Annoying the Whisky Bloggers (or tl;dr)

Over on K&L’s Spirits Journal blog, David Driscoll posted yesterday his reservations about “the future of internet whisky blogging“, asking if “we really need this much information about whisky…?” (good question) and calling out most bloggers as egoists (well, duh) and generally predicting the demise of whisky blogs. As someone who has only recently started his blog, if I’d read this yesterday I might have been prompted to do some soul searching about the point of yet another whisky blog. However, I read it today, and right above it was another blog post in which he proclaims the future of whisky blogging. All of this, by the way, comes two weeks of posts after a long four part series on the “whisk(e)y burnout”. Clearly, the key symptom of this “burnout” and the coming demise of whisky blogging is that it leads to a lot of whisky blogging. And so I don’t need to close shop after all, which is a relief as I’ve paid for a year’s hosting in advance.

But small ironies aside, there are many aspects of David’s posts from yesterday and today that I agree with, and also some that I disagree with. As Mother always said I should lead with the positive, let’s take my extrapolations from the former first: there are too many blogs out there that seem to operate on the premise that they are being read by the world at large and that they should somehow provide a “service” to this world, whether it is information about distilleries, or the secrets of true connoisseurship, information about new releases, reviews that function as buying guides etc. etc.. Let’s take these things one by one.

1. Now, I am not opposed to information but very good sources of information already exist, and there’s not much point to endless repetition. There are excellent books on whisky that people should read. I would recommend, in particular, David Daiches’ Scotch Whisky, first published in 1967, both for a history of the industry and major distilleries and to get a sense of how different the preferences of another era were; and I would also recommend Andrew Jefford’s Peat Smoke and Spirit, which is an account of the distilleries of Islay. Both are not just treasure troves of information, they are wonderfully written books which give pleasure for their literary qualities.

And for those who no longer read books there’s Johannes van den Heuvel’s excellent site, Malt Madness, which has information on the histories of all the malt distilleries of Scotland. As almost everything I might say about a distillery by way of introduction comes from Malt Madness I find it more useful to link to the relevant distillery page on Malt Madness from my posts than to regurgitate secondhand information. I understand the urge to do it, and I’m sure I fall prey to it myself: presenting information is a way of proclaiming expertise and if you’re not going to proclaim your expertise why should anyone read you? But we need fewer experts and more people who write from a less exalted self-proclaimed position.

2. As for the secrets of true connoisseurship, a genre to which almost every blog contributes at least a couple of posts, there’s really not much to it: you pour the whisky in a glass, you sniff and taste it, and you swallow it. Maybe you add some water along the way. What kind of glass, how much water you add, what device you add the water with–these are not terribly interesting subjects and yet as a community we manage to spend a lot of energy on them. I suspect it is because, once again, they help proclaim our expertise, and also because it makes what is really a rather simple activity seem more ritualistic and serious.

3. These are, however, relatively minor issues. They create a lot of noise, but they’re not particularly harmful. Not so, with the next two features of many blogs that I take issue with, two features that are really two aspects of one problem: far too many blogs function as an informal marketing arm of the whisky industry (and by industry I refer not just to distilleries or the companies that own them but to importers and retailers as well).

This is true whether a particular site intends to function in this manner or not. In the former category I’d place popular sites like Whisky Intelligence, which is essentially a clearing house for industry press releases, and WhiskyCast, which mostly gives industry figures a platform from which to address consumers directly. Now, I’m sure the proprietors of these sites might describe them differently but it seems to me they provide a service the companies might otherwise have to pay people to perform. In return they get access, and as access is the dream of most bloggers, big or small, very few people seem to take any of this amiss. I don’t mean to single these two sites out–most of the more influential blogs do this kind of thing as well–but I find these two instances interesting because the proprietors are also members of the Malt Maniacs collective, a group whose popular image is that of representing the whisky enthusiast.

But, as I say, a lot of people do this. Eagle-eyed blog readers may have noticed, for example, the sudden, simultaneous coverage in a number of blogs last year of the new Cutty Sark Storm release. Bloggers who rarely review blends were suddenly reviewing this one rather unremarkable blend (going entirely by their own reviews) at the same time. Coincidence? Probably not, but very few of those reviewing it noted the source of the samples. At other times on one blog you may see a reference to a junket organized by a company for a number of prominent whisky bloggers, but not all the bloggers named might even mention going on such a trip on their own blogs. And in all of this they’re not very different from the more established world of print whisky journalism, or to be fair from the world of lifestyle and leisure goods/services journalism in general, where the operative mode is not critique but symbiotic promotion (see, for example, ESPN).

