[Note: The original version of this post contained another paragraph that paraphrased the discussion on a Facebook group for whisky bloggers. While I had anonymized my references and not quoted anyone directly, some in the group expressed discomfort with that material being included. Since I don’t really want the focus of this to be diverted to that non-issue, I have edited the post to remove those references. Everything else is as it was before.]
When this blog was only about a month old I posted this long piece critiquing many practices and habits of whisky bloggers; it was simultaneously intended as a kind of manifesto and as a public check against any temptation I might feel to slide into the same habits/practices (post your standards publicly and it becomes harder to contravene them for convenience). Towards the end of the piece I said the following:
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.
Around the same time I was invited to join a Facebook group of whisky bloggers and did so. While I generally stay out of discussions on the group–there’s only so many different places that I want to talk about whisky–a recent conversation caught my eye and made me think that the point above may bear repeating. In that conversation about networking etc. at whisky festivals and events I made the following comment:
I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if less networking happened.
Another blogger asked what exactly I meant by this. This was my response:
What I mean, more or less, is that the networked community of bloggers who are constantly patting each other on the back and cross-promoting each other fail to keep each other honest or to keep a spirit of critique open for anyone other than approved outsiders (like Blair Bowman). And when their networking extends to industry figures whose products are then blogged about in that same back-patting, non-critical manner then there’s just a hint of (soft) corruption about all this fuzzy niceness too.
I do understand why the professionals–for whom this is not a hobby but a livelihood–need to network. but we also need to leave open some room to critique those networks as well.
This may seem to place me in the position of being against community and the shared experience of whisky which, like puppies and ice-cream, you can’t possibly be against (though puppy ice-cream, of course, we should all resist). So, I figured I would restate and expand on my views and do so here on this blog so as to open the conversation out to the larger whisky geekverse (or at least the tiny fraction of it that reads my blog from time to time).
I am not, of course, against either community or sharing whisky. In fact, I drink with friends often. I just don’t see what necessary relation this has to bloggers networking. Most bloggers presumably have lots of opportunities to share whisky with friends and are not restricted to whisky events and shows for the opportunity to do this. At least I hope they’re not. So feeling dubious about networking at whisky shows is not the same as being opposed to community or a shared experience of whisky. So what is it exactly that I am dubious about?
Let’s take the longer one first: hobbyist whisky bloggers networking with industry figures. [And here I should clarify that I see both distillery employees and marketing folk as well as professional writers and journalists as industry figures.] The problem here, I think, and I don’t think this can be a very original observation, is that in lifestyle journalism writers are far more embedded in the industry to begin with than they are in a critical relation to it. This is not a criticism per se; writing about whisky is not the same as writing about government corruption or geopolitics and I’m not suggesting the same investigative style should be appropriate for both (it’s a bigger problem really that political journalists behave like lifestyle journalists). Lifestyle journalists can’t question the industry very much because the publications they write for (mostly on a contract basis) are deeply reliant on the industry for advertising, materials etc.. Whisky journalism therefore functions mostly as a celebration of the whisky industry and everyone’s happy with the quality and quantity of reciprocal backscratching (or wanking, if you prefer).
But this is precisely where I think bloggers have the opportunity to open up room for critique that the industry–the distillery owners/marketers and the major publications–cannot or will not give us; to write about issues, and from perspectives, that don’t align with those of the industry. I’m not suggesting that this is what bloggers should write about all the time–I myself spend all my time writing fussy tasting notes that a handful of people read; but keeping the theoretical space open seems important. This independence and potential critical perspective is what it seems to me gets lost very quickly when bloggers so happily jump in the pool with the professionals; and indeed many bloggers seem happy to be co-opted in this way, it seems proof of their success that the industry acknowledges and “rewards” them with access. Here’s an example of this kind of muddied activity in progress:
A month or so ago on her blog Whisky Lassie, Johanne McInnis, who is also one of the perpetrators of the #WhiskyFabric meme, inaugurated a series on whisky writers with an interview of Dominic Roskrow. If you take a look you’ll see that this interview contains a “scoop”, presented in a very dramatic manner. To wit, that Roskrow is launching his own independent bottling concern named Discovery Road. There’s not a word in here about the question of the conflict of interest that raises itself re the fact that he will apparently continue to work with Whisky Advocate for whom he reviews whiskies, nor about the fact that he’s presumably already been reviewing whiskies for Whisky Advocate and others for a while now while building the industry relationships that allow him to break into independent bottling. It’s as though this thought has not even occurred to the genial Johanne who seems to see no role for herself here other than to help promote this undertaking. [It goes without saying, of course, that Whisky Advocate itself is yet to mention this.]
I hope it’s clear why I find this kind of thing objectionable; and I hope that it’s also clear that it’s hard to escape doing this kind of thing if you see yourself as part of a “community” that includes the people you might otherwise take a more judicious and critical look at.
Now, what do I have against whisky bloggers networking with each other? Not very much, actually, except that a) there’s already a tedious amount of groupthink in the whisky world and b) we need to hold each other to higher standards. Being tougher on ourselves is only going to result in better writing, more attention to ethics, and more interesting blogs in general. But even for a dick like me it’s hard to be tough on people when you’re meeting up and drinking with fellow bloggers, following and retweeting each other, relying on each other for readership, and generally keeping an echo-chamber of views and reviews going.
This, in more detail than anyone wanted, is why I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if less networking happened. Now please link to this post on Facebook and tweet it to all your followers.
You pretty much took the words out of my mouth but expressed them more eloquently than I would ever be able to do.
Totally agree with everything you wrote, but I don’t think this is any different from any other industry. That’s not to say it *shouldn’t* be better — with writers (professional or otherwise) acting as critical observers of the world of whiskey-craft — only that it probably won’t get any better anytime soon. In fact, as American whiskey continues to skyrocket in popularity it’s likely to only get worse with a larger group of writers clamoring for a piece of the action, using whatever means at their disposal.
My wife works in the PR industry, and, in the brief time I’ve been a whiskey blogger (3 months), it seems that there is tremendous overlap between her job and whiskey-writing.
Now please pat my back for patting yours — that’s the only reason I bothered commenting after all.
Oh my, you have such soft down on your back? Could I possibly have a scarf made out of it?
On another note…it seems that I’ve walked (barged?) in on the whiskey scene at an time of increasing angst among the establishment about the state and probable trajectory of whisk(e)y in America. Sku is frustrated at people assuming that there must be something wrong with his tasting methodology if he has the audacity to disagree with them. Tim Read is frustrated with the frenzied, rabid whiskey purchasers (and re-sellers) pouncing on any limited release — to the point of pulling out of the rat race altogether. And you’re frustrated with the state of whiskey writing/blogging.
Makes me wonder if I should have taken up Parcheesi blogging instead of whiskey??
Parcheesi? Have you been to their conventions? It’s nothing but board flipping and back-stabbing!
Just so it’s clear I’ll add the note I just placed in the post here too:
The original version of this post contained another paragraph that paraphrased the discussion on a Facebook group for whisky bloggers. While I had anonymized my references and not quoted anyone directly, some in the group expressed discomfort with that material being included. Since I don’t really want the focus of this to be diverted to that non-issue, I have edited the post to remove those references. Everything else is as it was before.
not an easy topic you are blogging about.
Reminds me of the time when I was posting at an international whisky forum on a regular basis – until the webmaster posted something about how increasingly hard it was to defend thusly published opinions like mine against the powers that be in the whisky industry. The whisky industry being the main sponsor of the magazine that had started that forum.
Now and then my opinions that sometimes probably can be as annoying as yours I fear provoke intense reactions of other posters in a new forum – not so new anymore in fact – that conveniently set out to be an antipode or even antidote to a forum which was in the hand of said whisky industry in the end.
These intense reactions sometimes come from posters of whom it is known or who clearly state that they are working for retailers or are in other ways nearer to the whisky industry than you or me.
I think that these bloggers you mention, a circle you yourself belong to, are a very important part of the whisky world.
If you leave the whisky industries – Scottish Irish or American or any other – to their own devices they unfailably will lose contact with reality eventually.
If we critzise the industry her protagonists and her schemes methods behavior and deeds as well as her ideas errors and the wrong turns she takes – it happens because we love whisky. And that is more in too many cases nowadays than many protagonists of “the whisky industry” do.
There is a right to free speech in most countries of the world – it should be more I know.
But may the “industry” or people who are near her hate you and oppose you – they need you at the same time. At lest they should knot that they do.
And you are not alone.
Others have problems, too 8-)
Thanks for the note. And not surprising to see that Oliver has also voiced similar opinions.
I doubt the industry knows I exist, but I do seem to have ruffled some feathers among bloggers with this post. I should note though that I’ve received more positive notes (including some part-critical ones) than negative ones (one prominent person called me a “troll”*).
I do want to reiterate that I am not against people being passionate or enthusiastic about whisky; I believe I am too. It just seems to me that the whisky blogosphere is tipped too much towards people whose passion and enthusiasm seems for some reason to preclude critical distance, and who sometimes seem to see those things as mutually exclusive.
