You may like him, you may hate him, but the ‘god of whisky’ is here to stay and so is his ‘Whisky Bible’.
Jim Murray, a name familiar to the whisky world is known for his candid nature. I had a chance encounter with him in a whisky conference in Glasgow many years ago, then had a brief interaction with him during a tasting session that he conducted in Mumbai some years back. This time, I had caught him in action while he was on one of his ‘low-key’ visits to India to taste samples from Paul John Whisky’s cellars at the distillery in Goa.
The meeting was somewhat special as I was privy to a private tutorial from the man himself on tasting whisky, the right way.
Murray tastes thousands of whiskies every year, travelling all over the world and rating whiskies for ‘Whisky Bible’ (the annual guide book that reviews whiskies).
A journalist by profession, Murray rose to fame in the late 70s after he started visiting whisky distilleries, publishing tasting notes and rating many Scotch whiskies. The British writer gained popularity abroad when he rated Japanese, American, Indian, Taiwanese and Canadian whiskies highly; however, back at home; he faced criticism from the scotch industry on many occasions.
On a January afternoon this year as I walked into the newly built state-of-the-art visitor centre at Paul John Distillery in Goa, I had no idea that the trip would turn out to be so interesting. Michael John D’Souza, Master Blender and Master Distiller of Paul John Whisky greeted me at the entrance. While admiring the vibrant and colourful interiors at the visitor centre I was instantly drawn towards the ‘Wall Of Fame’ showcasing awards, accolades and a number of trophies. The conversation with D’Souza veered towards, ‘how recognition and ratings from ‘Whisky Bible’ have changed the course for Indian whisky industry and Paul John in particular’ when he informed me of Jim Murray’s presence at the distillery. I jumped at the thought of having a chat with Murray after the tour.
By the time we were back from the visit, I saw Murray emerge out of a tiny room from the other the end of the corridor.
He didn’t seem to have aged a bit since our last meeting. With his signatory Panama hat on the head, it was hard to think otherwise.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, we settled down on one of the sofas as he complained of a persistent backache. Probably from spending long hours on a chair tasting the whisky samples or, maybe, the result of travels on the country roads, I wondered.
The man, in his sixties, shows the same amount of excitement and amusement that of a kid in a candy store every time he talks about whisky. He began speaking about the potential that Indian whiskies have and how he feels proud to have been able to identify the winners in them. When I asked him of the biggest challenge that Indian whiskies were facing, he replied, “It’s the perception of the Indian whisky-which still is of a poor quality spirit-in the international market. However, it has begun to change in the last few years”.
I requested him to let me take his picture in action in the tasting room. And, he agreed. He got up and did something strange. He said, “ I need to smell you” and started sniffing around a bit. But, then I realized the cause of this action. Because he tasted the whiskies in an almost airtight room, any additional aroma entering the area could dilute the tasting space.
We entered the room and I noticed hundreds of samples spread all over. His camera tripod came in the way as we made way to the desk. On his left, there was a glass partition, which overlooked the visitors’ tasting room. He said, “In 27 yrs. I have just had one holiday. When I am travelling around the world I take out some time to do Bird watching. That’s my hobby. And, that’s the only time I am on a break from tasting”. That explained the heavy camera equipment in that tiny room.
Behind his desk was a closed window. All I could smell and feel in the room was whisky and its warmth. I took the seat in front of him and asked, “How many whiskies do you taste when you visit India?” He replied, “Oh, probably thousands of samples in total. I taste different whiskies, different ages and different samples from several barrels. The whiskies mature so fast in India. I help the distilleries keep an eye on the maturation of the whisky. Also, help them spot the right style for a whisky and its flavours. India is learning day by day. The blenders don’t always necessarily know which whisky is going to work and which won’t. I try to give them the right direction”.
He began to pose for my pictures after pouring some whisky from a sample bottle marked with a barrel number. “Let me show you how you taste whisky. You must know it”, he said. He held the glen cairn glass in his right hand and began smelling the whisky. “Bring the hand as close to the chest as possible, hold the glass just under the right side of the nose, take a small sniff, let the spirit talk to you, now move the glass away and repeat the same process on the other side of the nose, all this while creating a triangle/ A shape with the palm. This helps in picking up different kinds of scents in the spirit with intensity, without overloading your senses”, Murray added.
I tried to repeat the exact same process but it took me a while to get it right. “What do you smell?” He asked. I spoke of the tropical fruit notes and some vanilla. He asked me to keep repeating the same process and pushed me to identify more and more layers of notes emanating from the glass. Then came the time to taste the sample. He continued, “Take one sip of the whisky, keep it in your mouth and roll it and spit. Now open your mouth and breath, let the oxygen contact reveal to you the true flavours of the whisky”. It was a bit of a task to exercise that well-timed coordinated sensory exercise but then after a few attempts, I got it right. And all this while I saw Murray spitting down into spittoons on his left and on his right which were placed on the floor on both the sides of his chair, without a single drop spilling out of the marked area.
I was beginning to admire his marksmanship when remembered to ask him what he thought of one of the most popular Asian whiskies, Kavalan from Taiwan and Paul John, both produced in similar climatic conditions. Murray said, “Both are incredibly well-made whiskies in almost similar climatic conditions but Kavalan only started to do well after they changed from German Arnold Holstein pot stills and columns with plates in 2008 to the Scottish lantern type of pot stills in 2012. That has made a huge difference to the Kavalan whisky. One more difference is that they get a lot of earthquake in that region in the outskirts of Taipei city”.
As Murray also offers consultancy to a number of whisky producers all over the world, he keeps two sides of his job – the judging/scoring of whisky from finished bottles for the Whisky Bible and advising these companies while tasting samples -separate.
But how does he deal with the criticisms at home front? “There are many scotch producers who don’t keep my book at their shops in the distilleries. And, I am totally fine with it. Because Whisky Bible is for the consumers and they buy it because they see authenticity and value in it”, he said.
In the end, I can’t help but ask him which is his favourite Paul John whisky? “I like Brilliance and Edited. But ‘Kanya’ has been one of my favourites so far”, replied Murray. As I enquired further about whiskies matured in PX (Pedro Ximenez Wine) and Oloroso (sherry) casks or peated, he didn’t show much interest in those styles as according to him “the true personality and charm of a good quality whisky can be found on its own, which is easy to lose at times with many layers of flavours coming from other sources”.
The time with Murray was coming to an end and while saying him goodbye I realized what he said was true.
In the end, what really matters is what’s in the core. The originality of whiskies from countries such as Japan, Taiwan and India has made them popular all over the world. And, even though many would swear allegiance to the peaty, sherry or PX finish or any other styles of single malts, the true personality of a whisky is only revealed in its pure form.