Jim Murray is arguably the best-known whisky writer on the planet. He is the author of the famed industry almanac, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible that has sold millions of copies around the world since it was first published in 2003. When Jim rates a whisky, it either sinks or becomes world-famous. Sales of the whiskies with the highest ratings go through the roof and sale prices rocket. He was the one who first put Indian single malts on the global radar when he gave Amrut Fusion a big thumbs up. Jim recently did the same to Japanese single malts when he rated Yamazaki as among the best in the world, leading to its soaring global popularity. Yamazaki is so much in demand these days that it is sold out within minutes at most duty-free airport liquor shops.
Jim started life as a journalist on London’s Fleet Street, writing about sports for papers like the Daily Star and Sunday People. His first book Millwall: Lions of the South (1988) was about his eternally underperforming hometown football team. A passionate whisky enthusiast, he came second in a national whisky tasting competition run by the single malt whisky brand Aberlour in the early 1990s. In 1992, Jim made the life-changing decision to quit journalism and become a full-time whisky writer. It was a bold and risky choice to make, as it was unthinkable for anyone in those days to make a living writing about alcohol. His decision to leave the safety of a regular monthly income prompted even his wife to leave him. He was left to raise his children on his own. So, nobody can argue that the man lacked substance. He has since been hailed as the ‘world’s first fulltime whisky writer’.
I was delighted for the opportunity to meet with the man in person recently in Mumbai and got to know quite a lot about him. Jim’s nose, for example, is insured for a million pounds sterling. This is essential because the ability to smell the notes is the most critical requirement when it comes to tasting and rating whisky. He goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that nothing will affect his ability to smell or taste. Jim does not allow cooking in his home in the UK and does not eat in the house lest the food smell would dull his olfactory sense. He eats bland food without spice or flavouring. After arriving at Mumbai’s Sofitel, he stayed put in the hotel to make sure that the smells of Mumbai do not assault his nose. When I suggested interviewing him at the Gurkha cigar lounge of the Sofitel, he was aghast, asking me whether I had lost my mind. Cigars, he told me, are an anathema to anyone who is in the profession of tasting or smelling. We agreed to relocate to the lobby area that was quieter and had no offensive smells.
Jim’s decision to become a whisky writer was influenced by the fact that a large number of new whiskies were being launched in the UK market in the 1990s, but there was no authoritative guide to help people choose the good from the bad. Jim’s first book, Jim Murray’s Irish Whiskey Almanac, that launched his career, came in 1994. He reworked and updated the book for its second edition called Classic Irish Whiskey in 1997. He followed up with Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky (1997), Classic Bourbon, Tennessee & Rye (1998), Classic Blended Scotch (1999) and The Art of Whisky (1998). His enhanced his worldwide fame with the publishing of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible a compendium that rates whiskies around the world in 2003. It has since been updated and re-published every year.
Jim tastes 1250 different whiskies a year to update his bible. He has over the years fashioned his own unique way of tasting and rating whisky. He first does a cold smelling of the whisky to study the aromas. This is done four times, twice in each nostril. He then takes a sip of the whisky, swills it around his mouth to acclimatise his palate and then spits it out. He then clasps the snifter between his two hands to warm the whisky for about five minutes. It apparently releases the hidden aromas and flavours. He repeats the smelling process, twice in each nostril, and follows it up with tasting. The whole process is replicated a total of three to four times. He spends a total of 20 to 30 minutes with each whisky. This standard procedure that he uses to taste every whisky in the world is known as the ‘The Jim Murray tasting method’.
Jim rates whiskies based on four parameters: nose, taste, finish and palate, each of which is graded from a total of 25 points. The four scores are then totalled to come up with the final rating. The best whiskies score in the high 90s. Amrut Fusion, for example, was rated 97 and came 3rd in the year that it was rated. I asked Jim how the 25 points were broken down, and he explained that it was a subjective and relative scale. Having tasted thousands of whiskies over the years, he says he is confident of the rating being applied consistently across the whiskies that he tastes. I experienced Jim’s tasting method during the tasting event that he hosted in Mumbai. He was extremely thorough, and you really experience the change in taste and aroma as the whisky warms up in your hands. Tasting seven whiskies took almost two and a half hours. I also addressed one very thorny issue with Jim. It has been alleged that many rating systems get corrupted because companies influence the outcome by paying for a better rating. Jim does consulting work with many of the companies whose whiskies he rates, so there could be a perception of a potential conflict of interest.
Jim explained that he does consulting work with whisky companies to help them improve their distillation and maturation processes, but if he is ever pressured in any way to improve the score of their whiskies, he terminates the consulting contract. He does not own any shares in whisky companies, nor does he possess any barrels of whisky. That way, he says, he never feels conflicted and can maintain the integrity of his ratings. He revealed that he was once offered a million pounds sterling worth of whisky collection for his home, which he refused.
Jim is as much an expert on American whiskey as he is of Scottish and Irish whisky. He maintains a house both in England and in Kentucky, the heart of the American bourbon industry. I left the interview with him feeling that I had spent an hour with a very passionate, capable and honest man. He is clearly one of the world’s leading experts on whisky and demonstrated in the tasting event that the age and brand do not necessarily equate to it being a great whisky. Meeting the man and the legend was an absolute pleasure.