The Rating System
At the start of 2007 Refined Vices was using a simple consumer friendly three award (Gold, Silver & Bronze) rating system. Since the upgrade of the entire website in 2016 we adopted a new system based on a Wine Rating System developed by Nick Chlebnikowski in 1994. We have made slight adjustments to suit our own needs and believe this to be an objective and transparent rating system for spirits. In the new system spirits are rated on a 100 point scale and the scoring is broken down to 10 different criteria (10 points each). While the system is numerical we have decided to retain the user friendly ‘visual element’ of having awards given to the highest scoring spirits (Unicorn, Gold, Silver & Bronze). The numbers and this explanation of The Rating System are there in the background for those who wish to know exactly how we have come to our conclusion. We aim to be a 100% transparent in our methods and hope that by using this system we will be able to be as objective as possible.
Our old whiskey and rum reviews will still be accessible on the website and will bear one of the old awards, if awarded, and a Legacy Review badge (see below) to show it is an old review. Some of the old reviews may be converted into the new rating system where possible but as this requires a resampling of the spirit, it may not be possible to do this for all products reviews if samples are no longer available. Should an old review be converted into the new rating system, we will update the Legacy Badge and the old award into a Score Badge and the new award.
1. The Structure (as seen on each review)
- Final thoughts
The above is how we present our tasting notes for each review. Though ‘Appearance’ will not be judged we have decided to include that in the notes for anecdotal purposes. Nose, Taste and Finish are self explanatory. ‘Final thoughts’ is where we note our overall impression and any comments we deem necessary. The score will be presented in the ‘Details at a Glance’ box alongside any award at the end of each review.
2. Does Appearance matter?
Ruby, gold, mahogany, white and brown, cloudy or clear. These are just some of the many adjectives that can be used to describe the appearance of almost any aged or un-aged spirit. The appearance of rum, whisky or any spirit may matter from a general consumer perspective and producers can use this knowledge to make their own product seem more appealing.
Firstly, it should be understood that all spirits, like rum and whisky, are perfectly clear and colourless as they come out of the still. It is often discussed and misunderstood where spirits actually get their colour from and a deeper colour has generally been accepted as an indication of older age and therefore better quality, however, this is not always the case and is mostly irrelevant.
There are a couple variables that can cause differences in aesthetics; colour and clarity, both of which can be improved by various techniques currently employed by the industry, or it can be left as is. Spirits can either obtain colour directly from barrel ageing, by addition of artificial colouring or removed by filtration. Different wood, reused oak casks and the level of char also affect the kind of colour the barrel imparts on the spirit and no barrel is ever exactly the same.
Filtration is used to remove ‘impurities’ that can cause the spirit to become visually unattractive but unfortunately this type filtration can also remove desired flavour elements that would otherwise improve the quality. Likewise filtration can also be used to improve the overall flavour by removing undesired elements from a less than perfect spirit.
Most mass marketed products use caramel colouring to make their products look consistent from batch to batch and use at least some level of filtration, whereas many independent bottlers tend to leave the spirit untouched. It can be said that the appearance has no relevance to the quality of the spirit.
3. Alcohol by volume
Alcohol, while flavourless, plays a significant role in flavour delivery and mouthfeel. It also gives us the desired effects, which is the reason we drink in the first place. It is often described by tasters as soft, warming, tingling, numbing, prickly, rough or burning and can be felt in the mouth and throat for a time after swallowing. Cask strength spirits often offer a more intense flavour experience but at reduced mouthfeel, while diluted spirits are generally less intense with a softer or improved mouthfeel.
One problem I’ve encountered in my years of judging and evaluating spirits is how cask strength spirits or ‘over proof’ spirits are always categorised separately from the rest of the spirits. This is especially true for rums. It makes sense from a tasting point of view to judge these spirits last to avoid palate fatigue early on or in the middle of the tasting, however this causes a problem with scoring and categories.
Using rum as an example we can easily end up with Pure Single Rums, Blended Rums or cask strength Traditional Rums in the same judging category. Having one pot distilled and one column distilled rum in the same category may give an unfair advantage to the former when comparing them in the same category. A similar problem will arise when slumping together cask strength spirits with diluted spirits. The latter, which will often have a better mouthfeel due to the reduced burning or prickly sensation but at the same time may not have the same intensity of flavour as cask strength spirits.
