings seemed to mean something but the rating system did deteriorate over time. When I evaluate whiskeys these days I am more interested in and look for the negatives, I.e., off flavors, moldiness, harsh tannins, fermenter contamination, etc. The good notes speak for themselves. Cheers! Dave
February 2, 2021 at 4:56 pm
Thank you Dave. Your opinion is valuable to me.
June 11, 2022 at 4:18 pm
The same might be claimed about grades given to American students who attend private versus public school, perhaps. Or bias that may emerge due to graft and politics. However, it depends upon those ‘who administer’ the program.
Great care can be undertaken to hide the whisk(e)y being assessed and to select experienced, diverse, reasonable, and responsible panels of judges.
If ‘enough’ experience is required and the ability to distinguish taste profiles accompanied the ratings, a rating system may prove helpful.
The fact is that tastes will vary, but what is expected within a beverage class is becoming more refined. Ultimately, the quality of whiskey, in general, has gotten substantially better, or people chose not to score it.
Many believe that behemoth publications, like Whiskey Advocate, are less reliable; whether this is true is a reasonable subject of debate. And San Francisco, or BTI, well, every organization has room for improvement.
That means that we see mostly A, B, and C scores. However, in objective blind tasting with fewer samples per judge, and all of the above, I sense that the industry can benefit.
The challenge is that many who might make better panel members are more often overlooked and ignored. The celebrities of the industry supplant those who have more experience.
In the end, like selecting Immigration or Supreme Court judges, the more objective are less welcome and placed on the sidelines. That means that we test the public’s conscience by posting ‘relatively anonymously’ on more reliable sites like Whiskybase.com with the occasional chance of providing our sensitivities, where welcome.