But blogs without the bells and whistles and connections and ambitions of those referred to above participate in this general phenomenon too. Since single malt whisky is such a niche product (less than 10% of whisky sales) there is almost no significant advertising done for any but the most prominent brands. Independent bottlers, in particular, do almost no advertising. Blogs fill this vacuum. And since very few single malt whiskies are truly poor, almost every review is a positive review (the differences being largely of degrees of enthusiasm). If it is true that without blog reviews most of us would not hear about new esoteric bottlings, this does not change the fact that the review nonetheless functions as a kind of marketing. This is an ambivalent and unavoidable situation but usually the ambivalence and the more problematic aspects of the situation are elided.

I refer here to the fact that very few bloggers disclose clearly the source of the whiskies they are reviewing, which in many instances is either the producer, an importer or a retailer. This, I think, should be the community standard. Don’t tuck it away at the end of your review, note it clearly at the start. I myself do not solicit samples from the industry or review unsolicited samples, and go out of my way to publish untimely reviews. I don’t mean to imply that others should do as I do, but you should foreground what your protocols are. It may be that if you didn’t receive a lot of free samples you wouldn’t be in a position to review as many whiskies, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Rather than ten bloggers each posting twenty reviews of the same twenty whiskies we could have ten bloggers each posting four reviews of four different bottles they purchased themselves. We’d have more whiskies reviewed, with enough overlap to get an interesting range of takes, and no one would have to try to deny a basic attribute of human decency: that it is much harder to be critical of things people give you for free than it is of things you spend your own money on (and also, that it is much harder to be critical of the products made or sold by people you have interacted with personally).

So, this is where I begin to depart from David Driscoll’s view of what blogs can and should do:

I wanted to know that there were people out there who value the human relations element of the blogging. Blogging to reach out and meet people. Blogging to share information with people and to receive information in return. Blogging to make this hobby something communal and people-oriented, rather than another round of tasting notes…That’s the future of blogging. Bringing people together through words and common interest. Creating new ways for people to interface with their hobby that adds to the enjoyment.

4. Yes, blogs should be more idiosyncratic but I am not interested in a voice for its own sake; I read a whisky blog hoping to find an interesting voice saying something interesting about whisky. And the world of whisky blogging (though not just whisky blogging, of course) is already pretty incestuous: I think I could do with fewer bloggers who know all the other bloggers and share samples and opinions, and who hang out with whisky makers and brand ambassadors and retailers–if I want that I’ll just renew my subscription to Whisky Advocate.

And I’m all for more tasting notes–the more views the better–IF they result in an actual variety of views, and don’t turn this thing we are passionate about, this industrial product that can give us an experience of the sublime, into nothing but the subject of a buying guide. The difference in orientation is subtle but I would much rather read someone’s experience of a whisky than something that adds up to a recommendation of whether to buy or not. This is the difference, I would say, between a WhiskyFun and a WhiskyNotes (useful though I find the latter to be as well). And we need tasting notes that are less confident and assured, which stress the contingent nature of tasting and the evanescent nature of whisky, and which don’t give the impression that every aspect of a whisky can be identified and catalogued (and implicitly suggest that the goal of being a whisky geek is to get to the point where you too can do that).

And finally, we need amateur bloggers to provide not just enthusiasm but that voice of skepticism that neither the industry or those who align themselves with it, explicitly or implicitly, can be relied upon to provide: to puncture industry p.r., to point out when importers and retailers get a little too carried away with their prices or marketing rhetoric, and most importantly to keep each other honest. This notion of a happy, fuzzy community of whisky enthusiasts sounds nice–who wouldn’t be for a happy, fuzzy community?–but it leads in practice, I fear, to a dilution of rigour and a blurring of the important fact that while whisky enthusiasts and whisky producers and sellers do not need to be at odds, their interests are not identical.

These are my views, and if you don’t like them, I have others.

[First posted on April 28, 2013 at 13:37 US Central Time, and cosmetically edited a few times in the hours following.]

9 thoughts on “Annoying the Whisky Bloggers (or tl;dr)

  1. Thank you for such a critical assessment of whisky blogging and your commitment to skepticism, rigor and critical thinking.

    When we talk about blogging, we are also talking about the ethics of writing. Without an independent and critical perspective, whisky writing is bound to be a) impressionistic (as in, “I tasted this, how nice. You should buy it!”) and b) co-opted by the industry.

    I also do not think that writing critically about whisky is inherently egoistic, as long as a critical perspective is maintained. I have noticed that fellow members of whisky sites who have started blogs seem suddenly to have many exotic samples. I don’t begrudge them that benefit at all, but ultimately it will raise the question of how independent their blogs are. With Driscoll, at least one knows what one is dealing with, and he is–to my mind, admirably– willing to state the problem that he sees for whisky blogs in general. Because a gesture like this goes beyond his job description and he already gets samples/bottles/trips, I found his recent post(s) to be refreshing. I doubt that those posts affect K&L’s bottom line in any way.

