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There is something about being the world’s best. The world follows you and then, attaches your name to anything that reaches such lofty standards. When discussing the very best of whisky, the name Jim Murray is never far behind.
At a recent tasting event organised by All Things Nice, the legendary whisky writer and critic kept spirits high with his knowledge, acumen and, most of all, his wit. While whisky in itself is a rather animated subject, heavily discussed in social soirées from South Africa to Scotland, its practitioners are rather dour. Murray is definitely its brightest spark—forthcoming, opinionated, and not afraid to speak his mind. He raised many eyebrows some years back, when he admitted that he ‘did not kiss anyone’ during the writing of his annual Whisky Bible, going on to say that the ‘germs’ ran the risk of making him sick, potentially trashing his tasting schedule of up to 30 whiskies a day.
Murray is an independent expert who’s built his reputation from scratch. His observations on that evening, on a particular brand sample that lacked in taste, or a subsequent sample being inadequately aged, demonstrated his skill in the non-commercial approach. The critic has successfully employed this personalised philosophy for over 30,000 tastings in his career.
A shift in careers turned Murray’s journey from respected journalist into one of exalted connoisseur. It took him on a tour to distilleries in Scotland, Ireland and farther, and still takes him to over 4,000 tastings every year. As you can tell, the trademarked method of tasting that Murray devised didn’t come easy, and his puritanical reverence for the drink can be felt in each entertaining edition of his Whisky Bible.
Murray is a disciplined taster. During the session I attended, his Murray Method nearly inspired an uprising amongst a cadre of Punjabis. He had barred any swallowing throughout the event, and stringently enforced a “no ice” rule for each drink. He then advised us to listen to the whisky. Most came to suspiciously follow, while some abruptly left. Those who stayed back eventually accepted the rigorous method, enthusiastically correcting themselves at every misstep.
While a great medicine it may be, whisky experts are sidelined from getting the coveted pre-fix of ‘Doctor’. However, the connoisseur effortlessly carried the mantle, as he was jokingly addressed as ‘Dr Murray’ by guests all evening.
There are 18 strict rules in Murray’s method that one must follow when sampling whisky. The six principles, as I know them, are to drink black coffee to cleanse your palate; to find a silent tasting room that’s free of excessive smells (which the Pullman obliged by laying a curated snack buffet outside the hall); to drink the whisky out of a tulip-shaped glass with a stem, at body temperature with no added water or ice; to get a whiff of the liquid naturally and sip it twice (the second one to determine aspects like flavour, balance, and mouth feel); to always taste a third and fourth time to solidify any suspicions; and to spit to avoid getting drunk. Murray also emphasises to be honest in one’s judgments. You could grab any copy of his yearly bible to discover the full procedure. However, I like age in my collections as much as in whisky, and would go for the 2019 edition.
My favourite of Murray’s rules can be found in the introduction of his book. The man advises that one must be assertive in their personal review, and hold it higher than anyone else’s, including his own. This led him to make, what I felt, was the quote of the day. “Whisky is a drink with character; show yours, and it will show you its own.”
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