Episode 168 – Sex is Not a Tasting Note

  • Jim Murray is an English writer and whisky critic who’s been writing about barrel aged grain based distillates for the better part of three decades. He started seriously visiting distilleries in the UK in the early-to-mid ‘80s and was self-publishing his thoughts on spirits by the early ‘90s, which means he’s been a force in the whisky industry for about 30 years.

  • He’s also notorious for his “Murray Method,” a prescriptive 14-step process for judging whisky. It covers everything from palate cleansing and sensory noise abatement, to nosing and evaluation.

  • According to some sources (which means…according to Murray himself), he has tasted over 20,000 whiskeys in his lifetime with no intentions of slowing down or stopping anytime soon.

  • Murray’s annual publication, The Whisky Bible, has been in circulation since 2003 and has reportedly sold over a million copies worldwide. This is where he reviews and revises his reviews on whisky offerings from around the world, offering tasting notes (which we’ll talk about in just a minute) and ratings.

  • He’s well known for scoring whiskies on a 100-point scale, which has drawn some fire for being either somewhat or hopelessly subjective, depending on where you stand on rating systems. So, if you’re familiar with wine ratings, you know Robert Parker. If you care about whisky ratings, you know Jim Murray. Hopefully that comparison resonates with a few of you out there.

  • Finally, he’s also notorious for bandying about the term “best whisky” quite a bit, which isn’t crazy popular with people who understand that flavor is subjective. Nonetheless, it’s great for search engine optimization, and other people (mostly whisky brands) still wait with bated breath for his yearly bast-in-category pronouncements.

So, now that you know a bit about Jim, let’s talk about what he wrote and why some people are pret-ty upset about it.

The “Outing” of Jim Murray

In a Tweet thread on September 20 of this year, whisky expert Becky Paskin stated [quote]:

  • This post will no doubt attract some hate comments, but something needs to be said. Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in such high regard when his tasting notes are so sexist and vulgar?1/ (Thread)

  • In the 2020 edition there are 34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women. 2/

She then went on to detail a number of examples from Murray’s Whisky Bible, including the following snippets, which I’m going to now read. This would be earmuff time for the kids.

  • About Penderyn Celt Whiskey, he writes: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…”

  • Regarding Canadian Club Chronicles, Water of Windsor Murray soliloquizes: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”

  • He has the following to say about Glenmorangie Artisan Cask: “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.”

  • And one last zinger for the road here. Here’s his take on Fannys Bay Tasmanian Bourbon Cask: “No Port. No sherry. Just the wonderful opportunity to taste naked Fannys.”

As a little note of cultural translation on that last quote, the term “fanny” refers to a woman’s vagina in the UK, so ol’ Jim ain’t talkin’ ‘bout lickin’ butts…he’s after that WAP (as the kids say).

Following Paskin’s tweet thread, a number of publications within and beyond the spirits industry covered the story, and quite a few brands released public statements in support of her position, which is pretty simple:

The amount of people who read those sorts of comments and assume that it’s OK to speak about whisky in that way is damaging.

The message it is sending to the whisky industry as a whole and to whisky consumers is that women don’t really matter and they are there to be objectified.

Murray’s Response

To wrap of the reporting side of things here, so we can get on to the good stuff, I’m going to read the full text of Murray’s public response to the public outrage sparked by Paskin’s observations. It’s not super short, but one thing I don’t want to be accused of is misrepresenting anything, so here goes: [Quote]

This is not a matter of alleged sexism on the trumped up charges against me – which have clearly been concocted for very clear purposes – this is an attack on the very essence of what it is to be a critic in any sphere, be it music, art, sport, wine or whisky. In other words: an attack on free thought and free speech.

We are entering very dangerous territory when people try to control the thoughts of others and wilfully distort the truth for their own ends. This is now a battle between free speech and humourless puritanism. I am not alone in finding this very sinister.

I am not sexist; the Whisky Bible is not sexist, has never been sexist and I will not bow to this faux outrage. I have always fought the bully and I will do so here. Debate has been replaced by the baying of the mob, common sense and decency by straitjacketed dogma. Frankly, these people appall me because what they are doing is undermining society itself.

How, in God’s name, can, for instance, likening a whisky to an orgasm be remotely construed as sexist? Last I heard, male, females, transgender people, everyone is capable of an orgasm. I am a professional writer and use a language that adults – for the Whisky Bible is designed for adults – can relate to. I paint pictures of a whisky. And if that, on the rare occasion, is the picture or sensation that formulates in my mind, then I say so. As I have every right to.

Rather than write interesting, illuminating and compelling articles about whisky, other writers would rather engage in ‘cancel culture’ to [bring] down the world’s most successful author on the subject.