*It is a little disappointing though that in the conversation where this person called me a troll no one else called them out for such an ad hominem attack.
I’ve come to realize that people’s concept of “critical distance” varies widely. In their minds the people you’re calling out for groupthink genuinely believe they are in fact offering unbiased, independent, and constructive criticism of the industry.
Some may in fact offer (constructive) criticism to industry figures in person. Problem is that such criticism does not find its way into the public domain. A sceptic would say that is because they do not want to bite the hand that feeds them. They argue they only write about stuff they truly love and we are supposed to assume that what they don’t write about is the bad stuff.
The interesting bit to me is that people that offer the least criticism in public appear to gain the most personal benefit from the industry (access, samples, trips, compensation, etc). The ones that offer real criticism rely on their own (and close friends) wallets to get access to events and whisky itself. So, in my twisted way of thinking, the amount of criticism one heaps on the industry in public is directly proportional to the amount of money one contributes to the industry coffers.
Mao, beautiful essay, clearly thought out and beautifully articulated, thank you!
I must ask, however, was there any whisky harmed in the production of this piece?
People come to blogging with different agendas. For some, the goal is readership, access, free whisky, fame, maybe make a livelihood (join the industry, organize tastings, sell books, sell whisky, whatever). And that’s OK. For others, it’s a channel for framing and enhancing their whisky experience, and maybe an outlet for creating writing – I can name a few bloggers who are trained in humanities and the literary arts (cough, cough). I guess people may get upset if you call them up on stuff, because their version of being true to themselves is different from yours. Ralfy decided not to vlog about whisky he doesn’t like. Driscoll may be selling stuff on his blog, but he gives in exchange good value, sharing his views and experiences as much as someone in his position could, and then some. Hansell – well, we’ll see how that one works out in the long run. They all do their version of the right thing. But in the end everybody ends up with the readership that they deserve. If you like yours, then you’re doing well. You are in a privileged position, as an independent consumer who can afford to buy your own whisky and tell what you think, as you would in a group of friends. And intelligent, honest, friendly exchange about the whisky experience is also what I come to the Internet for, and specifically to your blog.
There are many blogs that I stopped reading because I didn’t like the authors’ agenda. I didn’t want to buy what they were selling. So I moved on.
Yes, you’ll get flack from bloggers who are comfortable with each other because their agendas match and because they need each other, and you don’t fit into that coterie. But then why should you care? The people whom you respect appreciate you anyway.
Keep up the good work and the annoying opinions!
Thanks for the note, Florin. Your points–and especially your compliments–are well taken.
I’m not really on a crusade. In seven months of near-daily posting I’ve made two posts in this genre (though there’s another coming soon on a different subject). I get that there are a great many bloggers whose motivations are very different from mine–that they either only want to accentuate the positive or at a further extreme see nothing problematic about more or less explicitly functioning as the p.r arm of various outposts of the industry (perhaps, as you point out, because their ambition is to join it). I do think attention needs to be drawn to these things from time to time because otherwise it becomes the unquestioned norm of the “community”. And I do want to suggest to even the positive/enthusiastic crowd that critical distance is not antithetical to being positive/enthusiastic.
But I’ve come to another realization in the last couple of days. The loudest voices in the conversation may not be as representative as I think they are. I think Twitter is a large part of the problem–the endless self-referential tweeting and re-tweeting makes one particular kind of blogger perhaps seem more prevalent than they actually are. Even in the aftermath of this post while some remain focused on the propriety of my comments (a dodge if there ever was one) I’ve heard from far more bloggers who while they don’t agree with everything I’ve said are sympathetic to the general thrust of these posts. So it may be that with proper calibration of antennae the signal/noise ratio can be optimized.
Certainly food for thought and I’ve been thinking along much the same lines in recent days. My Annoying Opinions does touch upon one vital point which I think is almost always ignored, or is somehow lost in discussion: consumers and the industry do have clearly opposing interests. Although they have a common interest in higher quality overall, at all levels OF quality consumers have a clear interest in seeing prices as low as possible, while the industry has a clear interest in seeing them as high as possible. While it’s not rocket science, this point is often obscured by industry propaganda, which would much rather talk about fuzzy topics like “what an exciting time this is for whisky (somehow in general)”. As one blogger cuttingly pointed out, it’s an exciting time for producers with record profits, not so much for consumers with higher prices and declining quality.
The image that the industry and its defenders would like to present is that “these are challenging times for whisky”, but that somehow “we’re all is this together”, when clearly “we’re” not – things are currently MUCH better for producers than for consumers, and current trending shows that gap far more likely to widen than narrow. From this it’s clear to me that commentators do have to pick a side in terms of whose interests they are championing, as the perspective of “can’t we all just get along” is largely an attempt to ignore the elephant in the room while taking a default stance of worrying about the industry’s problems from its point of view.
So, who speaks for the consumer? Clearly not the industry, although it will pretend to sympathize with the consumers’ interests in the context of explaining why, despite “how exciting things are” they aren’t likely to improve any time soon because things “have to be this way” – it’s always couched in terms of necessity, not simple greed or in terms of NAS sleight-of-hand deception which argues that age is important in one context, but not in another. This “explaining” is what constitutes the default view mentioned above, and it has its advocates, both inside the industry and out, as if NOT looking at issues from the poor industry’s POV might result in the end of single malt, or at the very least (gasp!), a curbing of profits. As Serge Valentin has pointed out “as for the distillers and retailers, they’ll sell you what they have, and certainly not what they do not have (anymore)”, and it’s quite logical. Fair enough but, by the same token, what distillers and retailers say IS GEARED to that end, not to worrying about consumers and their problems (or even, necessarily, what’s true).
Do professional whisky writers speak for consumers? Hell no, but it’s a very rare person who’ll admit it. Fortunately, there was one: ironically enough, Dominic Roskrow, who, in a fevered slip of honesty wrote the following (http://thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk/Blogs/domblog/2011/06/20/new-vs-old-media/):
“Let’s make one thing clear. What whisky writers do is not journalism. Not even close. The best definition of journalism I’ve ever heard is ‘someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read’. Accepting free flights, accommodation, food and premium whisky from the people you are writing about and then printing nice stories about them isn’t journalism – it’s marketing.”
The thrust of what Roskrow says is sobering – professional whisky writers do essentially work for the industry, under the plausible denial of the supposedly objective distance which is intended to give their opinions weight and credibility in the first place – the message is that “we’re outside the industry so you, the consumer, can trust us”, until you read one obscure paragraph from Roskrow, then it all crashes down.
This leaves the bloggers, and Oliver Klimek in his “Why Private Whisky Blogging Is So Important” (http://www.dramming.com/2012/04/05/why-private-whisky-blogging-is-so-important/) and “Why So Negative, Mr. Klimek?” (http://www.dramming.com/2013/10/02/why-so-negative-mr-klimek/) makes the argument far better than I could about how important this commentary is – if it speaks for the interests of consumers. Why not so if it speaks for the industry? Because, quite frankly, the industry already has a lot of friends and shows no lack of interest or resources in buying more. In fact, the degree to which the industry and its interests have subverted, and are subverting, the whisky blogging community is a serious question, but there is a clear motive for it to do so. If professional whisky writers are valuable to the industry because of their appearance of objectivity, whisky bloggers are, collectively, even more valuable because, without a clear dependence upon good relations with the industry, bloggers appear even more independent, objective and trustworthy. Thus, in a way, producers have an even greater motive to quote bloggers than professional whisky people in promoting their products – always leaving less-than-complimentary stuff on the cutting room floor as, business being business, producers have a God-given right to create whatever image of their product they see fit (they reserve the right to lie to you, see above).
Jeff, initially I didn’t like your consumer vs. industry argument since I thought it was too pragmatic and syndicalist (“it’s not all about lower vs. higher prices, and who owns the fruits of labor and means of production, is it?”). Upon reflection, however, I think it’s a great litmus test for a blogger: whose side are you on? First of all, it’s a great question to ask oneself as a blogger. And “well, it’s complicated” counts as “industry”!
Thank you, that was the spirit in which the comment was made – the industry has lots of spokespeople, but how many commentators bother to identify consumer interests at all, much less as being valid, separate and opposed to industry interests? And of those few who do, how many aren’t simply dismissed as Marxists? If the industry isn’t to be blamed for defending or pursuing its interests, why should consumers?
Bloggers need to know what side of this issue they’re on, and it would be helpful if they told us as well because the middle ground is an intellectual mirage; I can understand both sides simultaneously, but I can’t support both simultaneously because they want different things and I’m a consumer, not a producer.
Thanks for that and for the link to Oliver’s earlier post which I had not seen and which had gone over much the same ground.
As a side note, I agree that Roskrow should not be rating whiskies for The Whisky Advocate. While his bottling business is new news, old news is that he’s been for a long time working/writing on behalf of a large UK whisky retailer; that’s not even a gray zone.
I think you’ve summed up what many of us feel about the whole whisky online experience. I often voyage from blog to blog, reading about the same free samples or exclusives and do wonder if any poor or average whisky is being made these days? Especially if I have bought or tasted the whisky in question and find the article way off target.
