Back in November of 2014, Jim Murray “stunned” the whisky world by naming the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the “best whisky in the world”. Oh, the humanity! Suddenly the best whisky in the world was no longer from Scotland and Scotch was roundly chastised for having let high quality slip through its peaty little fingers. Article after article, and post after post from click-hungry sites like Business Insider, Forbes, Huffington Post, etc. dutifully burped out articles with headlines like “The Best Whisky in the World is No Longer From Scotland”, and “You’ll Never Guess Where the Best Whisky in the World Comes From”. Rather sparse mentions were made about this being just one man’s influential opinion, instead it was just treated as universal truth that a great upheaval had happened and all of our lives would never be the same…especially the lives of those poor Scots who had somehow lost their way. Never mind that the same kind of hubbub had happened just 10 months prior when the World Whiskies Awards named a Tasmanian whisky its best single malt whisky of 2014
Well, here we are again, just four months removed from that great Japanese whisky epiphany, and a year removed from that Tasmanian shocker, and the World Whiskies Awards have come out and dropped yet another bombshell. You may want to sit down, because…the best whisky in the world isn’t from Scotland! Yes, you heard right, this year the title of best whisky in the world goes to a relative young upstart from Taiwan named Kavalan!
Now, to be fair, the Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique Single Cask Strength was voted best single malt whisky not simply best whisky. However, that fact seems to have escaped most headlines and articles. The UK’s Independent titled their piece, “Kavalan whisky from Taiwan named best in the world” (and published a picture of the wrong whisky, but whatever). Time trotted out the eerily familiar, “You Won’t Believe Where the World’s Best Whiskey Comes From”. FoxNews grabbed everyone’s attention with the attention grabbing headline, “Whisky from Taiwan named best in the world.” It’s certainly worth noting that while those first two had somewhat misleading headlines, they did eventually mention the “best single malt” distinction in the article. FoxNews, on the other hand, misses that important point, which is surprising given that FoxNews is usually, uh, so very, very accurate.
This is not meant to be a jab at the award-winning whiskies mentioned, all three I’m sure are deserving of high praise. It’s these awards and the ensuing media frenzy that are getting more than a bit tiresome and more than a little comical. Many of these whisky awards are simply grinding PR/money-making machines that thrive on the free advertising of hyperbolic, often inaccurate articles written by and for people far enough outside the industry that it’s fairly clear they don’t really know what they’re talking about. I know people involved will defend the “process” and the judging of these awards, but that’s not the point, the issue is with the underlying purpose of them all. With what seems like a bi-annual or even quarterly crowning of a new “best whisky in the world ever”, we’re basically seeing the same things said over and over with only the brand name changing. It all ends up feeling more or less like a pile of vapid, ever-mounting crap whose sole purpose is breeding misleading hype just to sell bottles.
As a perfect, and I’m sure all too common little example of how this all goes wrong, not long after Tasmania’s Sullivan’s Cove French Oak Cask won the 2014 World Whiskies best Single Malt Award, I was in a liquor store, taking a look at one of that companies other bottles when the following (approximate) conversation was had with a kindly gentleman who was carrying a couple of expensive bottles like prized cats:
Kindly Gentleman: (pointing to the bottle in my hand) “That one just won best whisky in the world, right there!”
Not-so-kindly Blogger: “Best single malt, actually, and this one didn’t win the award, I think it was the French Oak Cask…” (knowing full well that even the French Oak Cask the store had was not the same cask that won the award.)
Kindly Gentleman: (Interrupting me and walking away with his glass cats) “Nope, Sullivan’s Cove, right there, just voted Best Whisky in the World.”
Easily Exasperated, Not-so-kindly Blogger: (mumbling under my breath) “Gotcha, thanks.”
The validity or lack thereof of whisky awards and their accompanying hype might seem like an obvious thing to criticize, but I think there’s enough coverage of it all throughout the whisky community to make the criticism worthwhile. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a buck off of whisky, or whisky awards, or hastily written articles about whisky awards. But I also think this kind of fawning, mutually beneficial back-slapping bullshit is fair game, and deserves to be called out for what it is. So for the love of the whisky gods, please treat these awards with a grain of salt. Certainly wash over the ensuing semi-accurate, hyperbolic hype and coverage with a cynical eye. Just remember that while there’s a reason these whiskies are recognized – they’re often great whiskies, there’s also a reason the awards are hyped and covered so much, and that’s to sell whiskies, sell ad space, and make the award-givers more money.