    Other blogs–music blogs, critical theory blogs, etc.–don’t have this problem. Nobody is rushing to send the bloggers free discs or free books. Whisky blogging, however, is another beast. Just a few minutes ago, I saw an “independent blog” entry about a “sale” on Lagavulin DE from Caskers for 98$, with a link to this bargain. It’s not a particularly good price, and, despite what the blogger claimed, the bottle is still widely available. If this is not a paid advertisement, it should be!

    Anyhoo, I should get back to the positive: I have enjoyed your contributions to whiskywhiskywhisky, and I look forward to reading your blog.
    Jon

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    • Jon,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and post your own considered comments (and also for the kind words). I suspect that most regular bloggers don’t really think about these things. Having a blog, getting plugged into a wider whisky scene–these are all exciting things and receiving samples etc. must feel like recognition from the industry. Youth is probably a part of it. Me, I’m in my 40s, am settled in a very different profession, am a bit of a dick and so have no expectations/hopes for this blog, either in terms of pageviews or making friends.

      I agree with you about the unusual situation of whisky blogs. Though I would say that food bloggers, especially those who review high-end restaurants are in much the same boat; with some, tacitly or otherwise, trading free/special meals/treatment and access for glowing coverage and fetishistic pictures of food. I used to be very active on a number of food forums, and a friend on one of them likes to joke that entire genres of haute cuisine have sprung up that are optimized for dslr photography.

      And I didn’t mean to give the impression that I include David Driscoll in the critique of whisky blogger practices at the end of my post. As you say, he’s obviously in a very different position. I do think that he sometimes seems to forget that he is part of the industry, and that his own association with whisky bloggers can’t be as innocent as he would like it to be. People do review products K&L sells, including products that are exclusive to them (whether or not K&L supplies samples–I have no reason to believe they do or don’t). And as much as I enjoy reading Spirits Journal, I think we have to remember that K&L’s primary interest is to move their inventory, not to raise the consciousness of whisky consumers (which is not to say that I think David is trying to con anyone). David’s (genuine) enthusiasm blurs that line sometimes. Still, I wish more liquor retailers in the country had people like the two Davids working for them.

      I should also add that by no means do I think that there are no other whisky bloggers who cut through the industry’s crap. To name just a couple, Sku of Recent Eats has no trouble calling the bourbon industry on its bullshit, and Oliver Klimek of Dramming too seems to cast a critical light on things from time to time. Of course, there are many others on the far end of that continuum.

      Cheers!

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  2. I always thought bloggers did what they did for the free samples ;-) I just don’t see a lot of whisky blogs that have been around that long. I remember when the Malt Maniacs started their site. I really enjoyed it and it was unique as there were very few people discussing whisky online at that time. But original members burned out.

    I think a lot of people discover whisky –especially Scotch, and feel a need to tell the world of their discovery. Nothing wrong with that. I like reading what other people think of their purchase. I’ll be impressed when I see someone posting their tasting notes twenty years from now. I’ve been drinking Scotch for almost thirty years now. I personally feel no need to have a blog but I do enjoy post a few thoughts on WWW. I suppose I just don’t care, maybe I’m too lazy…who knows. I just don’t get the benefit of having a whisky blog really. But I’m glad to participate on yours. I like the way you write mongo. I hope you are around for a long while.

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    • My instinct is always to participate on forums. The only other blog I’ve ever had is a group blog about movies that I ran with a bunch of friends from graduate school (but that is now all but defunct). If WhiskyWhiskyWhisky were more active I don’t think I would have had any thought of blogging, but for whatever reason, it seems difficult these days to sustain in-depth discussion there, and I don’t want to inflict my tendency to long-form posting on people who might prefer more casual interaction (or have those posts disappear into the ether). I quite enjoy the more casual interaction myself, and so am unlikely to stop posting there.

      I do wish those of you who’ve been drinking whisky for decades would post more. My own experience is only a decade or so long, and it is only in the last 5-6 years that it’s turned into a true passion/obsession.

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      • Regarding participation at WWW, I agree it is anemic but I personally supplement with discussion on other sites (usually political in nature) so I get my fill. Regarding posting from those of us drinking whisky for >10 years. I generally don’t post my thoughts on whiskies from the past for the following reasons:

        1. During most of the 80s I was too poor to afford anything worth discussing, though there was one bottle over very old Bourbon I was given in 1985 that was absolutely spectacular and I have no idea what it was.

