A few days ago, the 2021 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible was announced, and it included the eye-raising choice of an obscure Canadian rye as its best whisky of the year.
No problem with that. While I’ve never met Murray, I’ve always appreciated his dedication (he’s tasted over 20,000 whiskies in his life and released a new edition of the Whisky Bible every year since 2003) as well his willingness to highlight lesser-known or overlooked tipples in his annual awards.
It helps to have a unique voice out there championing a point of view that comes from a position of knowledge. And the few industry pros I’ve been able to informally speak with in the last 24 hours have no doubts about Murray’s palate or nose, although he also has plenty of detractors (his 100-point rating system and his forsaking sex during his tasting periods have been commented upon … I honestly could care less about his professional scale or personal habits).
His voice, however, is another matter.
And by voice I mean the sometimes vulgar and immature ways Murray describes whiskies. As noted by Our Whisky co-founder Becky Paskin a few days ago (and reported by the drinks publications The Spirits Business), Murray made “34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women” in the latest edition of his book.
“I don’t think we should be making excuses for people like that anymore,” as Paskin suggests. “One person should not have so much power that they can get away with saying or doing anything they want,” adding that “[t]he message it is sending to the whisky industry as a whole and to whisky consumers is that women don’t really matter and they are there to be objectified.”
Forbes writer Felipe Schrieberg offers up several examples of Murray’s smarmy prose, with a Highland Park 40 Year Old being compared to “a 40-year-old woman who has kept her figure and looks, and now only satin stands in the way between you and so much beauty and experience…and believe me: she’s spicy” as one odious example.
Industry reaction has been swift. Beam Suntory — the company behind Murray’s no. 1 whisky choice Alberta Premium Cask Strength — expressed disappointment and rightly commended those who “voiced concerns about the objectification of women in many of Mr. Murray’s reviews.” And The Whisky Exchange no longer lists the book as available on its site.
“We have made the decision as a business to delist Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible from The Whisky Exchange website and stores,” as the store notes on Facebook. “We are passionate about making the world of whisky inclusive and accessible for everyone, and we do not feel that some of his comments that have come to light in the recent edition represent this ethos or the future of the whisky community.”
And the Scotch Whisky Association has the moment to emphasize its upcoming Diversity and Inclusivity Charter, which was in the works before this Murray backlash came about.
But worse than Murray equating certain whiskies with sex or threesomes has been his immediate response.
In a statement, he called the criticism “an attack on the very essence of what it is to be a critic in any sphere,” an “attack on free thought and free speech” and “faux outrage.” He also suggested other writers were engaging in “cancel culture to [bring] down the world’s most successful author on the subject.”
No matter what, this is definitely not how you do an apology.
Though Murray writes off his prurient antics to free speech and some variation of the “locker-room talk” defense, WhiskyCast founder and podcaster Mark Gillespie rightly noted in a tweet that such comments are simply “no longer acceptable in today’s society.” While I don’t think occasionally making an adult comment about whiskey is the worst thing in the world, we also don’t need to lionize a writer who has made those kinds of comments his bread and butter, and moreover, doesn’t recognize them as problematic. (It is also worth pointing out here that those people who have taken to public platforms to deride Murray’s writing are … also just exercising their right to free thought and free speech.)
Final thoughts: You have the right to buy this book (which Murray appears to self-publish). You have the right not to. And stores (particularly in the booze world) have the right not to sell it. I can commend Murray for showcasing whiskies I would have overlooked and still decry his crude manner and take-no-responsibility response to criticism.
So certainly drink that Canadian rye he recommends; then go find a better source for your next whisky recommendations, because there’s a really diverse group of people out there who can offer more interesting (and better written) opinions.
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