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When Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye was named whisky of the year in Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible, the controversial choice made waves throughout the spirits community. It was the first time in the influential book’s history that a Canadian rye took top honours over more rare and celebrated bottlings from Scotland, Ireland and the United States.
Sales of Crown Royal’s label, which is made at a distillery on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, soared as it featured in reports around the world.
News that, after five years of American dominance, a Canadian whisky has been named the best in the world in the 2021 edition is once again mired in controversy. This time, however, the discord isn’t over the merits of Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye, which was singled out from the 1,252 whiskies reportedly tasted by the influential critic. It’s focused on the leering nature of Murray’s reviews, which occasionally use sexual innuendo to describe a whisky’s flavour.
Forbes contributor Felipe Schrieberg and spirits writer Becky Paskin raised objections to Murray’s vulgar and sexist tone shortly after the new rankings were released last week. “Any brand celebrating their placement in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible should be ashamed,” Paskin wrote on a widely circulated social media post.
Since then, distilleries and leading brands across the globe have distanced themselves from Murray’s report. Many have gone public with their rebukes.
The Scotch Whisky Association declared the language used in the Whisky Bible “offensive.”
Beam Suntory, owner of Alberta Distillers, the producer of Murray’s top choice, released a statement saying, "While we are honoured that our Alberta Premium Cask Strength rye whisky was named World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2021, we are extremely disappointed by some of the language used in many of the publication’s product reviews.
“Language and behaviour of this kind have been condoned for too long in the spirits industry, and we agree that it must stop. As a result, we are re-evaluating all planned programming that references this recognition.”
Some international retailers of the book have also pulled back, ceasing its sale online and at retail shops. The North American edition is scheduled for release Oct. 31.
The author sees the criticism as “an attack on free thought and free speech.” He also suggests it’s motivated by jealousy of his stature in the drinks world. “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,” he explained to a writer of The Spirits Business.
Murray believes the role of a critic is to be an arbiter of taste, who, in his case, is welcome to declare his opinion on which is the “best whisky” in the world. But the manner he takes to convey his expertise to the world brazenly assumes readers share his views on more than just whisky. Alienating or insulting a large segment of spirits drinkers and whisky makers seems a strange way to attract attention for his tasting acumen and his long-standing work to celebrate the world’s best drams.