        2. I started to have some disposable income in the early ninties, but in my sphere of opportunity in the retail world was significantly limited to buying standard stuff: The Glenlivet/Fiddich/Chivas Regal/Johnny Walker/Macallan/etc. I then discovered more expressions at Trader Joe’s like Lagavilun, Oban, The Dalmore, Bunnahabhain, and a few others (some good and some not-so-good). I used to buy a new bottle of Lagavulin 16 every month. These were the White Horse bottlings. Fortunately I had one White Horse bottling tucked away I didn’t know about until recently. It remains full and unopened. One day I will organize an A/B comparison tasting. You are invited. I think the LAWS guys did something similar recently.

        3. When the WEB started in 1994 we were all liberated. By the end of that decade I had found the Malt Maniacs, TWE, and a host of Southern California specialty retailers carrying OBs and IBs. I really started seriously exploring other distilleries and expressions around 2000/01 or so and that is also when my collection started by default (meaning I couldn’t consume as fast as I was taking delivery). When I opened my first Highland Park it was like the sky opened up. I started looking at Japanese and other world whiskies around ten years ago. I took a break around 2005 or so due to a bad relationship and restarted again in 2008.

        So you can see my experience with anything other than standard grocery store whisky isn’t all that old. I can say for my taste the Oban 14, Bunnahabhain, and especially the Lagavulin 16 of the nineties were superior to today’s bottlings but no one really wants to hear that…it all just opinion anyway. I am more interested in learning about what is available now anyway and the developments in the industry ex. NAS. I am happy to work through my aging inventory and selectively purchase new expressions.

        I think the BLOGGERS can take credit for some of the industry changes: higher general ABV, NCF, no E150a trends.

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  3. Your best point is from the Whisky Advocate comment field:

    “there is more information available about single malt whisky and that, on the other, there isn’t always an accompanying growth in knowledge: for example, we know far more now about cask/wood types but we don’t really know what that information means, and are mostly happy (professionals and amaeurs alike) to just recycle what the industry tells us it means.”

    This is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo true. I think about that everyday.

    “We’re using all copper pot stills…..” what does that mean to the average consumer? More importantly, how often does that kind of info get repeated without any explanation as to why that’s a good thing?

    Weren’t you supposed to PM me when you launched this? I’m hurt.

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    • Hi David: I thought I had PM’d you when I first sent the link to some folks on WhiskyWhiskyWhisky–which was a while before I finally got around to putting the link in my signature. The forum software doesn’t allow more than 5 people cc’d on one message and I probably missed a bunch of people I meant to inform, as on the first pass I’d entered all the usernames at once and then when the software rejected the message I had to try and remember each one I’d meant to message. Anyway, I’m glad you found the blog eventually. Please feel free to critique me just as much (or more) than I’ve critiqued you–in your role representing K&L. And I should warn you that at some point I’ll probably be posting a critique of the practices of some prominent whisky retailers, and K&L will be represented there too.

      And yeah, the recycling of “jargon” is something we’re all guilty of–it marks us as members of the guild, I suppose, and makes it look like we’re engaged in something very serious and complicated.

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      • I think the most important step for me in starting this job was to embrace the fact that I didn’t know anything so that I wouldn’t be afraid to ask. We get “jargon” all the time in the store from brand reps that MAY be important or significant, but I might not understand why.

        Why is copper important? Do I ask that, or do I risk looking like a noob for not knowing? Do I put that in the tasting notes? Do I tell customers that?

        That was what really impressed me about Jake Lustig and his ArteNOM tequilas. He’ll tell you about how the agave comes from “high-elevation growers,” but then he’ll tell you exactly why that’s important and how it affects flavor. Then he’ll taste you on “low-elevation agave” tequila so that you understand the difference. Guys like him are invaluable.

        We need educators, but we also need consumers who are willing to listen and not be afraid to claim ignorance. There’s a lot that I don’t know and won’t ever know unless I ask. Hopefully, there’s a clear answer when I do.

        Hopefully, we can all make everyone feel comfortable in the whisky community so that they won’t be afraid to ask, either.

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  4. I must check in more often. You’ve been busy.

    I read the blogs/other sites you’ve mentioned, and I skim at least double that many more. The morning’s coffee runs out long before I’m finished reading/skimming.

    I tried to hide the fact for a number of years, but I suppose it’s no secret that I’m a retailer. Our bar/shop is open to the public two nights a month. I try to react to most topics on blogs/forums as one guy interested in whisky, not as a retailer. I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone when I post online. I’ll never start my own blog about whisky, and if I did I couldn’t accept industry samples because that violates state law. I read for personal pleasure, and I read for the business–in today’s instant-info world a retailer would be nuts not to.

    I applaud your blog’s ethos and ethics, although I must admit I don’t get wrapped around the axle about a blogger not id-ing the source of samples. A skeptical reader eventually learns which bloggers are being fed their whisky.

    Keep posting, mongo. I’ll make your place one of my daily stops with the morning coffee.

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