Almost everything from these blogs/sources is universally positive and therefore unrealistic and uninformative. I’d much rather read and rely on those who purchase their own whisky or share samples with friends. Bloggers should be a valid independent resource that is not coerced by marketing departments. Whisky isn’t alone in this regard as the same tricks are used in film and gaming bloggers.
I assume all vloggers, bloggers, and tweeters are motivated by free stuff or self promotion until proven otherwise. As a seasoned consumer my BS meter is well developed. I know WA is a bullshit industry shill publication. That is why i leaf through it at the book store and then put it back on the shelf. Are newspapers any different? Nope! At the end if the day it is all irrelevant because the value of any whisky is subjective anyway. It is all just entertainment, nothing more.
Howdy My Annoying Opinions and all,
An interesting discourse, albeit one-sided. I must admit, though, I wouldn’t have expected any of the “bloggers with benefits” to defend their motivations or practices here. Although some of them, in their comfortable worlds, might well envy your freedom.
In the old-fashioned definition of journalist I find a person willing to call some ones’ baby ugly. Most writers won’t do that if the parents are buying dinner.
I read a heartening article yesterday about a journalist for whom I have great respect. If you don’t mind its length, you might enjoy the bit about how she dresses compared to how the syndicated lot in the USA dress. It speaks volumes about standards and independence. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?cid=2&objectid=11146441
Blog on, M.A.O.
Hey two-bit: I would like nothing better than if the people who have in response called me names, accused me of dishonesty or just plain disagreed with me in the private group where this post had its genesis would join this more public debate. (I will repeat that there are also people there who have been supportive too and people who have agreed with some aspects of my post while disagreeing with others.)
I just wish those who disagreed with me would read my post more carefully. I am being represented as saying in absolute terms that whisky bloggers should not network, period. But I don’t say this in either the one-liner that kicked off the conversation that led to this post or in the post itself (the one-liner is quoted in it). I don’t say, “I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if no networking happened.” I say, “I think the whisky blogging world would be far better if less networking happened.” Nor do I think that whisky bloggers should have no contact with industry figures. I say instead that problems arise when that contact leads to “products [being] blogged about in that same back-patting, non-critical manner” in which most whisky bloggers interact with each other. It’s not contact per se that’s the problem it’s the nature of the contact. If you view yourself and everyone involved in the industry as part of one big community or having the same interests it is all but impossible to maintain critical distance. Certainly, the evidence from bloggers who do this kind of thing seems to me to support this strongly.
And in the brief section in the post on whisky bloggers networking with each other I note that I don’t have very much against this as long as there is a guard against the danger of groupthink; and I don’t think it is possible to maintain that guard unless we are willing to critique one another; not in private or “offline” but online and in public where we actually live and post as whisky bloggers.
Hi there – my name is Josh Feldman and I blog whisky. I also help administer a FB group for whisky bloggers where there has been a raucous thread over the past few days centered around My Annoying Opinion’s blog post. The conversation has ranged over 115 comments, so I won’t try to recapitulate it fully here. I’ll just own my part. I accused Preacher (my nickname for the writer of My Annoying Opinions; I got it from his “about” section where he suggests “Reverend” as a possible pseudonym) of cutting and pasting some of a comment posted by a group member in the closed group – which assumes a level of confidentiality. I got it wrong and quickly apologized. I think that’s the “accused me of dishonesty” portion of the “called me names, accused me of dishonesty or just plain disagreed” complaint.
My actual complaint was more nuanced. I wrote: ” I’m very cognizant of the ethical line here. Some of my closest whisky friends are industry insiders and I have NO problem with that. This is because don’t see my role as needing to be one of opposition to industry and that I’m selling out unless I do. I see my role as advocating for good whisky and calling out bad whisky and overblown whisky. To that end, I’ll strongly endorse distillers, importers, distributors who, in my opinion serve the cause of good whisky. A person making good whisky available to me that wasn’t available to me otherwise is my whisky ally. If I end up having a great time drinking with them – so much the better. But my mission is evangelizing whisky that makes me happy. Does this make me soft peddle criticisms on my friend’s stuff – maybe. To that end [Preacher] has a valid point. But, let me be clear – I make a very conscious effort to not let anything get in the way of evangelizing for good whisky. I give poor reviews of whisky that I don’t like and I try to be impartial in my tasting notes – and participate in blind tastings to that end often. I calibrate my palate and take the whole tasting thing seriously. The tough areas, where I concede some ground is where a particular distillery pleases me with their efforts, but then has a misstep. I’ve recently been drinking a lot of Tomatin. I like the distillery and the story. My sister bought me a Tomatin 18 and I was really impressed with the value for the money. But then a nice PR lady sent me a bottle of the NAS bourbon/peated Cu Bocan and I don’t like it. In the review I will write I will be honest with my criticisms in my tasting notes, but put it in the larger context of what I like and what the distillery does right.”
I continued – (and here I get to the point): “In the body of reviews I’ve written there are far more are positive reviews than are negative. Is this because I’m a shill or a pussy? I don’t think so. It’s for a number of reasons: 1) I really love whisky and find aspects to love in many drams of many styles. 2) I love celebrating and loving more than I love scolding and punishing in general (this is an issue for in life in a wider context). I think the #whiskyfabric culture in general is about this feeling of love. The real nerve here that [Preacher] hits is that he finds this particular culture of openness and love to be a flaw rather than a strength. I disagree strenuously. By opening doors and fostering connection it draws us more deeply into social and cultural connection with whisky.”
Then I concluded: ” I honor and respect the curmudgeon’s position. You are in proud company which includes classic tough guys like Steve Urey, Tim Read, Chuck Cowdery, Joshua L. Wright and many more. I’m part of the warm and fuzzy #WhiskyFabric group that also has a proud tradition. Our methods are different but our goals – as I understand them – are the same.”
Josh, thanks for writing in. By the way, I have edited out of your comment my real name which you inadvertently cut and pasted in from the Facebook discussion. I trust you will verify that nothing else has been altered. This right that I reserve is also in the “About” section of this blog.
As for as apologies go, I think you might agree that “I’m sorry to have accused you of a transgression you did not commit if I’m wrong” (emphasis added) is rather provisional even if followed by “I readily agree that I’m very likely to be wrong”. It’s not really an apology if it contains the rider that the original accusation may still be justified.
And let me add that the accusation of dishonesty is also passively/tacitly made by all the people in that discussion who knew that you are wrong about the alleged violation of confidentiality but did not contradict you. It may well be that they are no longer reading the thread but that’s besides the point in an important way: you made an accusation and only a provisional retraction and that’s still sitting out there. The one person who has since spoken out only did so after I pointed it out and did so with an appearance of great constraint, casting me in the position of a complaining child.
You’re the Jerry McGuire of whisky bloggers mongo!!!!!!
That’s an insult, right?
I think cato was referring to the “Show me the money” line in Jerry McGuire (although it’s Cuba Gooding Jr.’s line, not the Jerry McGuire character’s). I don’t think it was meant as an insult.
Not an insult mongo…my reference is to the letter he wrote coming clean…never mind.
I was joking, Cato, on account of not being a fan of Tom Cruise.
Sorry about including your real name. I tried to scrub it out – but obviously missed an instance. As for the provisional nature of the apology – I’ve been busy all weekend and haven’t had any time to look into the details. I still intend to do so and will, no doubt, fully and completely apologize shortly.
In other words, you’ve not really apologized yet and so shouldn’t behave as though you have.
Come on. My last word on this topic in the forum was this: ” I read it immediately after you posted it too – but apparently I read it incorrectly. I’m sorry to have accused you of a transgression you did not commit if I’m wrong and I readily agree that I’m very likely to be wrong (as I am so often on so many topics).”
The provisional aspect is so slight, I don’t think you have a lot of ground for saying that I didn’t apologize.
Preacher – please the comment immediately above that starts “Continued”. I used carets to enclose the quotes – which led to be empty. Here’s another take at my comment, which has the quotes I wanted to include intact:
Let me try to put all of that into the context of some of the comments here:
Florin: “People come to blogging with different agendas. For some, the goal is readership, access, free whisky, fame, maybe make a livelihood (join the industry, organize tastings, sell books, sell whisky, whatever). And that’s OK. For others, it’s a channel for framing and enhancing their whisky experience, and maybe an outlet for creating writing – I can name a few bloggers who are trained in humanities and the literary arts (cough, cough). I guess people may get upset if you call them up on stuff, because their version of being true to themselves is different from yours.”
Bingo. Different bloggers are doing different things. Not every bit of analysis is going to be about getting maximum value for the consumer dollar or focusing on the very real way consumers are getting screwed by the current whisky boom’s effects on vanishing glut stocks and on influencing established distillers to introduce NAS products with more young whisky for inflated prices. Sometimes it’s about a new craft distiller coming up with something new that works. Just because such a piece is positive doesn’t make it a puff piece per se.
raithrover: “I often voyage from blog to blog, reading about the same free samples or exclusives and do wonder if any poor or average whisky is being made these days? Especially if I have bought or tasted the whisky in question and find the article way off target.
Almost everything from these blogs/sources is universally positive and therefore unrealistic and uninformative.”
