Recently I’ve been having a lot of discussions with friends about what constitutes a ‘bad’ whisky – especially in the world of Scotch. Having observed the comments thread on posts such as ‘Can someone recommend me a bad malt whisky so I can try it for context?’ It appears that in the whisky world – as in a frighteningly large amount of life – people are happy to present opinions, some of which are baffling, as absolute fact. One of the responses to the above question was ‘Anything beginning with “T”’. What the fuck does that mean? What kind of arbitrary, ridiculous way to categorise whisky is this – where it would appear in the fucking dictionary? Anyway, rule one of the internet is not to read the comments section, so I’m not going to get upset about it.
Since the start of the first lockdown, I have been doing regular Zoom whisky tastings with three friends. Swapping samples safely and then jumping into the virtual world once a week to taste them together – always blind – and compare notes. These are social occasions as much as anything else, but there is a genuine interest in whisky amongst us and we do our fair share of analysing the liquid. We think since March ‘20 we have exchanged roughly three hundred samples. However, this isn’t a competition for who has the best whisky collection; often supermarket blends and other cheap and cheerful options (dubbed ‘banter bottles’) are thrown in , and the reactions are invariably pretty positive when tasted blind. So again this leads us to what is a ‘bad’ whisky – because it’s not simply cheap whisky.
One of the members of this whisky tasting cohort hates peated whisky. Vehemently. And he has the palate to spot it – if I open a bottle of Ardbeg he’d likely smell it through a Zoom call. Anything with a whiff of smoke he will turn his nose up at, and he genuinely hates it – I’ve seen the facial expressions and no one is that good an actor. For him, then, peated whisky does not suit his tastes and is a ‘bad’ whisky for him. However, he wouldn’t label it as bad whisky due to the fact he’s not an imbecile and realises that taste and fact are different things. Peated whisky is not bad whisky simply because some folk don’t like it.
People regularly take aim at entry level, mass produced whiskies. We have all been guilty of writing off a product due to it being too familiar or something we discovered very early on in our whisky journey. ‘Balvenie 12 is shite, really boring – I got over that ages ago’. Actually, Balvenie 12 is delicious. It’s got a good balance of flavours, exhibits good wood management, is well produced and sells in huge quantities in many countries around the world and has done for over 25 years. It is a great example of sherry cask finishing, where the flavours of a sherry cask are used as a seasoning rather than dominating the whisky. Whatever bad whisky is, it’s not whisky that is consistently good over huge volumes and long periods of time.
So ‘bland’ whisky? Is that bad whisky? Maybe. Depending on how you look at it. If it’s a light style of spirit, aged mainly in refill bourbon casks (cost efficient) and bottled at 40% this will result in something tasting, essentially, like whisky. Bereft of the nuances of a cask-finish or punch of a single cask, lacking the heft of a peated malt, this will often be seen as bad whisky. Glen Moray springs to mind here – the Elgin Classic specifically. This is ‘supermarket’ whisky in most people’s eyes. It is though a reliable single malt that retails in the early £20s, and is perfectly drinkable. It’s taste reflects it’s price point – it’s not going to change your life but it’s very acceptable for twenty-two quid. So is that bad whisky? Maybe if you paid £40 for it, but it’s an every day drinker and has a place in the world.
When it comes to single malt whisky, I don’t think anyone in Scotland is intentionally pulling bad spirit off their stills – and there are swathes of regulations preventing them from doing so. While you can make some decisions – largely with cut points and dilution pre-barrelling – to fiscally make your whisky go further, if you push this to far you will end up with something literally undrinkable. This spirit can then be mismanaged to an extent, and sometimes casks just simply fall flat, but these can always be blended back in to big batches and masked by volume. With regards to single casks, they are selected for quality – and while opinion can differ wildly on these, and some are genuinely exceptional, exceptionally few are ‘bad’ or poor quality.
What about blends? I have spent a lot of time in the mixed drinks world over the years, and as such I am very aware of how imbalance can make for unpleasant drinking. Put to much citrus in a drink, or not enough, and you’ll ruin in it. The same theory is reflected in blended whisky – where an imbalance in the component parts can be catastrophic. I have taken part in blending exercises on a small scale over the years and invariably anything I’ve ever put together has been awful. I have no knack for blending – it is an art that eludes me. Naturally, then, blends can come to market that are unbalanced, and could genuinely be considered ‘bad’. One, admittedly Japanese, by the name of Hatozaki is truly horrific. It is a blend that hits no part of the palate that can be associated with pleasure – over several, separate blind tastings of ours it has been consistently and universally shut down. It is, unusually, a very poorly constructed Japanese whisky. While I’ve no time for blend-bashing, I can see how a poorly put together blended whisky can be considered ‘bad’ – however by no means is all blended whisky bad.
So this leads me to the inevitable conclusion – there is very little ‘bad’ whisky out there. You know why? Firstly, for it to stay on the market, it has an audience – and if enough people want to drink it can it be considered ‘bad’? Secondly, because people don’t really want to bottle ‘bad’ whisky. If you were given, as a blender, the task of producing a bottle to go on the shelves at £14 would your mentality be ‘we’re going to need some terrible whisky’ or ‘what’s the best whisky I can get and still put a bottle out at that price?’? Likely the latter, especially if you have any vague sense of pride or passion in your work. The same goes for single malts – distilleries will make stylistic decisions, but those at the helm still want to produce good spirit. Some people will still decry whiskies from a certain distillery – implying that they exclusively (and perhaps wilfully) produce bad products – simply because they don’t like that distillery. I have run experiments with friends by giving them the same whisky twice – once telling them it was from a distillery I know they don’t like, the next from one I know they do. You can guess the result.
The upshot, and this follows along somewhat from last week’s post about language, is that whisky is too wide a category to be broken down into simply good and bad. It’s a bit like music – hugely varied, extremely subjective and full of people who think they are the only true arbiters of quality. Talking about whisky in terms of style, price point (while there is little bad whisky, there is a lot of overpriced whisky), occasion (we know champagne oft accompanies a celebration and cider is ideal on a hot day – so what context is the whisky for?) will lead more people to find the right whisky for them. Ultimately though, whisky drunk in amicable company is good whisky – and if you let people’s opinions tell you what ‘bad’ whisky is you’ll never drink anything again.