Serge Valentin: the Joker in the pack

Serge Valentin: the Joker in the pack

Serge Valentin: the Joker in the pack

Serge Valentin is one of the most well-respected people in the fine spirits world. For decades, whisky enthusiasts have parted with thousands of pounds based on his reviews alone. Holly Motion asks him how it all began – and how the industry has evolved since he started writing about whisky for fun

10th March 2023

Serge Valentin has been one of the few truly independent voices in the Scotch whisky world since the early 2000s. For two decades and counting, the Alsace-native has published his tasting notes and scores to an astoundingly large and loyal audience with his characteristically good humour and impartiality in what can be a deafening echo chamber.  

Despite being one of the most well-respected authorities in the industry, Valentin has always written about whisky in his spare time, very much considering it a pastime that he dabbles in for fun. This is somewhat of a surprise, given the many people who part with thousands of pounds based on his views alone. 

“Contrary to what many believe, I’ve never been a pro and have never actually worked in whisky,” the jaunty Valentin is quick to tell me. “It is all a kind of super-hobby to me and if you ever see me doing gigs, for example at whisky festivals, it is always for free, for fun and for friends.”  

Valentin’s “proper work”, as he calls it, is in advertising and marketing, where he owns two agencies which employ around 2,000 people. These agencies, he says glibly, are “supposed to pay for my whiskies…luckily, they do”.

It was a very different landscape when Valentin started writing about Scotch in 2002. Single malts had been marketed for 30-plus years but there wasn’t the seemingly insatiable demand and record-breaking prices that are commonplace today. It all began when Valentin, armed with bottles of his favourite Old Clynelish and Brora, sat down and shared his musings on his aptly named website WhiskyFun. This wasn’t a vanity project or a vehicle for freebies, this was a man writing about the whiskies he loved, just because he wanted to. From humble beginnings, WhiskyFun has become one of the most well-respected hubs for commentary on Scotch.

The new Brora – a distillery (in its previous iterations) that's close to Valentin's heart

Valentin follows a 100-point scoring system, like some of the great critics in the world of wine. For Valentin, however, 80/100 is a good score. His methodology is largely unchanged. He will spend an average of 30 minutes tasting a whisky (he does, on occasion, score rums and other spirits) – this can increase up to an hour if it’s a “good one” and take nearer 10 minutes if it is a “bad one”. He always compares several similar spirits, almost always from the same distillery, and never scores “out of the blue”. He tastes “alone, using the same parameters” (place, time of day, glassware, water etc.) and always writes as he tries, and then publishes once a day. 

His write-ups are always short, honest, and unmistakably him. After all these years, it’s dumbfounding that he has the time or inclination to produce the near-constant stream of reviews that appear on his website.   

It’s fascinating to see which liquids he scores – and, sometimes more intriguingly, the ones he doesn’t. “The choices rather depend on what I get and what I source, but my sample library is much larger than my tasting capacity,” he explains.  

This all started as a passion project for Valentin and it’s abundantly clear that that fire burns just as bright today. He never takes himself too seriously and is evidently ill at ease with any comparison between himself and the greatly respected critics in the world of wine.   

This is, in part, because the role of a critic in spirits is nowhere near as established as it is in wine. There are leading voices in the Scotch whisky world who undoubtedly carry considerable clout, but they aren’t critics in the traditional sense. While they might be prolific in their output and have seemingly healthy book retainers, they rarely score spirits and if they do, their tasting notes will be almost entirely positive (often because they are in a producer’s employ). The closest the spirits world has to a Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson MW is probably Valentin – although, he wouldn’t agree.  

“I would say the roles are more and more the same in wine and spirits,” Valentin says, “even if there are fewer actual ‘critics’ in spirits. But it is coming in whisky.” 

Valentin does feel there is a need for scores in collectable spirits, as – like wine – there isn’t always the opportunity for people to try before they buy. But the issue is not black and white, as is true of many things Valentin and I discuss.  

“I see that scores [in whisky] become more like stock market recommendations these days,” he says.“I’m not too happy about that but that wouldn’t be the case if spirits, especially whisky, had remained a reasonably priced commodity,” he says, before adding: “But the cardinal sins are what they are.”