I’ve seen a few blogs like that. But the majority of the well written whisky blogs I read (and I read a lot of them) have pretty decent tasting notes with good reviews from good drams and critical reviews of drams with problems. I think this is a massive generalization that does a disservice to the many good whisky bloggers working out there in the blogosphere. Preacher’s point is about journalistic ethics. I don’t think the topic here is about how whisky bloggers generally give good reviews for substandard whisky. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t see it as the topic here.
Jeff makes a very important and thought provoking point when he writes “one vital point which I think is almost always ignored, or is somehow lost in discussion: consumers and the industry do have clearly opposing interests.” … “… it’s clear to me that commentators do have to pick a side in terms of whose interests they are championing, as the perspective of “can’t we all just get along” is largely an attempt to ignore the elephant in the room while taking a default stance of worrying about the industry’s problems from its point of view.”
Certain topics – particularly the moves to increase production by watering down whisky and admixing younger stocks into the vattings to deal with increased demand are clearly sided as Jeff says. But issues of price aren’t as simple. Demand has skyrocketed and supply hasn’t increased to keep pace – and it’s strictly impossible for it to so given the years of lead time required to ramp up production volumes for aged stock. In the bourbon world this usually over half a decade for premium straight bourbons and ryes. In the Scotch world a decade is often the minimum. Economics dictates rising prices. Granted it’s not as clear how economics should raise prices and whether there aren’t examples of gouging going on – but it’s clear that prices should be rising. This is easy to observe at auction and in informal secondary markets. For example Buffalo Traces’ iconic Antique Collection is still MSRP $90 a bottle but, like Super Bowl tickets, are only available at sticker price for a select few. Most of us end up having to buy it from scalpers that immediately double or triple that. This is true time five for the annual Pappy hunt lunacy. Its also true for Ardbeg’s limited releases, and other high demand limited releases such as Balvenie’s Tun1401 and any highly reviewed single cask malt whisky release from the dozens of IBs. This mania in the high end whisky world is often lamented – but it’s clearly Adam Smith’s guiding hand. So the rising prices of whisky aren’t happening in a vacuum. This isn’t meant to whitewash industry game playing or marketing BS. It’s just pointing out a statement of fact. Does this fact inherently determine that an adversarial position for whisky bloggers to industry is mandatory? Of course not. Someone blogging out tasting notes and scores is perfectly justified in continuing to do so. Someone blogging about new releases will be on perfectly solid journalistic ground – provided they accurately report what they think of said releases whether or not they choose to focus on the value equation.
Spotting industry attempts to gouge or to stretch production on popular brands that they just don’t have the volume of juice for is an important whisky journalistic activity. But it isn’t the only one. What if you want to blog about how the industry operates? What it’s like to pour as a brand ambassador? Are these necessarily corrupt topics for a whisky blogger because they aren’t focused specifically on whether industry is getting the better of consumers with new product line shifts?
This whole line of argument is an oversimplification. Florin overcomes his initial suspicion that
Jeff’s argument is an oversimplification by concluding: ” it’s a great litmus test for a blogger: whose side are you on? First of all, it’s a great question to ask oneself as a blogger. And “well, it’s complicated” counts as “industry”!
But what if the topic is a new whisky’s innovative and different production method? If you, as a blogger, are excited by the new method and find the whisky delicious, are you necessarily “on the industry’s side” if you give it a good review. I’ll give some specific examples: 1) I love Balcones Brimstone. It uses a direct smoke method that almost unique. When I write about that and give the whisky five stars am I a sell out? If not, why not? Doesn’t this show that Jeff’s argument is an oversimplification?
Preacher makes some good and thought provoking points about objectivity and the moral and journalistic ethical and practical issues of being too close to industry sources. However, he uses phrases like “tedious amount of groupthink”. This is inflammatory and bound to provoke reaction. I think that’s part of the fun, but such reactions are not unwarranted. Wiki defines “Groupthink” as “…a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”
In other words, ‘self delusion’ and ‘deviant’. Those are fighting words. You don’t use words like that unless you want a fight. So this blog post was going to get a fight out of whisky bloggers. Please don’t act defensive that one came.
You’re misunderstanding if you think that I am upset that people are giving me a fight, as you put it. I only wish they would have held that fight in the open, and not in the private group. Also, I didn’t use the words “self delusion” or “deviant”; I used the word “groupthink” and did so in the colloquial sense and not some strict psychological sense. Though I have to say that much of that definition applies….
“When I write about that and give the whisky five stars am I a sell out? If not, why not? Doesn’t this show that Jeff’s argument is an oversimplification?”
No, you’re not necessarily a sell out for rating a whisky well, because, as I noted, “although they (and by that I meant BOTH the industry and consumers) have a common interest in higher quality overall, at all levels OF quality consumers…” – everybody as an interest in better whisky, and so in talking about it when it’s made.
As far as I’m concerned, review every whisky, review them honestly, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s how good whiskies get better sales, worse ones fall by the wayside, and better quality is rewarded and encouraged by the marketplace. I’m more concerned, however, by your admission that “but my mission is evangelizing whisky that makes me happy. Does this make me soft peddle criticisms on my friend’s stuff – maybe” because, if this is true (and only you know for sure), then you AREN’t calling them as you see them – you are evangelizing and bending the truth to that end in way that, to me, seems to say the end justifies the means. Now, does THAT make you a sell-out? Quite possibly, if you’re skewing your reviews so as not to hurt your friend’s feelings based on friendships that, by definition, you only have with some industry people and not with others – which IS one reason that industry people try to strike up “good working relationships” with critics in the first place : it’s harder to be negative about products represented by people you know, and who know you.
As for my argument being an oversimplification, it isn’t, but some of the criticism against it is, in the form of mischaracterization.
“So the rising prices of whisky aren’t happening in a vacuum. This isn’t meant to whitewash industry game playing or marketing BS. It’s just pointing out a statement of fact. Does this fact inherently determine that an adversarial position for whisky bloggers to industry is mandatory? Of course not. Someone blogging out tasting notes and scores is perfectly justified in continuing to do so. Someone blogging about new releases will be on perfectly solid journalistic ground – provided they accurately report what they think of said releases whether or not they choose to focus on the value equation.”
My issue isn’t with current pricing levels, what drives them or, if one reads closely, even with the validity of Adam Smith’s theories, only with the opposing DIRECTIONS in which consumers and the industry would like to see those pricing levels go and the conflict of interest this obviously creates – as I said, it’s not rocket science, but somehow the point gets missed. By the same token, as noted above, and in my original post, I acknowledge everyone has an interest in higher quality, and so, by extension, also in accurate reviews. Consumers have such an interest for their improved consumption and industry people do for the edge acknowledgement of higher quality gives them in sales.
My argument is that there are, however, consumer and industry interests which ARE diametrically opposed (direction IN pricing being one example, but NAS labeling is another as it only benefits the industry and does nothing for consumers). Added to this, I say that it falls to bloggers to champion the consumer’s interests where this is so, and that they DO have to make a clear choice TO pick a side on these opposing interests because, although they may understand both the consumer’s and industry’s POV on these issues, bloggers cannot logically support both interests simultaneously because they ARE diametrically opposed. I say that if bloggers do not stand for consumer interests, no one else will, certainly not the industry or the professional writers. Those bloggers who “write around” dealing with these contested issues at all in favour of safer, less controversial, ground HAVE chosen to become part of the scenery rather than actively part of the problem or the solution for consumers but, I would argue, they also serve industry purposes by default by putting out predominantly positive background noise which serves to promote the hobby, and sales as well.
That said, as for any real legitimacy of the journalistic activity that bloggers engage in, it can’t, in my opinion, stray too far from honest criticism, both good AND bad, of whisky and the industry which produces it. As Roskrow notes, it doesn’t take a journalist to write nice stories about the industry – marketing people can, and do, do that all the time and, no matter how well they do it or how noble their intentions are, it will never make them real reporters, or even critics for that matter. It’s honest criticism of the industry and its products, and the willingness to be negative where necessary, which assures the reader that anything positive said IS legitimate and not just a PR line. In short, if the piece you’re writing, no matter how “non-corrupt” the topic, could be written by a marketing person for the company you’re writing about, then it might as well BE written by a marketer – and probably should be left for them to write, if only to give you more time to write something else which a marketing person would NOT write, but that consumers might need to read as well – unless, of course, you ARE writing to be read by the industry.
Jeff: ” I’m more concerned, however, by your admission that “but my mission is evangelizing whisky that makes me happy. Does this make me soft peddle criticisms on my friend’s stuff – maybe” because, if this is true (and only you know for sure), then you AREN’t calling them as you see them – you are evangelizing and bending the truth to that end in way that, to me, seems to say the end justifies the means. Now, does THAT make you a sell-out? Quite possibly, if you’re skewing your reviews so as not to hurt your friend’s feelings based on friendships that, by definition, you only have with some industry people and not with others…”
I try very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. But I’m human and I’m clearly putting myself in harms way. Thus my ready admission. I’m concerned about this too – not just in my example, but in many others. That’s why I’m coming on here readily conceding some ground. I’m concerned about it. I’ll address my position on why I take these risks in my reply to Florin at bottom.
