There’s a lot of whisky out there. Do your research. (photo by Gresei)

Before I spend money on a new whisky, I like to read reviews. It’s useful to get opinions about quality and value before sinking the money, especially given today’s prices. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that even the most trusted resources will accurately reflect my unique tastes and interests. University of St. Andrews statistician, bestselling author, and whisky guru Dr. David Wishart agrees.

For years, Wishart argued that traditional ratings are too subjective, postulating that a more objective comparison would better predict single-malt enjoyment. His goal was not to supplant but rather enhance and complement traditional reviews. Extrapolating from existing whisky flavor and aroma chemistry research, Wishart delineated twelve essential primary single-malt attributes: body, sweetness, smoky, medicinal, tobacco, honey, and spicy, winey, nutty, malty, fruity, and floral.

He assigned specific descriptors to each category, selected from over 400 commonly used tasting terms found in contemporary whiskey books, and this resulted in objective “flavour clusters.” Using these empirical groupings, he reviewed and categorized a wide swath of representative single-malts, publishing his findings in the groundbreaking 2002 bestseller “Whisky Classified: Choosing Single Malts by Flavour.”

Once considered too unusual, Wishart’s book today is part of the scotch canon. (photo by Steve Kirwan for Wine and Whiskey Globe)

Although initially released to mixed responses due to its “revolutionary” approach, his system grew in popularity. It’s still considered one of the most foundational resources ever written on the subject. Dr. Wishart also included a comprehensive primer on malt whisky history and production, plus details on hosting successful whisky tastings.

The book provides a quick and easy method to identify malts of interest. If you find a single malt listed that you already enjoy, you’ll find other similar malts. It’s useful for finding new styles to experience, as well. If you identify specific whisky attributes of interest, the book provides recommendations exhibiting those attributes.

Can Wishart’s newfangled malt classification system defeat the whisky rating militia? Probably not, but it doesn’t need to. Like all tools, this one fills a specific need, and I find it invaluable. And while it’s limited to the particular malts mentioned in the book, the basic precepts apply to any other malt. The real beauty is that you can use his book to find malts based on your preferred “flavour cluster,” then research subjective reviews to identify which is best in its class. It’s a journey, with many pleasant stops along the way.