Some one million people have bought the Whisky Bible since it first came out in 2003 – and in that time I have not received a single letter, email or text complaining of its content. Not one. Suddenly, though…this. Several people writing exactly the same thing on the same day. Strange that.

I am famed for my ability to nose a whisky. And I can tell you that I can smell a huge rat with this entire manufactured and revolting affair.

I have dedicated 30 years of my life, longer than anyone else on this planet, fighting for whisky and the whisky underdog, so people will discover great whiskies from wherever they may be in the world. This has put quite a few people’s noses out of joint. These outrageous and concocted allegations will not derail me in my life’s quest. My championing of great whisky will continue. My freedom of speech will continue. Whether these latter day Cromwellians like it or not.”

Sort of reminds me of the end of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night where the villain Malvolio runs off into the night saying, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Why Jim Murray is Wrong

So, now that we’re all caught up on the scandal, the “outing” of Jim Murray, and his defiant public response, I hope you’ll allow me to explain why Jim and his behavior are so damaging to our world – and my reasoning is probably different from what a lot of folks out there have said so far.

As I mentioned earlier, some people have taken a bit of a passive stance, saying essentially, hey, this guy has his own platform. He’s self publishing, and he has a right to print what he wants. He also has a huge following around the world who clearly like his writing, so there’s not much we can do much to damage him and his platform, etc. etc.

Others have taken the more traditional anti-sexism approach saying that sexism of any sort is never okay, which is sort of the gender inclusion correlative of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

A Case for Robustness

And both of those types of responses are fair, measured, and reasoned in their own way. But my first argument against Jim Murray and his language begins with one primary concern: robustness.

I want the spirits and cocktail world to be robust, and robustness requires diversity. Diversity of experience, diversity of flavor, diversity of thought and value. You simply cannot have robustness without diversity, and you cannot, by definition, have diversity without women.

When you act and write as if you’re a dirty old man, people who don’t like dirty old men tend to leave the room – and the biggest demographic in that camp is going to be women. Jim – you’re creeping out the women, and I don’t know if you’ve been following along here, but we need them. They make our whole industry better and more robust. So could ya stop it? That’s about as utilitarian as I can make this. If you won’t consider stopping because it’s the right thing to do, please at least consider doing it on behalf of the industry you claim to champion. You say you’ve always fought the bully, but right now you’re being the bully, which makes you a bit of a hypocrite.

Whisky Doesn’t Taste Like Sex

Another thing that nobody has really pointed out about Murray’s sexed up whisky reviews is that…they’re not useful at all, and they don’t make a lot of sense. How does some vague story about an imaginary tryst with a 41 year old Canadian woman help me decide if I want to spend money on a bottle?

Short answer: it doesn’t. So you’re not even doing your job right, Jim. If you claim to publish these reviews to help people, at the very least I can say with certainty that the sexualized language isn’t getting it done.

But if you take a half step back here and consider the evidence, I don’t think it’s tough to understand why he’s doubled down instead of apologizing and doing the right thing:

Somewhere along the way – some time during his 30 years and 20,000 tastings and 1 million copies sold – it became less about the whisky and more about Jim Murray. Who knows when it happened, but I think the decision to call his 2003 book a “bible” might just signal the beginnings of a God complex.

We Live in Service of a Craft

As somebody who judges spirits and works very closely with distillers to help make their products and operations as good as possible, my philosophy is simple: what I do is IN SERVICE of the people who make the spirits and the people who enjoy them. And I’ll tell ya, it’s really hard to be of service when everything is all about you.

When I look at Jim Murray (from the language of his reviews to his handling of the scandal), I’m terrified because it’s possible that I could be looking at an angry, distorted version of myself in 30 years, mumbling about tasting fannies and railing against the mob. And that is deeply unsettling. As it should be. 

So for myself and for all the other people who have voices in the spirits and cocktail world, I hope Jim Murray serves as the example of what not to do and how not to handle yourself when you have a platform that influences people. 

When you have the privilege to make a living by commenting on a craft (such as the making of a beautiful whisky), you need to remember that the craft existed long before you, and it will remain long after you die. And that means that you are in service of the craft, not the other way around. 

So to those of you listening out there who value robustness in our industry, who see that there is no room for sexism in a world where we are called to serve, please keep doing great work and propelling the industry forward. With any luck, Jim Murray will look at the piles and piles of Whisky Bibles that have been taken off the shelves and decide to join us someday.

A Case for Redemption

I’ll wrap up this episode with a personal story that this whole situation has really reminded me of. If you’ve made it this far, I trust that you’ll stick with me to the end here because this story not only parallels the Jim Murray situation but also has a few things to say about the “where do we go from here” question.