Jeff: “My argument is that there are, however, consumer and industry interests which ARE diametrically opposed (direction IN pricing being one example, but NAS labeling is another as it only benefits the industry and does nothing for consumers). Added to this, I say that it falls to bloggers to champion the consumer’s interests where this is so, and that they DO have to make a clear choice TO pick a side on these opposing interests because, although they may understand both the consumer’s and industry’s POV on these issues, bloggers cannot logically support both interests simultaneously because they ARE diametrically opposed.”
Well put and granted. There are clearly areas where industry and consumer are diametrically opposed and it’s vital that reviewers who are implying an honest review actually provide one. I concur 100%. This nuance: specific areas – is completely correct. I was misreading your argument to mean “everywhere”. There are certain forms of whisky blogging which have nothing to do with the consumer value equation (such as writing history, interviewing authors, describing a tasting event (particularly a non industry one) etc.. But when reviewing product, honesty and a sense of whether the market positioning and pricing is BS and calling it out is important. My apologies about not catching the nuance and criticizing your argument as an “oversimplification” inappropriately.
Sorry, my response to your criticism is a couple of posts down by mistake.
…and I meant to give more examples of new production methods yielding good whisky where positive reviews are warranted:
Mackmyra’s use of Swedish oak cask and use of juniper branches in with the peat in smoking the baking malt for their peated expressions.
Bruichladdich and Arran’s use of Bere Barley
Buffalo Trace’s experiment series with different mash bills, different woods, and different differences…
Koval and Corsair Artisan’s use of totally different grains for mashing – such as millet, oatmeal, quinoa, etc… Some are atrocious, but some are genius. I’ve been particularly impressed with Koval’s efforts in this area.
I could go on and on. In some of these cases I’ve been given samples. In others I’ve bought bottles or taken samples at shows I’ve paid admission for. In some cases I’ve had these products introduced to me by a brand ambassador or a distiller that I was drinking with socially. And this is the nub. As I said before: the culture of social connection and celebration brings a lot of information to go along with a modicum of conflict of interest. Each example of writing needs to be judged on its merits. A blogger with a serial run of bad judgement could be called out for sure. But that’s not what’s happening in the post – or this run of comments. Rather it’s the whole idea of bloggers “cosy with industry” – and the conclusion that the blogosphere must then be lousy with “groupthink” and an editorial viewpoint alien to consumer concerns. For the record I almost always include a block of text discussing relative value. Most bloggers whose work I respect do. I think the warning about ethics has valid aspects – but shouldn’t be immediately accepted as a valid conclusion that the whisky blogosphere no longer functions as a “Fifth Estate” for whisky commentary. I think the whisky blogosphere is just too diverse to make ANY overarching conclusions of that nature. Like most on-line communities there are some shills, some Poes, some trolls, and some seriously good hard working people with valid ideas worth noting.
Preacher – you went into the Green Bay Packer’s locker room and you yelled “Packer’s suck!” Then you were sad that they attacked you in the locker room rather than out on the field. It’s regrettable that people weren’t more mature (myself included) or careful with the fact. But the bottom line is that you attacked people’s ethics and they reacted, justifiably, defensively.
Fair enough. I’m just not sure that all of them did a good job of either defending their ethics or disproving the notion of groupthink in the process.
Indeed. You raised good points, Preacher. People got emotional and no one was able to categorically put your arguments away. How could they? There is a clear element of truth. You served the cause of truth in pointing out a warning about how chumming with industry can lead people to softball their industry sources. That’s for that. However, you used some inflammatory language and you made some specific attacks on the integrity of some specific people. It’s an aggressive act that must be expected to elicit a defensive response.
Personally, I see the value in your having raised the topic. In the end, I’m glad you did and I must wrestle with your arguments as must everyone else who is playing this game. I personally wish you had a little bit more social grace in doing so – but that’s really just a quibble.
Which specific people’s integrity have I made specific attacks on? Dominic Roskrow, yes, but he’s not part of that conversation (and the facts speak for themselves)? Johanne? I refer to her in my post as “genial” and only suggest that it is symptomatic of the problem I am trying to diagnose that it does not even occur to her to do anything with Roskrow other than to promote him. I’ve not attacked anyone in the ensuing conversation on the Facebook group and have taken my lumps with good humour and tried to patiently clarify my positions in response to some critiques that I was not able to understand.
You keep suggesting that I have personalized this issue. That seems to me to be a hard conclusion to reach after reviewing the conversation in the Facebook group.
Yes – it’s Johanne McInnis I had in mind. You use the adjective “genial” inside a sentence with a wicked accusatory sting: “It’s as though this thought has not even occurred to the genial Johanne who seems to see no role for herself here other than to help promote this undertaking.” In other words you say she has abdicated her journalistic integrity and is functioning as a shill for Dom’s industry activities. It’s particularly damning and stinging because it appears to be somewhat correct.
Well, if a group of people cannot respond to a substantive critique of one of the members of their group that they acknowledge is true except to be upset with the person who makes the critique that seems like it would be the group’s problem and that they should really try to get over it.
And once again, my point with the Johanne example is entirely that I don’t think she sees what she does as shill’ing because within a significant fraction of whisky bloggers that kind of activity (linked to networking etc.) has become standard operating procedure and entirely normal.
I meant to say “thanks for that” (not that’s for that) in the last comment. Here’s the why it’s illegal to drink and drive. Next a law about drinking and typing. I know you’re burning up wanting to know what’ I’ve been drinking. It’s a Laphroaig vertical consisting of 10, 10 CS versions 3 and 5, Cairdeas 2012 and 2013 (the pink stuff), and Triple Wood 2012. Of those 6 bottles, I purchased 3 of them and received 3 as review samples. It’s a dead heat among the Cask Strengths and Cairdeases. Truth be told I find them all to be pretty wonderful whisky in the peat freak vein….
Hi Josh F,
As I stated, I think everyone is free to do whatever they want with their blog and with their time. As far as this present debate goes, you present your side very well and very clearly – and I’m sure that you do the right thing by your own ethical rules. I also see you as being more than a guy who really likes to drink whisky – you meet distillers, advertise tastings, etc. And good for you, and more power to you!
I’m sure that Balcones makes great whisky, everybody says so (except Mao, as luck would have it); based on this word-of-blog I bought a bottle of Brimstone and I’ll have my own opinion as soon as I get around opening it. I really enjoyed reading your posts on your evenings with Chip Tate and all the good and special whiskies that you tried, and the photos were very nice. But when it comes down to stars and numbers, I have to take yours with a grain of salt, precisely because you had such a great evening with Mr. Tate – and also because you’re generally so enthusiastic. I know Tate won’t be there to dazzle and charm me when I drink my bottle.
Of course, Balcones was just a case study.
I didn’t like Jeff’s argument mainly because of the class-warfare vocabulary, consumers and the industry as the enemies. But as oversimplifications go, this is a very good one; the polarity of interests is there, and will always be. I’m very grateful to the industry for producing all this delicious stuff that I pay good money for. However, when I get my information (say, reading a blog or a magazine) I want to know how much marketing/spin/PR/BS I get served with that. It’s very comforting when the answer is “none”. That cannot be said, by virtue of the aforementioned oversimplifying dichotomy, of writers that are “more” than simple consumers. Mao points out that once you cross into the gray zone there is a danger to serve as the marketing/spin/PR/BS arm of the industry, even without knowing it. It’s a very good and important warning, both for the blogger and for the reader. What happens after that – well, it’s up to you as a writer and up to me as a reader.
Good luck, and a many thanks to you and to all the thoughtful dedicated bloggers out there!
Florin – thanks for being extremely even handed – and very clearly well read – on this topic in this debate.
Everybody’s tasting notes and scores must be taken with a grain of salt. It’s become popular grist that Richard Patterson is a buffoon when he slaps your glass out of your hand yelling “Don’t CUP YER WHISKY”! because you were warming it and Jim Murray (who insists that you cup it and warming it) goes ballistic about the slightest trace of sulfur (which the majority of sherry bomb freaks will tell you is a standard part of the flavor signature of some of the very finest drams). Of course you should drink it how YOU like it. And whether you warm it or not or like a note of matchsticks and flint or not is entirely your business. You’ll never find a blogger whose predilections and scores match yours entirely. And that means take ice if you like ice and drink Cutty if that makes you happy. I drink liqueur sometimes. Every now and then I ask for two shots of Red Stag and a tall Cocoa Cola and I drop those babies in like a soda shop founding boilermaker. Yes – it’s cherry coke bourbon. I’m not defending it as an epicurean experience. But on a hot day it can be just the ticket.
But the issue here isn’t snobbery or even reliability. It’s openly selling out to industry and shilling. That crap goes on and I don’t like it either. There’s too much of it and people should be called out for doing it. I think “My Annoying Opinions” should keep on doing it. Truth be told I wrestle with this topic frequently – primarily in negative. I have a tough time, emotionally, posting bad reviews. I need to do more of it. Maybe going through a divorce will make this easier. My resolution is to be more brutal. I will really try.
