Notes on Grading
Today I received a comment on my review of the 2013 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. The commenter asked whether my B+ rating of this year’s George T. Stagg bourbon meant I would rather drink Stagg Jr., which I awarded with an A rating last month.
It’s a good question, but also a bad one in some ways.
Grades and ratings are a tricky subject. I like grades. I use them the same way you the reader probably do: As a shortcut indicator of my overall impression of something. It’s much easier to say “Drinkhacker gave Stagg Jr. an A” than it is to say (or remember) “Drinkhacker said Stagg Jr. featured quite a collection of flavors, but it’s all in balance and not over-wooded.” I get that.
The problem comes when you have to start comparing products, and this has been a challenge for both readers and critics for ages. As many of you know, I’ve been a professional film critic for more than 20 years, and I’ve dealt with this issue (literally) thousands of times. Is Fight Club better than E.T.? Is Annie Hall better than Citizen Kane? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. I love all of those movies — perhaps even equally — but I might “grade” them differently.
In general, any critic will tell you grades are meant as a rough guideline, and they are completely subjective. In the case of a spirit (like it or not), a grade is impacted by what I’ve recently reviewed, the state of my palate at the moment, my opinion about the value of the product, and even what I ate earlier in the day. I will often review a spirit over more than one day to try to mitigate some of the variability in this, but in the end it’s always going to be completely subjective.
One special caveat is that I generally don’t intend ratings to be competitive. If I gave a $12 bottle of wine an A and a $3500 bottle of Cognac a B+, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d always drink that $12 bottle of wine if given a choice. The Cognac may have a lower rating due to value considerations, or the wine may have a higher one for the same reason. The Cognac may in fact be wonderful — a B+ is a solid rating, after all — but may have a finish that I don’t like or some other defect that otherwise sullies what is in fact a delightful experience on the whole.
Now, in the case of Stagg vs. Stagg, the competitive nature of the rating is hard to avoid. Stagg Jr. is in fact a lower-cost reproduction of sorts of Stagg Sr., so how could you not compare them? Well, go ahead and do so. Remember of course that Stagg Sr. is an annual release that varies (a lot) every year, while Stagg Jr. is meant to be a regularly available bottling. Would I recommend Stagg Jr. over the 2013 Stagg Sr.? Yes, I would. But I wouldn’t say the same thing for 2010 or 2009 Stagg. 2013 is just a slightly weaker year for this classic bottling.
The bottom line is that I enjoyed both of these whiskeys, but I wouldn’t hesitate to order either one if they were offered to me at a bar. The catch is I would choose one over the other based on the mood I was in… and, of course, how much it was going to cost me.
Let my grades be a guideline, but ultimately your palate is your own. Use it and, please, share your own opinions in the comments!