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Whisky's most powerful man

Inside Jim Murray’s war against the heathens in the business.
By Hindol Sengupta

THE MOMENT I SIT IN HIS MERCEDES, which he drove nearly 20 kilometres to pick me up in Northamptonshire, an hour’s train ride from London, Jim Murray, perhaps the most powerful person in the world of whisky, issues an ultimatum: He will take me to the cottage where he writes his once-a-year Whisky Bible if, and only if, I swear not to reveal its location.

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Promise made, 56-year-old Murray, who always wears a cream fedora with a black band (including the four hours I spent with him) zips me to what he describes as one of the quietest bits of rural England. Until a few years ago, Murray, who tastes more than 1,000 whiskies during a four-month period when he is writing the nearly 400-page Bible, “cooped up in a room every day for 16 days at least”, lived in the city of Northampton. The address was widely available. “I would have people popping in to see me whenever they liked. I love a chat and a drink. But it really disturbed my schedule,” Murray tells me.

Nothing about his writing retreat—Murray lives in another cottage a few miles away when not working on the Bible—suggests that this is where many a reputation in the $68 billion (Rs 4.3 lakh crore) global whisky market is made or marred. 

(Whisky led the $262 billion spirits market according to 2010 numbers published by researcher Global Industry Analysts.) Rather, it is the sort of cottage you might image characters in the books of Agatha Christie or Enid Blyton living in, complete with a parrot called Percy in a large cage in the sitting room.

The day I meet him, Murray is excited about a new word he had heard on BBC—“intertwangle”—which he is using in this year’s guide. “Isn’t it perfect to describe the magical alchemy in whisky?” he asks rhetorically. He has no television, but beside his dining table a fat green radio, the same shade as the upholstery in the British Parliament, is perpetually tuned to classical Western music.

When I ask him to describe the perfect whisky, he plays the German composer George Frideric Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day on his Mac. “Can you see how the cello brings balance and rhythm? Can you hear violin come in just at the right moment? And the fading, the ending, so elegant, Handel didn’t just fade out, he brought character even in the fade. That’s how the greatest whiskies are.” 

FOR SOMEONE who chooses his words with such deliberation and accepts that he is a “throwback to an earlier age”, Murray stumbled into this job under rather harrying circumstances: His earlier avatar was as a crime and special investigation reporter, but he quit in his early forties after a source he was about to meet was assassinated hours before the meeting.
 

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Power Duo: Barry Crockett, Master Distiller at Pernod Recard (left) with Jim Murray

Murray says he always wanted to be a professional cricketer, but failed. His favourite position is opening batsman and there are stumps and gloves by his living room fireplace. He says he owns a pair of gloves used by the former England captain Graham Gooch. His guest bedroom has a painting of Gandhi that was once owned by Sir Richard Attenborough, who made the film Gandhi. And then in every room of the cottage there are scores of whisky bottles of every shape and size. 

If his many interests are curious, Murray’s working process can be confounding. When he is writing the guide, for instance, most of the time all he eats is Waitrose mackerel fillets in olive oil with oat biscuits crumbled into them and some goat cheese on the side, accompanied by coconut water. He does not wear any perfume or allow any fragrance to enter his home. His soaps are always nearly free of fragrance. When he has a cold, it is a fortnight before he allows himself to resume tasting whisky, so that his nose and palate are completely clean.

Too bad I didn’t know the extent of his obsession: Murray smells “expensive soap” on me and would only let me see his main tasting studio—a large attic in his cottage—from the doorway. “I cannot let any smell interfere with the air there at the moment, we are about to finish the guide for this year,” he says by way of apology.

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For all the idiosyncrasies, Murray is essentially an entrepreneur. The guide publishing business, which he wholly owns, has an annual turnover of about $1 million. Since 2003, his guides, priced at $19.95, have sold more than half a million copies. Each year, the print run has grown and is expected to cross 70,000 copies when the guide comes out later this year. The guide scores whiskies on a scale of 1 to 100. The best usually bags about 97 points (there is yet to be a whisky which has won 98) and the worst 70 or slightly lower.

About 18 months ago, Murray says a buyer (whom he refuses to name) offered some $20 million to buy him out “so that I can just focus on the writing and not bother about the business”. He said no. “It wasn’t clear whether I would have absolute veto power on everything I write under my name. Until that is clear, I will not sell,” he tells me. “Because it’s a slippery slope, soon they might ask me to tone down my comments on some brands or highlight some others depending on advertising. This I will not do.”