A final word about Brimstone: it’s very strong meat. I initially gave Brimstone 3 stars and gradually ratcheted it up over the course of 6 months as my experiences with it varied. Try it paired with figs particularly crispy bacon wrapped figs). Try it in an Old Fashioned.
A better Balcones example might be Texas Single Malt. It has less of a fierce smoke one note that people will either love or hate. Texas Single Malt is one of the only 2 year old (or maybe less) single malts you can buy that doesn’t overtly suck. It’s not legally even whisky in Scotland because of that. It doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders (the nose isn’t very effusive and long chain esters are in short supply – obviously) but the flavors it does provide are mystifyingly delicious and dense. I don’t think you have to be in the room with Chip to have the experience of finding that whisky delicious. I particularly recommend any batch after 12-8 and also batches 12-7, and 12-4.
Let me add here only that my second encounter with (a different batch of) Brimstone was far better than the first.
Given the late hour and how far we’ve gotten, let’s keep going. Josh, you say you struggle with these issues, and you have some trouble giving negative reviews. (I’m sorry about your divorce, nobody plans to have to go through that; before it’s better I’m sure it’s terrible.) Let me ask you this: 1. Why do you accept free samples? What would happen if you didn’t? What do you get out of it? “Free whisky” is the obvious answer, but that’s a throwaway, the dollar value of samples is negligible compared to your whisky budget. And 2. What do you want from your whisky blog? What is your ultimate goal or destination? It’s all very Socratic of course (Platonic just doesn’t sound right, does it), we’re just trying to get to the truth here.
Sorry I bailed out to go to bed last night – but I’m back. Florin, you ask an excellent set of questions and I’m going to answer ask frankly and completely as I can. Warning – I’m heck of long winded:
I came to whisky blogging from being an Amazon top reviewer. In Amazon reviewer world you review to help others but you also gain an audience yourself. A lot of Amazon top reviewers hang out outside and have excellent conversations with each other because they know what each other reads and what they think about it. When you get up in Amazon reviewer rankings Amazon puts you in the “Vine” program where you get a crack at getting free stuff that’s actually worth money. Other Vine reviewers police the impartiality aspect hard – fiercely voting down reviews that look like puff pieces (which hurts your rankings). Outside PR people, manufacturers etc.. are frequently trying to give you review copies / samples of books, vitamins, bike accessories you name it. You try to review impartially because if you’re shilling you’ll get down-voted and that will kill your rankings. In this weird subculture I was reviewing liquor, as well as books, knives, food items, car parts etc… USA Amazon got rid of booze listings and my reviews all disappeared. I recycled them into a blog to keep them from oblivion and that’s how I started.
But very rapidly the blog took on a life of its own. I got much more ego involved with the whisky blogging, to be honest. One reason is that I started getting the opportunity to lead tastings. In the crazy upside down world of the these early Internet days, having a whisky blog functions as some kind of pseudo credential. “Whisky Blogger” implies you have some level of at least passion, and some literacy. Of course this isn’t true. I know some whisky bloggers who just put up pictures of old ads without any textual commentary and others who offer the barest bones tasting notes without any context. These guys are using their blogs as a scratch pad. It’s a big world in the blogosphere and there aren’t really any rules.
My initial goal was to get reviews up for hundreds of different whiskies so that I could remember them and keep them straight and keep getting tasting gigs. But very rapidly something else happened: I began to meet other whisky bloggers and encounter industry people outside of the usual show (one pouring, one holding a glass out and talking for 3 minutes) level. I began to develop relationships. Whisky based relationships – but some with the the aspects of real friendships. I encountered people who were way more knowledgeable that me and taught me a ton. Hanging out with them was fun. Certain people drink way WAY above my usual level and hanging out with them also means the opportunity to taste some serious drams that I would never ordinarily be able to taste. A lot of these people aren’t industry – but serious enthusiasts. But some are industry. Having the opportunity to hang out with brand ambassadors and distillers and drink and talk is both fun and often extremely informative. You get to hear stuff you don’t normally get to hear and you get perspective and sometimes news. Guys like that often pour what they’re talking about and I usually keep some sample bottles handy for when they do. This is particularly true if the samples I’m taking are for experimental or pre-release stuff – or for hyper rare limited edition stuff that I’m not likely to be able to get a full bottle of (I’m thinking of Chip Tate and his very hard to find Bourbons here – both the “straight” and the “crooked”).
Finally we hit the PR agencies. These are pro companies that seem to do the following: 1) they send out samples along with cut sheets and press releases, 2) they set up events and parties. These events sometimes have interesting people, sometimes from far away. You get to talk to them and ask questions. Sometimes the whisky they are dishing out is unobtainable – such as pre-release stuff, or stuff only distributed overseas etc… Other times the stuff is mundane and, you’re right – why bother taking it really? The value is trivial, really. Honestly, part of the answer is, it’s flattering. Plus whisky is an expensive hobby so it’s nice to catch a break. But truth be told, mundane bottles are a very small portion of the samples I accept.
So why partake of any of this? What’s the point of doing the blog? I started out wanting to explore whisky which to me meant taste a lot of bottles. Quickly I learned that “exploring whisky” to me meant more than just the liquid. I wanted to explore the culture and the personalities. I wanted to meet them and hang with them and, importantly, attend their tasting events and learn their tricks. Then I wanted the performance aspect of leading my own tastings. I wanted to know what it felt like to do the Brand Ambassador’s job. I also wanted to attend the parties where I got to meet interesting people. Lots of the events have people from the cocktail world and sometimes the food world. I’m also a chocolate epicure so I get some of this action from the chocolate world too and there are points of overlap that are pretty damned interesting.
Rapidly I got interested in the history of whisky and that involved reading archives, collecting images from advertising, and finding a way to get ahold of old dusties. This often means things like BX, and the various auction houses. This is whole different area of personalities and color. And there are valuable opportunities to trade samples.
The scene with the mainstream whisky bloggers is similar too – lots of sample trading – lots of mutual support. As much actual hanging out as possible.
So, you see, it’s complicated. It’s about experiencing the culture and having a bunch of interactions which include picking the brains of people who know way more than I do. Taking the samples is just a part of it and it’s not even the major part of it. That said, the samples are where the rubber meets the road in terms of letting a donated dram dictate what you’re going to choose to blog about this week – even if you have enough integrity to write an honest review. To my credit I’m atrocious about actually writing reviews for samples I took. I tend to write infrequently as I’m too busy to blog much and I tend to choose topics that are of interest to me.
This matrix of human relationships around whisky – both inside and outside the industry, blogosphere and beyond is what Johanne McInnis calls #WhiskyFabric. It’s a lot of fun – an activity that she often characterizes as her “journey” – as in a journey of discovery. In this context it not just about tasting the whiskies and giving an honest account of them (although that’s definitely part of it). It’s about understanding the people and the culture along the way. I can’t claim to do this type of exploration particularly well – but I do derive a lot of pleasure from what little I do.
I’m having too much fun to think about stopping this social connection stuff. I’m not paid to blog and I’m in it for the fun I get out of it. Some whisky bloggers take the mission of writing clean honest reviews as a sacred trust. Examples include the encyclopedic Serge Valentin who is sincerely trying to catch ’em all. He gets tons of samples from all the hell over – but I’ve never for a second doubted his tasting notes’ honesty. Plenty of other tasting notes reviewers get samples (and honestly report them) and give honest reviews (Reuben from WhiskyNotes, Steve Urey from Skus Recent Eats, Peter Lemon from The Casks, Oliver Klimek from Dramming. I need to take things further. I want to step into the shoes of the distiller, the brand ambassador, the blender, the distributor, and, yes, even the marking people (I used to work in marketing myself before I got into IT). That’s exploration I want to do – for my own amusement and edification. I think some of that would make good blog posts. It’s a different focus that regular tasting note reviewing. It’s also crossing a line that many bloggers – particularly Malt Maniacs like Oliver Klimek – won’t cross. But as I’ve said elsewhere, when I suit up for an amateur Brand Ambassador gig, I’m thinking of it being like being a pretend quarterback ala Plimpton’s Paper Tiger, than being a blogger who has crossed the line into overt brand advocacy. That might sound like rationalization but it ‘s how I think about it.
None of this is to say that I’m not going to be posting tasting notes. And when I do I’m going to strive for accuracy and I’ll be concerted with consumer value. Honestly – less than 5% of the bottles in my cabinets are review samples. I buy a TON of whisky. In deciding what to buy I’m very concerned with value for the money. I write about that stuff too – and I will keep doing so.
Josh, I did want to respond in two parts to a point you’ve made late in your reply here.
Your penultimate paragraph basically says, “My focus isn’t criticism but connections, and so I am not trying to do the same thing as other bloggers”. Fantastic; the last thing needed is another me-too blog that perfunctorily trudges through the same 30 or so whiskeys as most blogs. And different perspectives are great; who wants to read the same shit everywhere? It’s a big reason why I stopped reading almost all whisky blogs – so many words to say nothing new or of consequence.
