Outside of Robert Parker in the world of wine, there are few critics in any industry that possess more power to make or break tastes than English writer Jim Murray has enjoyed for decades in the world of whiskey. A pioneer in the field of “serious” whiskey/whisky writing, Murray’s annually published Whisky Bible has often been referred to as the industry’s most visible source of accolades—getting a high score or winning a category in Murray’s book can catapult a brand from “widely available” to “hoarded” seemingly overnight. Naturally, wielding that kind of power has led to no shortage of criticism, leveled at Murray’s eccentric personality, techniques, and sometimes unusual picks, but those past criticisms have typically revolved Murray’s choices of which spirits to highlight. Now, however, the writer is under a withering degree of scrutiny not just for his choice of libations, but his choice of words. A controversy has blown up surrounding the sexist language that has for years been ignored within the context of Whisky Bible reviews, and writers, distilleries and retailers are all piling on to condemn some of Murray’s more tasteless quotations from the newest 2021 edition, released last week.
Leading the charge is whisky writer Becky Paskin, co-founder of Our Whisky, an organization dedicated to expanding diversity within the whiskysphere. Paskin is an accomplished spirits journalist, a Keeper of the Quaich (essentially an honors society for the scotch industry), and she found herself appalled by the language Murray was consistently using while perusing the newest release of the Whisky Bible. Taking to social media, Paskin began to highlight passages from the book, with Murray consistently comparing spirits to various women, describing what he’d like to do with them, or reminiscing on previous sexual encounters mid-review. As Paskin asked in her initial salvo: “Why does the whisky industry still hold Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in such high regard when his tasting notes are so sexist and vulgar?”
Speaking with The Spirits Business, Paskin went on to say the following: “I don’t think we should be making excuses for people like that anymore. One person should not have so much power that they can get away with saying or doing anything they want. The amount of people who read those sorts of comments and assume that it’s OK to speak about whisky in that way is damaging. The 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.”
Whisky journalist and activist Becky Paskin of Our Whisky.
The passages from Murray cited by Paskin range from “tasteless” to overtly cringey, occasionally referencing sex in such a way that has nothing at all to do with whisky. Writing about the products from Welsh whisky brand Penderyn, which Paskin notes is produced by an all-woman team of distillers and blenders, Murray wrote: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy… This celebrates maltiness in the same way a sex addict revels in a threesome.”
Writing about Canadian Club Chronicles, Water of Windsor, meanwhile, Murray launches into an aside about his Canadian sexual escapades with the following:
Murray responded to the criticism in the exact way that white men of a certain age seem to be mandated to respond: By calling any form of criticism against him “an attack on free thought and free speech” in a statement to The Spirits Business, naturally invoking the phrase “cancel culture” as well for good measure.
“This is not a matter of alleged sexism on the trumped up charges against me – which have clearly been concocted for very clear purposes – this is an attack on the very essence of what it is to be a critic in any sphere, be it music, art, sport, wine or whisky,” Murray wrote. “In other words: an attack on free thought and free speech. I am not sexist; the Whisky Bible is not sexist, has never been sexist and I will not bow to this faux outrage. I have always fought the bully and I will do so here. Debate has been replaced by the baying of the mob, common sense and decency by straitjacketed dogma. Frankly, these people appal me because what they are doing is undermining society itself. Rather than write interesting, illuminating and compelling articles about whisky, other writers would rather engage in ‘cancel culture’ to [bring] down the world’s most successful author on the subject. I am famed for my ability to nose a whisky. And I can tell you that I can smell a huge rat with this entire manufactured and revolting affair.”
Murray, of course, is eager to simultaneously cast himself in the role of expert God Emperor and humble victim of “bullies” who in reality possess far less power than himself—he wants the recognition and power, but simultaneously recognizes that the more he acknowledges his power, the harder it makes it for him to come off as the brave truth-teller standing up to a “mob.” His hyperbolic defense calls into question the “timing” of such criticisms against him, implying that it’s related to the release of his new book as a calculated smear campaign. To which we can only say: Yeah Jim, when else were you expecting criticism of your new book to arrive? When it’s been out for six months?
What guys like Murray can never be made to understand is that YES, they have every right to use whatever language they want in the course of their business. If you want to compare whisky to women’s bodies and humblebrag on your romantic conquests within the space of a whisky review, then go right ahead. But the “freedom of speech” they so loudly claim to love means that your readers likewise have an equally valid right to point out when they don’t appreciate your words, or the sentiments they seem to imply. “Free speech” simply means the ability to say what you will, not that you somehow possess a right to not be judged for what you say. If every opinion is sacred, then the negative opinions of you must be sacred as well. Paskin says as much herself, via Twitter: “Everyone is, of course, entitled to an opinion. My opinion is the whisky industry should not support a book that objectifies some of its most talented blenders and distillers—in fact half its workforce—in such explicit terms.”
One might expect the major distilleries and whiskey/whisky retailers to be silent on this issue, or at least leery of jumping into the fray, given that Murray’s opinion can make or break their fortunes. Many of them would surely like to do everything they can to court the guy’s favor, including overlooking anything they may find to be objectionable. What’s extra surprising here, then, is that in the last 24 hours Paskin has amassed a rather incredible degree of support from major companies such as Glenfiddich, The Whisky Exchange, and even Beam Suntory. For these companies to speak out directly against Jim Murray is something that many writers would likely have thought of as unthinkable.
Here’s major retailer The Whisky Exchange, pledging not to stock Murray’s Whisky Bible.
Another condemnation via the Scotch Whisky Association.
And finally, the big one: Beam Suntory itself, expressing its “extreme” disappointment in Murray even after its Alberta Premium Cask Strength rye whisky was named “World Whisky of the Year” in the 2021 Whisky Bible.
Suffice to say, this feels like a major moment in the fight against sexism in the whiskey/whisky industry, and the comparisons to #MeToo are unavoidable. Paskin is heartened by the incredible degree of response to the still-developing story. Responding to Paste after we reached out for a statement, she concluded with the following:
“It’s incredibly heartening to see the response from the whisky industry to sexist comments made in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible,” Paskin said. “The industry has worked so hard for so long to champion inclusion and diversity, that sexist, repugnant remarks like those made in the ‘Bible’ are damaging to the progress that’s been made.”