IN THIS stubbornness lies the tale of a man who  is now pitched against the mightiest of the global whisky business—the Scots. After spending his whole life, as Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation Bill Lumsden says, “promoting the best of Scottish whisky”, Murray has been vocal about the falling quality of many Scottish whisky brands. Many distilleries are using barrels that have high sulphur content, says Murray, and the quality isn’t what it used to be.

The grouse pops up regularly in his guides. In 2013, he complained that sulphur-treated sherry casks were “a canker on the great and hallowed name of whisky”. In 2014, he acknowledged people in the industry and consumers “who took the trouble to thank me for the stance the Whisky Bible took last year against the continued use of sulphur-treated casks in whisky maturation”. This year, he complained that companies had handed over the task of sending samples for evaluation for guides like his to public relations outfits, whom he calls “non-entities of the night … incapable of telling the difference between a whisky professional of over 20 years’ standing and an electrician who writes about whisky on his website when there is nothing decent on television”. 

Search the web and it is easy to see where some of the anger against bloggers comes from. At least one of them, dramming.com, run by a professional stamp dealer Oliver Klimek, has written extensively about how Murray overstates the sulphur problem. “I actually do appreciate that Jim Murray has put forward this issue. It is the way he did it that makes me feel very uncomfortable,” writes Klimek, going on to argue that the problem is far from as malignant as Murray believes. 

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Many in the Scottish whisky industry would agree, but what rankles them the most is that Murray’s critique shows in his recent rankings. In 2015, Murray named Japan’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 the World Whisky of the Year. In 2013, it was the American Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye. Even though the Scottish Glenmorangie Ealanta 1993 won in 2014, in the last three years, among the nine whiskies that were adjudged the best in the world (or the top three each year), only three were Scottish. The rest were either American or Japanese.

Even an Indian whisky, Amrut Fusion, featured among the top 10 whiskies in the world in 2010. This is blasphemy by Scottish standards, but such is the power of Murray that Bengaluru-manufactured Amrut is now widely available even in Scotland. This at a time when the Scots have had their worst year in 16 years, with sales in the biggest market, the U.S., falling by 9% (see story on page 70). Murray argues that the falling sales prove exactly his point: that Scottish whisky needs to pull up its socks. 

Murray says the Scots still make some of the finest whiskies in the world, but many brands there have been plagued by lethargy in the past decade when sales of single malt grew by more than 150%. In sheer average quality, American and Japanese brands have, in many cases, leapt ahead. These days, says Murray, the best whisky maturing in casks is in Kentucky and not in Scotland. Some of the worst performing Scottish brands, he believes, come from the Edrington stable, makers of the famous Macallan and Highland Park brands. I asked Edrington for a response to this but did not receive any till the time of going to press. 

Ask the Scotch Whisky Association about Murray, and the only thing its spokesperson Rosemary Gallagher would say is, “Jim is one of the few well-known whisky writers in the world and he has a perspective.” What she doesn’t spell out is the widespread opinion in Edinburgh that Murray, talented as he is, picks whiskies to create a bit of a buzz about his Bible. Also, this has meant that some brands—he won’t tell me which—have spread rumours in the market that he is being bribed by Japanese brands.

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This has incensed Murray. “I have never ever taken a single penny to promote one brand over another. I trust only my nose,” he says. “And this thing about buzz, well, the book is published only in English. There are barely any sales in Japan. How on earth does it make sense for me to create a buzz in Japan?”

Several Scotch makers have asked him why he doesn’t do the peaceful thing and just omit the whiskies that he doesn’t like. “But that’s not being honest to the customer!” argues Murray. ‘The customer needs to know not just what to buy but also what not to buy.”

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THE RELATIONSHIP is so fraught because for years Jim Murray was by his own admission “the best friend of Scotch whisky”. He believes he still is. “But because I am critical about many of them these days, they don’t like it. Some have even said, what do I know about whiskies—I am English and not Scottish.” What doesn’t help is that Murray is English at a time when Scottish nationalism is constantly top conversation in Scotland. “This is just the sort of arrogance that leads to downfall,” he says.

It also doesn’t help that Murray is entirely dismissive of the efforts of Scottish whisky to move with the times, for instance, in creating flavoured fare categorised as spirit drink and not whisky. “All this is just packaging. It’s bollocks. They should focus on making better whisky,” he says. In the U.S. though, the market for flavoured spirits grew 40% last year, so in a sense the whisky brands are only reacting. But Murray believes this has come at the cost of focussing on the Scots’ core strength—making great Scotch. 

Till the situation reverses, Murray will keep protesting against bad whisky. “I have built a product with honesty for 12 years. I will not do PR now,” he says.