"To adequately describe the Tullibardine Rex Goliath 30-year-old, one must discard pithy, underwhelming adjectives of the sort language provides. Rather, I should point, with trembling hands, at the grand spires of the Hagia Sophia emerging from the Bosporus mist; the Pyramids, raised from a lifeless desert, built by a million Semitic hands; or the devilish, visionary intricacy of the Antikythera Mechanism, predating modern technology by thirty centuries. And to combine all three would still arrive at just a fraction of the sense of awe and majesty which this fine Whisky evokes in your humble reviewer. 93/100" - Murray Douglas, Great Whiskies the World Over 1989
"Ah yes, the legendary nose of Murray Douglas. He could pick out a single violet growing in an acre of Jimson Weed, just by standing downwind - with a head cold." - Jim Jackson, whisky reviewer
Murray John Ramsay Mackinlay-Douglas, OBE, OM, MP 1936-2011
Writer, traveller, politician, rabid Pease Pottage Village FC fan and whisky expert par excellence, Murray Douglas achieved world renown for his annual whisky encyclopdia, "Great Whiskies the World Over", published every year from 1974 until his death in which he tasted, nosed and reviewed over three thousand whiskies per year. More than simply a connoisseur, Douglas took an active role in the resurrection of the Single Malt Whisky industry, personally saving Ardbeg from demolition in 1997 and releasing a personal line of blended whisky called "Salve of Culloden", an unusual blend of Laphroaig and Glenfiddich that regrettably never reached the kind of sales figures it deserved. Despite his genius he was not a solitary, aloof soul; one of his closest friends was Donnie Cozey (of A Prayer and a Pint fame), and together they collaborated on a show titled A Devotional and a Dram, which unfortunately only started filming just before Douglas passed.
Known throughout the alcohol connoisseurship world as having a palate and nose of logic-defying sensitivity, his perhaps crowning moment of glory occurred in 1976 when, upon tasting a dram of the 15-year-old Royal Lochnagar, correctly identified the type of spider whose cobwebs laced the corners of the distillery's malting floors.
Born on August 8th, 1936, in Chadwick Dullage, Perthshire, the son of the local Exciseman, Murray Douglas was exposed to the finest Single Malt Whisky from a young age, his father's tendency to misread the gauges and the resulting large personal Single Malt collection being somehow linked. Young Murray's first dram was at the age of three, which he recounted in his memoir Dionysus, Bacchus, Douglas; An Eternal Golden Dram;
"Indeed I knew, even at that tender age, that this sublime nectar from Glenmorangie (being light bodied and suitable for toddlers) offered me an experience, benefits, and comforts which heretofore had only been crudely supplied by my mother's breast..."
This simple gift from father to son set little Murray on a lifelong quest to discover, taste and rhapsodize upon all the whiskies the world over. Accepted to Oxford University on a full scholarship at sixteen, Douglas studied International Affairs and minored in Theoretical Astrophsyics, becoming the personal assistant of Lester Pearson during his mediation (and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize) of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Several years later, Douglas found a home at the UN as part of the personal entourage of U Thant. Never travelling without several choice bottles of Scottish Single Malt, Cragganmore and Glenfiddich 18yo among his favourites, Douglas' easygoing, gregarious character is credited with helping spark the massive popularity of Single Malts in North America in the 1960's, and he was among the first professional whisky reviewers to have visited both the Yamazaki and Amrut distilleries, in Japan and India respectively - then tiny, ramshackle operations mostly catering to the British expat market. Indeed, in 1998 Amrut released a limited-edition Murray's Malt, aged in barrels from every major distilling region on the planet, to commemorate Douglas' efforts in popularizing international whiskies in Great Britain and around the world. Appearing in Douglas' 1999 Great Whiskies the World Over, the Murray Malt is described as being
"A cacaphony of noise, unguided and rambling, like a butterfly flitting from petal to petal in a gale. 64/100"
It speaks to Douglas' deep, uncompromising integrity that he would disparage even his own namesake whisky when called for.
Upon completion of his five-year stint at the UN, Douglas returned to England and enrolled in Cambridge, attempting to re-stoke his lifelong interest in matters Cosmic. Advanced theoretical mathematics, however, did not appeal to the thirty-one year old globetrotter, as he found himself more interested in hosting whisky tastings for his fellow theoreticians and eventually flunked out in 1970. One of his fellow students, Stephen Hawking, later wrote about a 1968 encounter with Douglas, saying:
"He laid out a dozen different bottles from the best distilleries in Scotland, poured a little in each glass, and proceeded to rhapsodize about them all. 'Can it be possible that so many singularities of perfection, each arrived at differently, can co-exist in the Universe?', he said. 'It seems to me that singular perfection in this Cosmos is indeed the rule, and not the exception.' It got me thinking..."