The Valentin scoring system: impartial and good humoured

It’s clear whisky drinkers respect Valentin’s voice, as they flock to his site in droves. What’s less clear, however – as an outsider looking in – is how producers feel about Valentin’s refusal to kowtow and sugar-coat his reviews. 

“Producers have never quite known how to deal with independent voices,” he explains. “In general, they prefer influencers that they can pay and control, even if their audiences are smaller and less ‘on target’,” he adds, “for which I can’t blame them. Fortunately,” he continues, “not all distillers are the same. Some corporations are smarter than others and that often depends on the people within.”  

When asked why he thinks people return to his site, which doesn’t have any of the bells and whistles you might expect from an ad man and is as no-frills today as it was two decades ago, Valentin says, as self-deprecatingly as ever: “I’m not really aware of everything that’s happening in the reviewing landscape, I have to say. If indeed people keep coming back to my assessment, that’s partly, I believe, because I started early and simply because they trust me. Trust is number one.”  

In many ways, Valentin’s website is a collection. It’s a receptacle for his innermost thoughts and feelings about the things that matter most to him. Valentin has always been collector at heart. With an interest in stamps from childhood, he then graduated onto watches, wine and then whisky. The father of three has a broad and eclectic range of interests, including music (“all kinds”), advertising, motorcycling, wine, watches, food and travel which he has nurtured and indulged. Throughout the years, Valentin has had a front-row seat to the evolutions within these industries and the so-called art of collecting.  

“Old-school collectors used to buy what they liked, never what was meant to see its value rise,” he says. “In the old days, you had to travel, to make phone calls, to go to festivals etc. Today,” he says somewhat ruefully, “you can buy anything, as long as you’ve got the money.”

Valentin was ahead of the curve when he made the choice many years ago to buy as many different Old Clynelish and Brora single malts as he could, simply because they were his favourites. At the time, and up until 2005 to 2010, all whiskies – even the rarest – remained relatively cheap. After 2010, it was silly season and whiskies you could previously source were nigh on impossible to find or prohibitively expensive for some. 

Valentin’s favourite whiskies have become some of the most desirable on the secondary market. Old Clynelish, produced before the distillery was rechristened Brora, have gained a huge following globally as people were charmed by the story and the characterful liquid the two distilleries produced. Now Brora is set to be re-opened, these single malts will only become more valuable. While his collection is no-doubt impressive – exact bottlings are not disclosed – there are some unicorns which still elude Valentin.  

“Rather bizarrely and inexplicably, I prefer fatter spirits and fresher wines,” Valentin says, “in both cases with as little straight oak influence as possible. So, fat distillates, such as some coastal malts, some Jamaican rums etc. In wine, that would be the bright whites, Jura, Savoie, Rueda, Pacherenc, Irouleguy, Alsace, Wachau and Andalusia.”   

“I know oak is crucial,” he adds, “you just shouldn’t feel it as such, according to my personal taste. But I insist, that’s personal.”

The mighty oak: a subject Valentin feels strongly about

Oak is a topic Valentin returns to several times. He feels it is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to innovation in the Scotch whisky industry.  

“Sure, there are a few innovations around the casks,” he says, “but all makers use more or less the same.” The woods used are usually more active, which allows producers to sell much younger whisky for a good price while widening the ranges at the same time, he says.  

“I’m not saying that’s bad,” he quickly adds, “but not many people are talking about the distilling regimes, the stills and so on, which was the number one topic 20 years ago.”

He continues: “It is now all about wood. But, when we talk about wood that includes their flavouring with other spirits, wines, or even whiskies from other distilleries such as some peated ones, which is the latest trend, to peat single malts by doing some in-cask blending rather than bother with brewing and distilling some peated malt.

“So, cutting corners for sure but on the other hand, I believe the average quality has risen pretty sharply. So, all remains good and well…” 

This seems to be Valentin’s baseline. The whisky world might have changed but he believes it is the same at its core. There is an increase in branding and marketing (which is likely a source of joy and consternation for an ad man), there are more malts, and for the past five or six years, more distilleries from almost all countries.  

“I’m not bored yet,” he says in his frank way, “and in general, whisky has got better on average, even if there are fewer utter glories and fewer total duds.” 

If a man with Valentin’s reputation of no-holds-barred honesty is broadly happy, then we probably all should be too.  



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