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.]