I don’t suppose there’s any reason to wade in slowly, is there? I mean…we’ve known each other for quite some time here on ATW, most of us. And I think we all know that most of the time things are more akin to back alley bare knuckle boxing than to full-on gloved-up pugilism, right? So let’s step into the fray a little bit here. I want to say a few things, but I imagine there are a few of you out there that wouldn’t mind chirping in a word or two, as well. Feel free to weigh in with comments, if you so see fit.
A couple of months back, Jim Murray created quite the stir when he crowned Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye his 2021 Whisky of the Year. That, in and of itself, isn’t the biggest deal. Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but to be fair, the whisky was really, really good. The review here on ATW attests to my firm belief of that. And Murray has long been considered a bit of a leading contrarian. His picks always seem to fall far outside the norm of what most would consider believable winners. Unfortunately, accusations of payoffs and under-the-table dealings have followed him for years. Personally, I’ve never bought into that idea. Some of Murray’s more controversial picks have included Ballantine’s 17 year old blended whisky, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, and an elusive, apparently non-existent batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail. The general consensus seems to be that someone like Murray, being the leading whisky critic in the world, probably has access to some of the most insanely brilliant drams from the 50s, 60s, 70s and every other age imaginable. Ergo, it seems almost inconceivable that Murray’s selections would be so…pedestrian. Inconceivable, that is, until one considers that the man is essentially trying to sell the same book year upon year, with minimal changes to the bulk the text. So how does one keep such a tome relevant, and make sure consumers keep coming back with fistfuls of dollars (or pounds/euros/what-have-you)? It’s simple. Keep it controversial; keep ’em talking. And, let’s face it, picking a 1970s single cask outing from, say, GlenDronach, with an outturn of less than 600 bottles, doesn’t really speak to the masses. But some mainstream release that no one could see coming…and available at an affordable price point, to boot? Rather brilliant, actually.
But that’s not the real controversy this time. The issue at hand, as it relates to the Jim Murray brand, is not a new one. It’s a tale that has become part of the oral lore of the man in the white fedora, rarely turning up in the written word (for fear of legal reprisal, I’d imagine?), but almost always surfacing in face-to-face discussion. The real controversy that has bubbled and roiled beneath the surface for years now has been Murray’s reliance on sex, innuendo, and what is being called out as overt misogyny. And unfortunately, the language in The Whisky Bible does little to assuage the accusations.
It took Becky Paskin, spirits journalist and editor of the incomparable (and now sadly defunct) Scotchwhisky.com, to bring this issue bubbling to the surface of our public whisky discourse. Paskin put herself out there and, risking the ire of a largely male-dominated whisky world, said the things that should have been said long, long ago: that this sort of marginalizing, incredibly inappropriate speech is not even close to acceptable. Period. Sexism is something the whisky industry has struggled with for far too long now, but this sort of egregious example is on another level entirely. And while many were quick to agree that things needed to change, it goes without saying that it should never have been allowed to reach this point in the first place. Brands, retailers, and ambassadors have been using Murray’s scores to sell product for years. Why did it take the fortitude of Becky Paskin to make so many of us do an about face?
I think the thing I struggle with most is that it took this long. I mean, rumors of Murray’s impropriety have stretched back many a long year now. I know of venues and organizers who, after hosting him, utterly refuse to have him back. I’ve heard tell of walkouts and interactions with female audience members that made me cringe, simply in the telling of the tale. Forgive me for not rehashing details or providing examples here, but my knowledge of the law is meager, to say the least, and a libel case is not something my bank account can afford right now. Suffice to say, much is word of mouth, but makes me think of the old adage: if it walks like a duck…
But even forgoing the accusations of impropriety, there is simply no question that Murray’s language (bordering on blue, in many cases) is out of touch and anachronistic not just in the age of Me Too and progressive equality, but in the year 2020. We, as a race, should be better than this. Again, I’m going to choose not to repeat any of the dozens of examples of overtly sexual text from The Whisky Bible that have made their way around the media over the past couple of months, lest my doing so amplifies the voice, but let me simply state that if the language one chooses to use marginalizes and makes a segment of the population uncomfortable, then maybe it’s time to change. And by maybe, I don’t actually mean maybe.
Credit where credit is due: Murray is a hell of a writer. It’s not easy to sell over a million copies by being a hack writer (James Paterson, Dan Brown, etc not withstanding). If you want to read prose that teeters on the knife edge of poetry, read Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky. As an author, he truly is gifted with a knack for beautiful turns of phrase most of us can only envy and admire. It’s in other matters, though, that he leaves us wanting. Or in some cases, wanting a little less. In Murray’s contemporary jottings, it would seem that a bit more socially conscious diction and a sense of judiciary selectivity are the pieces that are lacking. In short, as gifted as he is, there is simply no need to resort to this sort of lazy eroticizing to romanticize a great drink. There are plenty of non-innuendo driven superlatives that would not only suffice, but more adequately serve the purpose.
But they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and maybe there’s some truth to that. In four days Murray turns 63. Hardly an old dog, excepting in the matter of old habits. Instead of a scenario where most would have issued their mea culpa, Murray instead doubled down, referring to “faux outrage” and the criticism being an exercise in “cancel culture” meant to take down “the world’s most successful author on the subject.” So much for tact.
Whether Murray recovers from this, or The Whisky Bible ever regains its place of prominence remains to be seen. A legit apology or entreaty to make amends does not appear to be forthcoming. I think many are now curious to see what sort of rebranding, if any, will be undertaken to strip the tarnish from this once towering reputation.
So the question now becomes one of who or what fills the void left in the wake of Murray’s exit. Well…it’s simple really. And I don’t understand why it didn’t happen sooner. In 2012 I did an interview with Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, wherein I asked him whether or not he had plans to publish any sort of alternative to The Whisky Bible. It need be noted that Whiskyfun is now home to almost 20,000 tasting notes. In Serge’s genuine and endearing humility, he assured me that he was not the cat to chase down the chubby little mouse (Murray, I mean, and yes…I am paraphrasing, as Serge is much too polite to use such an analogy), and had no plans to publish (in paper form, at least) his whisky reviews. Now here is where I’m left a little perplexed. In an age where paper is starting to take on the stigma of plastic or fossil fuels, why are so many married to the idea of a hard copy book that brazenly refers to itself as the bible, staking claim to a title that suggests near impunity from criticism? All of us, seemingly, carry our phones with us everywhere we go now. Does it not make more sense to simply bookmark Whiskyfun on our mobile browser? The reviews are fair and humble. They are articulate, relatable and succinct. And more importantly, they are legion. It’s hard to imagine a source more complete than what Serge has curated for us on his site. I dare say, in 2020 The Whisky Bible is well nigh obsolete. It has been in my circles for many years now anyway. And no one I know mourns its place on their shelves.
So let’s take this opportunity to reflect a bit on where else we may be overlooking long overdue change. When is reflection ever a bad thing?
Finally, I just want to say thank you to Becky for saying what should have been said long ago. Your courage is an inspiration.
And for those that want a few more details, here’s an article from The New York Times that provides a bit more context.