This story is about one of the toughest teaching situations I’ve ever experienced, and it’s remained with me as one of the defining moments of my time teaching poetry at The University of Maryland.

While I was there, I taught a poetry workshop that was filled with some pretty talented students. And if you’re not familiar with what a poetry workshop looks like, it’s very intimate. Everyone submits work for all the other students to evaluate, and then we come in every class, circle the desks, and literally workshop each piece of art. We’d critique them, not unlike a spirits judge reviews a glass of whisky. As you can imagine, it’s a delicate process, and it’s easy to get upset and take things personally when you’ve poured your heart and soul into the work, so being a good citizen of the workshop was always something I very strongly enforced. Because without that respect and good intention, it’s easy for the class to descend into nitpicking and petty criticism.

As it happened, for the final workshop of the semester, I had a male student submit a poem called “Monday Morning Rape,” which was basically the whiny diatribe of a hung-over college student walking to class and describing how awful the world looks. Very “Holden Caulfield” from Catcher in the Rye, and it was about as compelling as it sounds from that description. The one image from that poem that still sticks in my mind is the [quote] “piss-and-shit colored leaves” that the speaker of the poem treads over on his trek across campus. That’s the kind of writing we were dealing with here.

Leading up to that workshop, I got several emails from female students saying that they needed to leave the class instead of workshopping the poem because they had either experienced sexual abuse in their personal life or just couldn’t be civil to the student who submitted it, and so I said, “of course, do what you’ve got to do. I understand.”

But that didn’t solve the problem. I still had to face up to this situation in front of a class full of young, intelligent people who had worked incredibly hard all semester. So here’s what I did.

To celebrate the last workshop, I had everyone do the same five-minute free write that I used to begin the semester. The prompt was simply, “what is a poem?” Except this time I encouraged them to come up with fun metaphors for what a poem is and how it works since suddenly they were experts after an intensive few months of workshopping.

And after the five minutes was up, we all went around, one by one, and shared our thoughts. A poem is an onion because it has layers. A poem is a puzzle with no correct answer. A poem is an out-of-body experience without leaving your body. You get the idea.

After we were done going around the room, I knew this particular group of students wasn’t going to let me get away without giving them an answer, so I had one prepared. A poem is a gift. And this is the metaphor I used to explain the invisible contract that exists between poet and reader, even though the poet and the reader in most cases never meet one another, just like the person who makes a spirit and the person who picks it up off a shelf and pours it into a glass.

I’ll spare you the details of our experience workshopping the awful, “Monday Morning Rape” poem, except to say that it was rough. No one had anything positive to say about it, and both the class and the student who wrote it were visibly upset. In the end, I was able to explain that it failed as a poem because it failed as a gift. Not to say that sad, or angry, or generally negative poems can’t be gifts (if that was the case, the majority of poetic canon would be out the window), but this poem was too self-absorbed to effectively honor the contract between poet and reader, which at the end of the day, creates a brief moment of recognition and kinship between the force that crafted the work and the person who consumes it as art.

Making Space for Redemption

Even though this audio essay contains a lot of criticism for Jim Murray and his sexualization of whisky reviews, it’s not a call for cancellation because that doesn’t solve anything.

In a perfect world, Jim Murray would take the 2021 edition of The Whisky Bible and revise his work with new eyes and a fresh palate, just like that male student of mine took that poem, gutted it during his revision process, and turned in something so stunningly different that I was compelled to give him an A on the assignment, partially for the work on the page and partially for the work he needed to do in his own head to make it possible. 

What’s sad is that I doubt that student ever came to pick up his revised portfolio with my written comments on it from the English Department office at the end of finals week. Most students don’t, and the portfolios are sent to the shredder. If he did pick it up, he would have read about how impressed I was by the transformation and conscientiousness he displayed. But I think he may have just been too wounded by the initial negative reception from me and from the class to bear risking any further embarrassment or criticism.

If there’s anything I regret from that whole situation, it’s that I didn’t make more of an effort to connect with the student after the fact and reinforce the good work. And this is my way of saying that, while I’m glad so many people have come together to correct Jim Murray’s sexist whisky reviews, I hope we haven’t created an atmosphere that prevents him from changing for the better because if we really take seriously the idea of an inclusive industry, it needs to be an industry where Jim Murray is able to come back to the table and give things another shot.

I’m Modern Bar Cart CEO Eric Kozlik. Thanks for permitting me this editorial. I hope I managed to color in some of the nuance that gets lost in Tweet threads and the industry news cycle, and I hope, most importantly, that you have the chance to taste a great whiskey sometime soon. Just remember: sex is not a tasting note.


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