Book Review: Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2021
If there are matters we can count upon, as events have played out over the last several days, it is this: Jim Murray does not lie awake at night wondering what you think. Jim Murray quite clearly does not sit in front of a word processor agonizing over word choice in his reviews. Jim Murray is not on his browser or doomscrolling his smartphone reading criticisms from the chattering class of whisky mavens on social media. Jim Murray does not worry about the blowback from anyone or anything because he does his thing, and has the time of his life doing it largely at the expense or consideration of others.
As long as we are going biblical, let’s beat the metaphor dead into the ground. True for conversion to any denomination, Jim Murray is focused on three core tenets: to make you a believer in his scripture, to make you part with your money in the form of an annual tithe, and to convince you that he is the spring from which all final assessment and authority flows regarding the whiskies of the world.
Everything else is just fondant for the cake. The recent and rightfully deserved condemnation over incredibly questionable and downright objectionable language in his Whisky Bible, led by the brilliant Becky Paskin, and his less than eloquent response, only solidify his general disregard for anyone else’s opinion. His is the correct one and humanity be damned in all other instances.
It has gone on far too long. Anyone with a platform to convey a message condemning this behavior has consequently become an accomplice to the matter, brushing it aside with year after year with general ambivalence or humor towards his churlishness and pomposity. “It is just Jim being Jim” we would say, hurl a few pointed jabs in the comments section of our social media platforms, and get on with the normal day-to-day of our lives.
Year after year, he has infiltrated and lived rent-free in all of our thoughts with an archaic but wildly effective method of getting our attention. It is a doctorate-level class in free publicity for the upcoming publishing date: with one PDF, he spends zero time on marketing or product placement, and carries a zero-dollar budget for carefully targeted demographic advertising.
He has the rapt and salivating attention of an industry where potentially tens of millions in sales can be swayed just by the impact of his opinions. Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye both have seen significant sales increases and notoriety over time, and in Crown Royal’s case, a temporary fevered cult of personality which (quite weirdly) resulted in bottles flying off the shelf faster than they could be replenished. By any measurement in our analytics-crazed and attention-starved world, his success and longevity are hiccups in the system: a Paul Bunyan-styled PR battle pitting the digital protocol versus the chaotic analog.
And it works. His divinations from on high regrettably receive column inches far beyond any of the more insightful whisky writers of the world. A simple press release creates a butterfly effect through the spirits world: it swells gradually on Facebook and Twitter, through endless company press releases and Google search algorithms, proclamations on the national and local newscasts around the world, discussions on podcasts. Time and pressure breed that level of veneration from folks who are looking for clicks and pageviews, not deeper detail. They don’t care about the ‘why’ or ‘how,’ they want the ‘what’ and to move on. If the medium is the message, Jim Murray has skillfully refined and mastered his plan, expertly executed and unfailingly successful, year after year. Heck, for the first time in 13 years even we are in on the act and writing about it, equally guilty as charged of participating in the media cycle.
There is a careful, deliberate crafting of his persona. He lets his bible do the talking, and is content with being a malcontent reclusive travelling the globe trawling for samples from a culture only too willing to supply them. No social media presence, no live video streams, no nap-inducing “virtual” tastings on YouTube, no running to be the person each TV network calls for comment on the state of whisky. He could easily run roughshod and book himself at every major tasting and event in the world, but why ruin the mystique?
A key component that set Jim Murray apart from the pack: he was one of the first to get there. Before fashionable whisky guides with color photographs, glossy paper, replenished in retro designs and typography, there was Jim with his microfont and red ink, professing endless love for a second-tier marginal English football club, giving barely 15-20 words to some selections, weird and creepy Penthouse Forum letters to others. And folks picked up the bible and looked up to it, because aside from Michael Jackson, what else was there? If nothing else, Murray’s book is comprehensive.
Outside of overt sexism, if there is a primary criticism of “the Bible” to be raised, it’s that Jim Murray can come off as uninspiring in his choices, even a bit feckless. There is low-to-no drama and high predictability to his award selections: probably a Japanese whisky, one or more Sazerac products, and an outlier which will undoubtedly make people take pause – in recent years being Canadian of origin. There’s a level of confidence in that type of decision-making that is frustrating. He has such a massive ego (check the recent string of book covers for submitted evidence) which runs at odds with his almost free-associative style of writing and tasting. He travels the world for exciting new spirits, but is content to stay at home with his favorites and let it rest at that for another edition.
If complaining about the Bible — not its author — smacks of petulance, it’s mainly because its author knows his stuff; he just fails to convey it with an ounce of gentility. There are few who can argue with conviction against the consistent quality of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the beauty of such international spirits as Yamazaki or Kavalan, or the excellence of a vintage Glen Grant. Many of the award winners earning high praise also receive noteworthy marks from other publications, including this one. And while of course there are questionable picks and head scratchers galore, even the NBA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter Steve Kerr landed only 45% of his shots. The Beatles only had a third of the entire recorded catalog of 212 songs in the Billboard Top 100. There will almost always be misses amongst the hits when longevity is involved.
But Jim Murray isn’t writing for the hardened Old Testament disciples and scholars, he is writing for the ones in need conversion. And his Bible, for lack of a better namesake, has served to be the roadmap and compass for many an unseasoned individual looking to dig deeper into the expansive world of whisky. Perhaps even someone you know. Perhaps even yourself.
There’s an excellent chance Jim Murray will never read this.. But Jim Murray doesn’t need to because Jim Murray knows these words won’t matter to him, nor should they. So long as the whisky keeps flowing and the checks keep coming in, he is just going to keep doing what he’s been doing all along. And that is the really unfortunate thing about the current situation in which we find ourselves.
C / $15 [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON, IF YOU MUST]