The spirits should be judged in their respective categories regardless of the alcohol by volume e.g. ‘Pure Single Rum’ or ‘Blended Rum.’ The suggested workaround is to use a specific criteria that compensates for mouthfeel where appropriate, and at the same time avoiding extra categorisation and awkward and unfair comparisons.
4. Proposed criteria for spirits evaluation
Commonly accepted criteria in spirits evaluation are: ‘Clarity’ or ‘Appearance’ and ‘Colour,’ ‘Nose,’ ‘Taste,’ ‘Mouthfeel’ (Alcohol) and ‘Finish.’ Since we will not be placing any emphasis on the appearance we are leaving it aside from the scoring process. We will however include a brief description of the ‘Appearance’ in our tasting notes. Mouthfeel is usually included in ‘Taste’ though in this system it is scored separately. These are divided into 10 different criteria as follows:
Nose(1) Aroma (2) Intensity
Taste(3) Concentration (4) Complexity (5) Length
Alcohol(6) By mouthfeel (7) By reduction
Finish(8) Balance (9) Aftertaste (10) Faults
5. Explanation of Criteria
(1) Aroma – The aroma or the nose is the first step in evaluating spirits. Here we examine the relationship of Primary Aromas and or Secondary Aromas. Primary aromas comprise of original raw ingredient, for example sugar cane or cereal. Secondary aromas are influenced by the type of the still, fermentation, type of yeast, maturation etc.
(2) Intensity – The intensity means how strongly the aromas present themselves. If one aroma is too intense it can be overpowering and disturb the balance and on the other hand lack of intensity can lead to dullness of the spirit.
(3) Concentration – The fullness or density of flavour and mouthfeel. Spirits can vary from being full bodied to light bodied all the way to the point of being neutral or bland.
(4) Complexity – A complex spirit is layered in a way that allows you to continually keep finding new layers of flavour but as with intensity not one of them should stand out so much as to be off balance.
(5) Perceived Length – The duration which the flavours remain in the mouth. Generally the more persistent the better. Since time is quite subjective, length can't really be measured in actual time, rather it will be based on a perceived duration.
(6) Alcohol by mouthfeel – The way the spirit feels in the mouth, as distinct from its taste. Typically described as temperature.
(7) Alcohol by reduction – Spirits that are 50%+ ABV automatically get full score. Lower strength spirits either by time or addition of water by the bottler, receive lower ranking. This is compensated by a gain in mouthfeel in (6); Alcohol reduction improves mouthfeel (smoother) but at the same time the intensity or concentration of flavour can be diminished, negatively affecting the lower strength spirits. This way we can judge natural strength spirits and reduced spirits in a fair manner.
d. Aftertaste / Finish
(8) Balance – Not one aspect should dominate over the others but all should contribute in an overall harmony of sensations.
(9) After taste – The remaining flavours in the mouth after swallowing and so called retro-nasal olfaction. Generally the longer the aftertaste the better.
(10) Faults – Any faults that are detected such as sulphur / rubber, vinegar, mustiness or dank odours or flavours. A lack of character could be considered as a fault. Signs of over maturation such as rum that tastes like wood tea from too much oak influence. Artificial flavours or any evidence of flavour additives are a clear fault. Added sugar is not a fault as such but in large quantities it can contribute to the blandness of the spirit. Any faults found will be noted down in each of the criteria.
Spirits are always tasted under the same conditions using the same tasting glass in normal room temperature. Samples are poured from unopened bottles unless otherwise noted. In the rare occasion when tasting limited or otherwise difficult to acquire products we may receive smaller sample bottles. The spirits are scored on a 100 point scale with the scoring broken down to numbers as seen in the below table.
100 Legendary (Unicorn)
96-99 Exceptional (Gold)
90-95 Outstanding (Silver)
85-89 Great (Bronze)
80-84 Above Average (Recommended)
50-74 Kill Devil
Alcohol by mouthfeel
Alcohol by reduction
10 - 50%+