There's something very human about the desire to classify and categorize the objects in our lives, and I've spent no small amount of time thinking about how to do it here.
Drawing from both my own experiences as a consumer and a reader of other spirits websites, I realized that any rating system faces an inherent dilemma. On one hand, an overly specific and esoteric system (example: this gets a 17.3 out of a possible 28 points) is incomprehensible to the reader. Even the 100-point scale that's fairly common in the "blogosphere" is problematic and not as easily understood as one would think—a topic for another day.
On the other hand, the worry is that an overly simplified rating system is reductive and doesn't account for the variation between one product and another. I suspect some reviewers fear—even if they won't openly admit it—that a stripped-down, simplified scale (example: thumbs up or thumbs down) makes them seem amateurish and uncritical.
Personally, I think it's better to air toward the latter rating system than the former. Spirit Animal uses a scale that I think is fairly straightforward, but I wanted to devote just a bit of additional commentary to each rating.
Note that I do my best to evaluate each product on its own terms. In my mind, that means judging a $20 bourbon against, for example, other $20 bourbons. In this sense, Spirit Animal's ratings are far from absolute in the sense that they absolutely account for my own perception of value and enjoyment.
So what does it all mean?
This rating denotes something that isn't just merely good, but something exciting. It's a spirit you want to tell others about. Three-star products denote something unbeatable in its product category in terms of taste and value. Something that makes you appreciate it more with each new pour. The kind of bottle you restock instantly when you pour the last drop—or the kind you stock in advance so you never need to face that worry.
This represents something I would categorically recommend. Full stop. Flat out. Any two star review represents a product that I consider "good" without any significant faults that need to be hand-waved away. At the price the distillers are asking, it's worth the money and I think you'll be satisfied with it. I would absolutely buy whatever I recommend in a two-star review again (given enough time, anyway).
If I'm feeling even slightly underwhelmed by a product or am on the fence about whether it meets the two-star cut-off, it gets only one. This saves me from a wishy-washy "one-and-a-half star" rating, but it also lets you know where I personally draw the line between "buy it" and "skip it." That said, it's important for me to note that with one-star ratings especially, you might enjoy a particular style or expression quite a bit more than I do. As such, a bottle tagged with this rating may be worth it to you. Rather than view my assessment as a hard "nope," look at a single star as a suggestion to "try before you buy" if the description appeals to you or if you think I'm being utterly stupid.
Not everything can be saved. These ratings identify products that weren't just disappointing, but those I flat-out didn't like—and I like a lot of things. While it might seem obvious, a zero-star rating is the digital equivalent of me flailing my hands back and forth, warning you away from the product in question. In cases like these, expect lousy drinking experiences and/or extremely poor value for spend.
This may be quite a lot of words to clarify what might seem painfully obvious, but I hope the additional thoughts and explanations will be helpful to a few readers. I'm bound to get a few questions about my mindset or methodology at some point in the future, so I figured it'd be handy to have something written for just such an occasion.