There’s a problem I as a reader and consumer have though, and I’ll call you to a pair of specifics. You said: “But as I’ve said elsewhere, when I suit up for an amateur Brand Ambassador gig, I’m thinking of it being like being a pretend quarterback ala Plimpton’s Paper Tiger, than being a blogger who has crossed the line into overt brand advocacy.”
Here’s the problem I as a consumer have with suspending my disbelief. I know you have a basic contract you have to sign and you’re acting as a representative for the company. No one’s going to want the brand ambassador who, as he’s pouring the mainline NAS release, says to the recipient, “This is a mess and it’s a real shame the distillery has made this their primary entry-level whisky.” Presumably, given your professed desire to stay involved in this promotional capacity, you’re going to broadly make nice. I don’t personally have a problem with it – IF THE RELATIONSHIP IS KNOWN TO THE READER. You gave Smooth Ambler’s year-old bourbon high marks, and then a few weeks later, there’s a photo of you in an Ambler shirt pouring at an event. Boy, I wish I’d known that you were cultivating or had a relationship with these guys.
Similarly, your most recent post on Balcones claims to put you in a somewhat adversarial stance with Balcones – “I discussed this issue with the Balcones Brand Ambassador Winston Churchill Edwards, who acted distinctly like he’d rather I didn’t bother writing this story.” But you’ve enjoyed a long friendship with Chip Tate and I believe you’ve poured for Balcones. How am I to trust your assessment of these, as a consumer, when I know that you have a professional (compensated?) relationship with both of these companies.
Maybe you’ve got a taste for younger whiskey than I do – it’s entirely possible; I’m quite clear in my convictions that I generally find it as incomplete as an unbaked bread. But I don’t know if this is a general preference for you, or if these favorable reviews are a result of your professed fondness for professional participation in whiskey events and your personal friendships, or if you’re a guy who just generally likes younger whiskey than I do. If you’re conflicted by these relationships, the responsible thing to do at a minimum before reviewing would be to disclose your professional relationship. If it’s the latter… well, it’d be nice to have some more supporting evidence from people you don’t have a paid relationship with.
To be clear, I’m not at all opposed to meeting and connecting with people. I’ve tried not to hide my friendship with David Perkins, and my conflict of interest there has put any High West reviews on pause for me. As I find the right way to express that, they may return. Four Roses, on the other hand, is simply a love for the product, a critical championing and a product that I feel far exceeds the competition. And I have no relationship with them.
Now, the second side. You express a desire to participate in the industry, and that’s great. Again, more experiences, more voices, more unique insights getting set down are all more fun to read and give a broader impression of the life of the industry. We all know David Driscoll has an underlying need to sell whiskey, but he offers a wealth of insight into that business. If you’re throwing yourself into the role of a brand ambassador, etc, then why not honestly write about that experience? State your connection, but then take your readers inside the role. I think it’s all too easy to write the glowing report on an event, but I’m sure there was unpleasant reality. People avoided a booth because they weren’t interested in young or sourced whiskey? People thought smoky drinks were awful? There’s a bigger story there and it’s far more interesting than a by-the-numbers recap or a seemingly obligatory approving write-up.
As to the broader discussion of groupthink and whatnot on Twitter, Facebook groups, etc – I have no interest and try to avoid participation in those forums because there rarely is any meat on the bones.
I’m back – sorry for the period of absence. Things have been busy but I haven’t stopped thinking about what has gone on here: In response to Tim Read:
TR: “Here’s the problem I as a consumer have with suspending my disbelief. I know you have a basic contract you have to sign and you’re acting as a representative for the company. No one’s going to want the brand ambassador who, as he’s pouring the mainline NAS release, says to the recipient, “This is a mess and it’s a real shame the distillery has made this their primary entry-level whisky.”
JGF: In none of my pouring gigs have I ever signed a contract of any kind. However, I have been paid in one form or another. A couple of times I made $20 an hour. Given the work involved, as well as taxi and other incidentals (pouring spouts) – it’s essentially a wash. In the others there were dregs of bottles. It’s essentially the same thing as going to a show and taking samples away – although sometimes the samples are a bit bigger. I don’t consider any of these perks big enough to sway my objectivity – personally.
TR: “You gave Smooth Ambler’s year-old bourbon high marks, and then a few weeks later, there’s a photo of you in an Ambler shirt pouring at an event. Boy, I wish I’d known that you were cultivating or had a relationship with these guys.”
JGF: I wrote the Smooth Ambler blog post several weeks prior to agreeing to pour for Smooth Ambler. I fully disclose my warm personal relationship with John Little in the Smooth Ambler blog post. At the time I wrote the post that’s as far as it went. If I had a pre-existing relationship with Smooth Ambler I would have divulged it. Later on, I asked John Little if needed help at Whisky Fest. He agreed to put me on the list. I poured Smooth Ambler and took a dregs bottle of Old Scout 10. Other than that dregs bottle and admission to Whisky Fest (which I saw little of, between pouring and having my sister in town) I was otherwise not compensated. When I review the Old Scout 10 I’ll divulge the source of my sample.
TR: “But you’ve enjoyed a long friendship with Chip Tate and I believe you’ve poured for Balcones. How am I to trust your assessment of these, as a consumer, when I know that you have a professional (compensated?) relationship with both of these companies.”
I am friends with Chip Tate. He’s a compelling and fascinating person. The friendship has mostly consisted of me attending a few of his events and going bar hopping with him one evening. I also had him by for a personal dram session once. It was awesome and I wrote an insanely long blog post about it in which I detail virtually every thing that was said and drunk. It was a very geeky conversation. I’ve never poured Balcones. I’ve never been compensated by Balcones in any way. The experimental cask samples I’ve tasted are the same that hundreds of others have tasted wherever Chip goes to pour. All the many many MANY bottles of Balcones you see on my blog are bottles that I’ve purchased with my own money with the exception of a dregs bottle of Rumble Cask Reserve which I was graciously given to review by Chip. I’ve never actually encountered a bottle of Rumble Cask Reserve for sale in the wild – or I would own one of those too. Taking the dregs bottle (which yielded 60ml, BTW) was my only opportunity to make a formal review of that spirit. The reason I own so many bottles of Balcones and have taken such an interest in the distillery is that I genuinely like its products. I don’t have a thing for young whisky per se – but I do consider Balcones to be a remarkable example of successful “rapid maturation” – along the lines of Amrut and Kavalan – as I’ve said many times. This is very unusual and worthy of note.
TR: ” If you’re throwing yourself into the role of a brand ambassador, etc, then why not honestly write about that experience? State your connection, but then take your readers inside the role. I think it’s all too easy to write the glowing report on an event, but I’m sure there was unpleasant reality. People avoided a booth because they weren’t interested in young or sourced whiskey? People thought smoky drinks were awful? There’s a bigger story there and it’s far more interesting than a by-the-numbers recap or a seemingly obligatory approving write-up.”
An excellent idea and one that I’ve had rolling around in my head for weeks. I actually started writing it yesterday and hope to have it posted in a few days at the most.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I hope it did you as much good thinking through and writing this, as it did me reading it! It’s a really interesting and honest assessment – it would make a great write-up on your blog in itself – have you considered writing it up there?
To sum up my reaction to it from the perspective of this conversation, I think your analysis/memoir/confessional is consistent with all the points being made here by Mao, me, you, now Tim, and the others. That there are many paths in blogging and all are legitimate, some more interesting than others, but that there is a very real conflict of interest between participating in the industry and reviewing whisky. This should be acknowledged by the blogger, first to him/herself, and then to the readers. It won’t prevent one from reviewing but it will make the readers aware. I also like Tim’s point that echoes yours, that there is a lot that’s new and interesting that can be reported from being part of this select circle of whisky journalists somewhat embedded with the industry.
Each blogger worth his readers is raising the standards of whisky reviewing. Mao has done his bit with his 10 commandments, of which I appreciate the most the part about giving specific details about the samples. And he keeps doing this with his speaking truth to power – he’s more like a biblical prophet than a preacher. It would be great to see these standards raise to the point of routinely disclosing conflicts of interest.
This sort of disclosure has become the norm in academic publishing in the last 5 years. It’s often tedious and annoying, but it’s the right thing to do and it builds and maintains trust between the writer and readers.
Thanks again for taking the time to contribute to this discussion. I am aware you didn’t need to write one single line here, just like all others in that Facebook discussion that I’ve read about and where I was not involved.
I think describing me as “speaking truth to power” may be a tad too dramatic. I mean, we’re still talking only about the marketing and consumption of whisky.
I too appreciate Josh’s participating here and putting his views out for discussion with people who see these things differently than most people in the Facebook bloggers group (for instance). And I do appreciate his honesty as well. However, I remain unconvinced by this notion that it is somehow possible to maintain an absolute firewall between the self that interacts and socializes with and occasionally explicitly works for the industry and the self that then reviews the product, shows or “ideology” of that industry. If only it were that easy.
But what I want to stress again is that I absolutely don’t take a hardline stance against any interaction with the industry; i only want people to have more of a critical awareness of these kinds of questions. When I look at a number of prominent blogs (American ones, in particular), and at discussions on Facebook and Twitter, I worry that being a whisky blogger almost seems premised on not thinking about these questions, let alone finding their implications problematic.
