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The whisky virgin

What makes a whisky the best in the world?

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After whisky critic Jim Murray recently named William Larue Weller his top whisky in his annual Bible, the Whisky Virgin wonders what it takes for a whisky to be named the world’s best, and whether one person’s preference counts above others’.

Glasses of whisky being judged
One in a million: With so many different types of whisky, what makes just one the world’s best?

I just learned that a special time of year is upon us, booze friends. The magical season when that jolly fella with the white beard tells us which whiskies have been naughty and which are the nicest of all. I speak of course, of Jim Murray and the publication of his annual Whisky Bible. Now I’ve run into Notorious J-I-M in the past on my quest for whisky woke-ness – one time I almost choked to death trying to follow his patented tasting method – so I know about his reputation in the spirit world. But what I didn’t realise, is just what a huge deal it is when my man pipes up and says one whisky is the daddy of them all.

This year, ole’ Jimmy pinned the tweedy rosette of supreme deliciousness to a Kentucky Bourbon named William Larue Weller – the 2017 edition, mind, the others are presumably less good. Now I’ve got no doubt that the juice is great – I’m totally sold on it – but the whole idea of a ‘best’ whisky leaves me raising my little hand with questions: Can a single bottle truly stand victorious over all others like that French/ Scottish fella in Highlander? How would you score all the different contenders fairly when different types of whisky are so different-y? Join me, as I do my best to chase down some answers and hopefully snag a bottle of William Weller along the way.

My adventure begins with a quick flick through The Whisky Bible 2019. I learn that the man they call Murray tasted well over 1,000 whiskies this year, scored them on a 100-point scale, and ranked them all in different categories. After that epic ordeal was over, Jim-lad dropped the following truth bomb: ‘Only five out of 1,263 whiskies had that indefinable star quality which put them on a platform capable of challenging for the title of the world’s finest.’

Wowzers, so it came down to a final elimination contest. I reckon that’s what it would be like if at the end of the Oscars they made all the individual winners compete for one massive Ultimate Oscar statue. And you’d have, like, the costume designer off Phantom Thread having to fight Gary Oldman while Jimmy Kimmel looked on in horror.

Actually, I’m not really sure that would be a great way to decide who was the best at films.

Judge Jim: Despite being the opinion of just one man, Murray’s annual Whisky Bible has become a ‘huge deal’

Then again, what do I know? Mr. J tasted every whisky on earth with his mega palate and his special method and ranked the top three in order. William Larue 2017 here I come… Only there’s something making me think twice about dropping dollar on a bottle of Jim-Jim’s favourite hooch. A quick Bing search tells me that there are plenty other peeps around the world spouting their own ideas about what the best whisky is.  

There’s the International Wine and Spirits Competition – or IWSC, to its mates – where each year a panel of judges do a big tasting like The Real Jim Murray does and hand out awards. There’s also something confusingly pluralised called the ‘World Whiskies Awards’ which does the same. And that’s just the tip of the malty iceberg. The really confusing thing is, everyone seems to have their own criteria and nobody seems to agree.  

What if I blow my humble budget (week’s rent) on a bottle of 2017 William Larue Weller and it’s actually not the best sauce in the world? What if I can’t taste ‘star quality’ like Jimmy did? I feel like I could die of FOMO. Is it better than the winner of the IWSC’s Worldwide Whisky Trophy, an Irish bottle called Tullamore DEW 18-year-old? What about that budget Scotch from budget supermarket Aldi that people online keep saying was ‘voted best’ in the world? Seems like the only way to avoid this is if the supreme whisky was democratically elected after we’d all had a try of the main contenders. Then there’d be no arguments.

Oh, you know what, I’m just going to follow Jim on this one. To the whisky store.

Top three: Jim Murray selected William Larue Weller, Glen Grant 18 and Thomas H. Handy as his 2019 picks

‘One bottle of William Larue Weller 17 please, spirit-keep. I know it’s a lot of money, but come on, a chance to snaffle what might very well be the best whiskey/ whisky in the world. How can I refuse? I hope my little taste buds can handle it… What do you mean I can’t? Why are you laughing?’

Well, it seems this mythic bottle is basically sold out everywhere. Apparently, Americanist mega-distillery Buffalo Trace only releases limited amounts a year and it’s so popular it’s often sold by ballot like Wimbledon tickets. My only chance to score one now would be to sell a kidney or three and hit the auction sites. Bleak.

Why would the Murray Man tease me by talking up a tube of liquid loveliness that I can’t even buy? I’m told, he’s pulled this kind of shit before. The last two years, he put purportedly tasty Booker’s rye and E. H. Taylor Four Grain in the top spots and apparently, I can’t buy those either. He might as well have told me that the most delicious meat is pterodactyl belly or that Cate Blanchett does the best hugs for all the good it’ll do me.

Still, as disappointing as this has been, I think I’ve learned something. It’s no wonder we look to reviewers and awarding bodies for their opinions – the whisky world is confusing and it makes sense to cop some expert advice. If you’re a well-worn malt-hound or a total whisky virgin, scores out of 100 and shiny medals can help you make tough choices in the bar or the whisky shop. But I reckon it’s best for me to take reviews and awards as advice but not as gospel… or bible.

I’d love to believe that there’s a certain level of whisky where it tastes so crazy that one sip sends you through the star gate. But the best drams I’ve ever snaffled weren’t necessarily ones I liked because I tasted them analytically under laboratory conditions, and ranked. They were mostly just the best whiskies for the time and place I was in.

Is the best whisky for the likes of our-Jim-whose-name-art-Murray with his infinite time and his free tasters and his massive palate, the same as the best whisky for me? I don’t know, because I can’t bloody try it. Seriously, if anyone’s got a sample they want to slide my way I’m not going to say no. Come on, Jim. I bet you’ve got one, don’t hold out on me now. Spread that love.

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