Malt Resistance

Narrating the Rise and Fall of Single Malt Scotch.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Single Malt Classification: A Proposal

A classification of distilleries has been considered and tried many times over. Always with less than satisfactory results. Why?

One reason is that the whisky industry is reluctant to issue a classification, as – sadly – most distilleries are one small part of the parent company’s extensive distillery portofolio. So why would Diaego, or Allied-Domecq for example, shoot themselves in the foot by promoting some of their malts over others? No reason. They actually profit by keeping us in the dark as to which malts are better than others.

Professional tasters have tried and failed resoundingly to establish a credible classification. Why? Because they are chronically incapable to grade malts --distilleries even less so-- on their merits (that, by the way, is the drama of the day).

You see, the tasters' problem is that they are “professionals;” i.e., they have to make a living. And I have come to the conclusion that these tasters are not able to make a living by just writing reviews and articles in the specialized whisky press. Maybe they are just greedy, but I'd rather stick to the first, more charitable, explanation --wouldn't you?
In any case, the sad truth is that some (all?) professional tasters supplement their income by hiring themselves out as ‘consultants’ with various distilleries. And then, they go on to write glowing reviews of the whiskies of their employer in Whisky Magazine or other publications, and --surprise!-- they write glowing reviews of these products! The tasters in question, virtually always fail to voluntarily disclose their tie to the distillery whose product they are reviewing of course. Jim Murray did this while working at Whisky Magazine (with the Balvenie to name only one), and we only know about this because of Murray's own arrogance... God knows how much this kind of corruption is going on right now. (This conflict of interst is one of the many secrets de polichinelle in the Whisky Industry; a subject on which any objective observer could fill a large book).

Just imagine the outraged reaction if people found out that Robert Parker was on the Payroll of the makers of Cheval Blanc. Sadly, in the Whisky World this type of conflict of interest is tolerated and the industry goes to great length to ensure that the general public is not aware of it.

I too have come to accept this coruption, in that I rarely take tasters' grades and comments seriously these days, and certainly their attempts at a classification is to be taken with a ‘massive’ pinch of salt.
Another problem with past classification attempts is that they often tried to imitate the categories of the great wines of Bordeaux. Sadly, this just does not work. Some distillers have a potentially great product which they cheapen for commercial reason: see for example, the bland malts the Macallan has been pawning off as ‘replicas.’ So if Macallan is a grand cru classe , this appelation would end up on some pretty bland bottles. That would defeat the purpose.

The Boxing Weight Categories Analogy

A possible answer is to classify the distillery, not qualitatively, but by the ‘size’ or 'weight' of their spirit. What do I mean by size, by weight? I suppose these are a combination of character, strength and individuality. A heavyweight malt is a spirit that is unmistakable. A heavier spirit can take on any type of wood maturation and still be recognizable. A lighter one is easily drowned in the wood.
Needless to say, a heavyweight fight is usually much more fun to watch (and more people pay more to see them), though this is far from being always true.

So the weight categories in boxing are the inspiration. Lets simplify the boxing categories for the sake of this exercise. Lets start with the lightest to the heaviest: bantam weight; lightweight; middleweight; welterweight; lightheavyweight; heavyweight.

Lets try this as applied to single malts:

Bantamweight: Deanston

Lightweight: Dalwhinnie; Glenfiddich; Bunnahabhain

Middleweight: Craganmore; Glenmorangie; Bowmore; Springbank

Welterweight: Balvenie; Aberlour

Lightheavyweight: Glenfarclas; Laphroaig; Macallan

Heavyweight: Ardbeg; Lagavulin

These are nominations of sorts, and are subject to change.
I plan to come up with a complete list and welcome any imput. Of course Malts, like Boxers, can move up or down a weight class. For example, the Macallan lost a weight class when it issued their ‘fINE oAK’ series. (Another Boxing Analogy: the indignity of the fINE oAK episode is the boxing equivalent of Mohamed Ali doing pro wrestling at the end of his career!)

As per usual, all your comments and suggestions are welcome. Cheers!


Blogger Simon Lyons said...

I suggest you look at the millennium classification at this was done by the industry and then rejected by them for the very reasons you outlined.


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