Interview: Jim Murray on the Evolution of American Whiskey

Among writers, what name is more synonymous with whisky than Jim Murray? The British journalist pioneered full-time whisky writing in the 1990s, and continues to shape the industry with his immensely influential Whisky Bible series. This annual collection of ratings informs consumer opinions worldwide.

Murray first started covering North American whiskey in the late-20th-century, during the category’s doldrums. He has seen bourbon evolve from a product that practically nobody wanted, to a red-hot spirit selling gangbusters across the globe. For a longer look at this evolution, plus a peek at Murray’s first-ever North American Whisky Bible edition, we recently spoke with Murray.

Beverage Dynamics: The 2019 Whisky Bible includes a first-ever North American version. What was the thinking?

Jim Murray: Americans in the last two-to-three years have fallen back in love with their whiskey. It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s come a long way. If I could be the Ghost of Drams Past, I would take you back to a young Jim Murray going around Kentucky in the ‘90s, pleading with distillers to get production up. They would say, ‘Nobody is buying our bourbon, and rye is dead.’ And I would say, ‘No, it’s going to come back’, and they would look at me like I belonged in the loony bin.

But it did happen, because people suddenly realized of proper good bourbon, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this is not bad!’ Once upon a time, when I was traveling around the states and talking about bourbon, Americans didn’t understand their own whiskey. Ten, 15, 20 years ago, it was hard to find aficionados who were in love with bourbon. They all thought it was cheap whiskey. Now they’re realizing that it’s not, and I’d like to think that the Whisky Bible helped along the way.

That’s why I’m doing this North American edition. In it, I put all the bourbons and Canadian whiskies at the front of the book. Why should they be second to anything? For the American market, it’s the people’s whiskey and it should be treated with respect.

What’s going on in America is fantastic. That’s what’s most exciting for me. Americans are making something incredible in their country. When I first launched the Whisky Bible in 2003, you should have heard the absolute criticism I got off of the Scots because of how I included their own whisky with that North American stuff. They thought I was undermining their precious Scotch whisky. My message to them was, ‘Give it a go’.

BD: That seems to be the prevailing message of the Whisky Bible, ‘Give it a go’.

JM: I’m writing for the public. I don’t write for the industry, I don’t make any money off of selling whiskey — I write for the people out there. The whole point of the Whisky Bible is for people to stop spending their hard-earned money on crap whiskey.

If distillers don’t like me, then I say, ‘Guys, make better whiskey’. Or, ‘You’re making good whiskey, but not maturing it properly’.

My writing is for the public. I’m an independent voice. If people disagree with me, then at least I’ve got them thinking about whiskey, and that’s much more fun.

“Americans in the last two-to-three years have fallen back in love with their whiskey. It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s come a long way.” — Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible.

BD: Fitting, for this year’s North American Whisky Bible, that the top three worldwide whiskeys are all from the U.S., with 1792 Full Proof taking best overall.

JM: When I first went to Sazerac a long time ago, they were paying their staff by distilling other spirits. Their whiskey production was so low. You could see the place dying. Now to see Sazerac come along and do what they’ve done and put real investment behind it and not scrimp on quality — it’s fantastic.

With the North American edition, I really did not want bourbon to win this year because people would think it’s fixed. I was thinking, ‘Please don’t let it happen’. And then not only did North America win first, but it also took second and third, which has never happened before. So I thought, ‘I had better make sure I got this right’.

So I took my top 10 and I spent an extra two days going through them, two days that were not in the original schedule. I came back with exactly the same results. At some point you have got to take your hands off and say, ‘This is the winner!’

I used to go to 1792 in the ‘90s. I remember going around the distillery and they didn’t want to show me anything. It was like touring a CIA facility. You couldn’t find anything out. And back then, they were only doing the 6-year-old bourbon. I would tell them, ‘You’ve got the most complex whiskey with the smallest grains in Kentucky. Why don’t you give it extra time and see what happens?’ But they refused to take it further than six years. It was insanity.

I wish I could take the guys from the distillery back then and bring them forward and say, ‘Look at what your whiskey is now. It’s the best whiskey in the world.’ I tasted my 20,000th whiskey for this year’s book, and the 1792 Full Proof is one of the best whiskeys I’ve ever tasted.

I’m delighted for Sazerac. I remember thinking about what I should write about 1792. Maybe how it had gone from such an ugly duckling in the ‘90s to getting world whiskey of the year. Isn’t that whiskey romance?

BD: With all that tasting and writing for these annual books, what’s your regimen?

JM: It takes up four months of my life each year, writing these books. Obviously I have a lot of stuff already written, but in terms of nailing my feet to the floor to get the work done, it’s about four months. And that’s 12 hours a day writing and tasting. It’s pretty relentless.

If I get a cold, then I’m not tasting that day, or however long it takes to get a cold. This year I did a tour in India, with a load of filming, shows, tasting, and then back to the airport. At one stop, my hotel was at the airport, and I did all my filming and shows there, so I didn’t even leave the airport. Getting back on the plane for London, I thought I had controlled my environment. Hopefully, I would be okay. But on the way back, the food they served was not up to par. I got a crappy salad, and I knew it didn’t feel right. Sure enough, when I got back, I got a massive virus. I wasn’t able to taste for a month.

That was a month I had to make up. I was lucky enough after that to not even get a cold. But instead of a six-day week, I had to work seven days a week to make up for the month I lost. I only took two days off to rest. At the end of the day, though, because I get into a rhythm when I’m tasting, I’m not tired when I’m working. When I’m doing it, I’m so involved with what I’m doing. It’s just you and the whiskey — you kind of become one.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Few’s Paul Hletko on Working with Alice In Chains, Cold Brew Whiskey and Secondary Markets.

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