After failing out of Cambridge, Murray was encouraged to take up whisky writing by friend and playwright Noel Coward, having met by chance in a London whisky shop in 1966. His first columns, "Douglas' Drams", appeared in the Yorkshire Evening Post in March 1971 and were quickly syndicated throughout Great Britain, eventually being compiled into the very first Great Whiskies the World Over book in 1974. Douglas' writings, though criticized as being "excessively florid, Baroque and grandiose", nevertheless became popular due to his near-encyclopedic command of whisky knowledge, and he was among the first beverage reviewers to introduce a 1-100 point grading system. Distilleries, sensing the value in courting such a powerful voice in the industry, soon inundated Douglas with free samples and requests for collaborations on new offerings. Though publicly admitting that he had not "paid for a single ounce of whiskey since June 1973", it was not until the mid-90s that he became directly involved with the industry. In 1992 he established a holding company, now called Diageo, Inc, which bought up mothballed distilleries and re-staffed them with master stillmen, or, if the whisky had been "dreadful to begin with", converted them into loft apartments. As he said, while present at the 1993 demolition of the notorious Pittyvaich distillery,
"The burst of smoke that accompanied its implosion seemed, I rather like to imagine, a great Cosmic exhalation of relief."
Foray Into Politics
Nominated by acclamation as the Tory candidate for the 1982 byelection in Watercress-upon-Rye, Douglas handily won with a plurality of over 36,000 votes and took his seat in the House of Commons amid thunderous applause from both sides of the aisle. His brief stint in politics, however, was only remarkable for, in the words of fellow MP Lewis St. John Devereaux-Devereaux,
"The honourable member from Watercress-upon-Rye chose to expound upon nearly every conceivable issue as a metaphor for a particular whisky. I believe he referred to the Iran-Iraq war as like 'a choice dram of Clynelish, smoke and oak battling each other for supremacy, neither side gaining, both sides drifting forever in battle to a desert-like finish.' Which actually wound up being more apt than we realized at the time."
Discouraged by the sometimes open derision of his colleagues, Douglas chose not to stand for re-election in the 1983 UK General Election, however continued to use the "MP" honorific after his name until the end of his life. He was made a companion of the Order of Merit in 1996 for his "valuable contributions to human knowledge", and was in 2007 knighted Officer of the British Empire.
Despite accusations of partiality due to his acquisition of nearly a dozen distilleries in the 90's, Douglas continued to taste and review whiskies at a rate of nearly twelve per day, unassisted, right up until his death on August 11, 2011, from arteriosclerosis and acute cirrhosis of the liver. In the last five editions of Great Whiskies the World Over, readers noted a peculiar departure from the norm. Where he had been giving Islay and many Speyside malts consistently high scores since the beginning, almost all single malt scores plunged. Instead, seemingly cheap, bottom shelf blends garnered the 90+ point reviews, with J&B Rare being named Whisky of the Year 2010. This was made all the more perplexing by the fact that none of the cheap blends which he supported were actually ever owned by him (Douglas himself sold the last of his Diageo stock in 2002). In his Whisky of the Year summation of 2010, Douglas writes:
Like Chares of Lindos, or Phidias the Great, from the sulfuric blasts of their great forges springs work of inimitable skill and beauty. Indeed, it is only by suffering its fire can we come to know its sublime grace and beauty. And so it is with J&B Rare.
Whisky author Charles Campbell, however, had a different take on his mentor's scoring choices:
"Murray Douglas has had, for the last twenty-five years, unimpeded daily access to the finest whiskies the world has ever known. Where most of us can only dream about tasting the nectar that is Dalmore 1938, Mr. Douglas could have Richard Paterson himself install a fountain of the stuff in his Scottish baronial castle. I think what happened was, his palate had grown so accustomed to unimaginable luxury, that upon tasting a horrid, fire-water offering like J&B Rare, he mistook its novelty for quality. Mr. Douglas had his day in the sun, no doubt, but dusk is quickly approaching."
Mr. Murray Douglas passed in his sleep at the Royal London Hospital at 4:20 am on August 11, 2011, survived by four nieces and five nephews. A dram of Macallan 21yo was resting by his bedside, half-finished. He never married.
Why would I ever marry? Why would I ever wish the burden of small feet running across my Persian rugs? Whisky is my wife. Whisky is my children. Whisky is my dog and my cat. Whisky is my budgerigar in its cage. That I did not come into this world with a dram in my hand is a tragedy I cannot rectify; but nothing would give me more comfort than to leave this world in whisky's warm, supple embrace.
Murray Douglas, 1936-2011