Similarly, I’ll stress again that I don’t think that whisky bloggers should not interact/socialize with each other at all. I myself hung out with Tim in LA this summer and twice with Sku. I just think that this notion of “a community of bloggers” needs to remember:
a) That, whether we individually intend to be or not, our activity as a whole is unavoidably part of the marketing/p.r wing of an industry that is selling products (to us as well). This is not some “innocent” activity that we are engaged in. This is especially true of bloggers who go to a lot of whisky shows and other trade events, or interact directly with industry figures and write all that up; it’s really not a pure hobby at that point or just an expression of enthusiasm.
b) That just as we can maintain a critical distance from the industry without being hostile or adversarial it is possible to have a critical relationship with each other’s writing as well. I’m not suggesting that we should be constantly jumping on each other’s posts and tearing each other apart, but that we can envision ourselves as critical (as distinct from negative) readers and not just/always as each others’ support group or cheer squad. This can only be good for all of us. But this too can be hard to do with too much online or offline socializing. (Please note that I’m again not saying “with any online or offline socializing”, but “with too much”.)
And at the level of quibble: Ruben/Whiskynotes does not specify sources of samples or his overall level of interaction with the industry. I’ve seen references in the past on other blogs to industry sponsored events/trips he was on which I did not see mention of on his own blog. Serge too at this point is in this weird space between amateur and professional, as the Malt Maniacs, as a collective not individually, seem to be as well (at the most obvious level, many of the Malt Maniacs are professionals now).
Mao, nobody said they’re buying that Josh has invented the perfect firewall between being part of the industry and reviewing whisky for consumers. He himself admitted his struggle with this. And yes all the whisky bloggers you mentioned get a bad mark for nondisclosure. I don’t think they get a free pass. I think we all pretty much agree at this point. It was an enlightening discussion. Now, I need a drink.
It’s funny how you single out the American bloggers yet all the previous examples of nondisclosure are European. In fact I can’t think of a European blogger who states where they get their whisky from as a matter of course.
And I should know – I’ve been listening in on all their private conversations.
The only bit in my reply that was a direct response to you, Florin, was the first paragraph (the “truth to power” bit). The rest was a response to things in Josh’s post(s). I wasn’t implying that I thought you or anyone else buys the notion that Josh has figured out the firewall–merely that I don’t think such a firewall can exist; human beings are fundamentally sociable animals and it is hard to be critical of people you socialize with (which, doubtless, is why every industry seeks to get cozy with those who might critique it). And my singling out American bloggers was only in the context of the (lack of) discourse around networking with industry figures. I don’t mean to imply again that European bloggers are any better at this than they are with disclosing sources of samples but perhaps on account of who gets retweeted most in my Twitter feed or who are most active in that Facebook group, North American bloggers come most readily to my mind.
Josh, can you clarify your struggle with this issue of being independent? You either are independent or you are not. If you are independent then review away. If you are not independent you can still review away just say that you aren’t independent in your review (this includes free samples and relationships). What is there too struggle with? If you are unsure then disclose it. Am i too much of a simpleton for having this view? Anything else and one risks the appearance of being above the rules.
I’d agree and I don’t think you’re a simpleton for taking a direct view on this. Those reviewers who have compromised their objectivity in order to maintain or improve personal relationships, to get access to free samples, or to play at being company reps, know who they are and, at heart, what it means. Furthermore, disclaimers ABOUT compromised objectivity don’t really remedy the problem either; it only tells me that parts of what follow may or may not be true (even from the reviewer’s perspective). A “reader beware” advisory on reviews that have any ulterior motives, regardless of what those motives are or how passionately they are pursued, is simply a warning for ad copy to follow – something written to help someone improve their social and/or economic position by withholding some part of the truth as they see it from the reader. No matter how “candid”, all such a disclaimer tells me is that the reviewer is “trying to be objective” in one area about their possible non-objectivity in another – and it all stinks to high heaven.
Jeff: Did you buy any books with whisky reviews and/or commentary by Michael Jackson, David Broom, Ian Buxton, or anyone else? A lot of people do, and find them useful. In your strict sense their objectivity is compromised, so what they write is crap. (Well, then there’s Dominic Roskrow, I’ll concede that point….) Is Sku’s objectivity compromised? He accepts samples (and any trinkets he can get his hands on) but he made grown men cry, distillers whose whisky he didn’t like. We humans as social animals have developed a very keen ability of reading others’ intentions and motives, and to navigate a world with 50X50 shades of truth. It’s just not productive or feasible to discard everything that doesn’t fit into a rigid definition of true and pure. For one thing, if I did that I wouldn’t be married or live with children or have a job that requires interacting with more than three people on a daily basis…
Declaring a conflict of interest is just not the same thing as not having a conflict of interest in the first place. I don’t say that anyone’s reviews are “crap” based on the source of their samples, only that free samples invite natural speculation as to the validity of ANY review, just as free meals would invite natural speculation as to the validity of a restaurant review. Is Sku’s objectivity compromised? Is Serge Valentin’s? I wouldn’t say so because I don’t think that they, or other reviewers I trust, write reviews TO GET free samples or that they put other priorities above honesty, but is that true of the majority of bloggers on the Web? Who is to say and how is one to know? There are, quite frankly, those who I think can be bought and those I don’t.
People who DO tailor their reviews around getting free samples, or around their relationships with industry people, as I said, simply aren’t objective even by their OWN standards (and that was my point), and the chips can fall where they may. These bloggers need to be honest with themselves before they can be honest with the reader.
Bryan F. – I think I’m independent. But I acknowledge I have been playing fast and loose and I may get close to the line. I’m trying to write a detailed post on this topic now. I’ll post back with a link and more on MY annoying opinions on this topic shortly.
Serge rated a whisky 93 last week. The next day all bottles available in the online shops in The Netherlands had been sold out. Not questioning Serge’s integrity, but if you are a marketeer, this is the only thing you can dream about. In this new social media world as a consumer you have to find your way in selecting those blogs that you feel comfortable with. Ralfy’s video’s I really like, but I have no clue how he rates…. Even influencing scores on Whiskybase seems common to enhance sales.
In a money driven world, don’ let anyone fool you!
Serge is just incredibly influential. It does put him in a gray area–as I’ve mentioned somewhere else I think–between amateur and professional. And some of his other activities place him there even more unambiguously. I have tremendous respect for Serge–all us whisky bloggers fell out of his overcoat–but I will be posting a piece that brings up some of these things later this month.
Some really interesting topics on this thread. As I just replied to Tim Read – my personal position on this topic needs to be a blog post I put on my blog. I have willfully opened Pandora’s Box on this ethical question and I’m going to dive in head first. First of all, I’m going to write about my joyriding the Brand Ambassador train. Then I’m going to review some of the stuff I poured and I’m going to be as open as I possibly can be about the various conflict of interest aspects even while I attempt to tell the absolute unvarnished truth as best I can about the various whiskies involved.
I’m not trying to get a job in the whisky industry. I also spend a ton of money on whisky and I’m not dependent on samples (although I do enjoy receiving them). I haven’t been very good about writing reviews of the samples I’ve received. (I haven’t been very good about writing blog posts – period. My output is pathetic). So I don’t feel beholding to industry largess. But I’ll own the largess and let readers decide.
A little late to the party, but I’ve had better things to do, so…
I happen to agree with a lot of what MAO is getting at here AND I happen to be one of those apparently awful bloggers that accept samples. I agree that it can be difficult to not let external factors (such as relationships with industry, etc.) get in the way of being objective, but at the same time I think it’s naive and fairly narrow-minded to think that ONLY those getting samples from the industry are the ones whose objectivity is sullied. MAO, you seem to get a lot of samples via sharing, does not your relationship with friends your sharing with have the potential to interfere with your objectivity? Does not buying a bottle have the potential to interfere? I have an easier time giving a negative review to an industry sample than I do to a bottle I buy because I hate the idea that I’ve wasted my money on some mediocre whisky. Before you get your underwear in an uproar, yes, I realize there’s a difference between letting personal bias get involved in a friend-to-friend sharing situation and samples from an industry pusher. All I’m saying is the pressure to be less objective in reviewing this crap comes from all over the place, what we should be applauding is reviewing that’s consistent and honest in its efforts to be objective as possible, not cynically giving every blog some arbitrary litmus test of whether its truly, black or white, objective or not. No blog or review is completely objective, not even yours, MAO.
That said, there are definitely people out there, begging for samples and writing positive things just to keep the milk flowing from the teat (sorry, new baby in house), and that’s where I think a lot of points made here are valid. It’s those blogs that are dragging down the credibility of the good ones. Not sure what to do about it, but then again, I don’t read those blogs, so I don’t really care. Maybe we should just out the fuckers…except inevitably someone underserving would get caught in the crosshairs. As for myself, I’ve been getting samples from people for more than three years now. I’ve been upfront with everyone about what my responsibility is to their samples (none) and I feel I’ve been consistent and accurate in my reviews over the years. Basically, I know that I’ve kept the “ethical” standard I set for myself, and in the end that’s what really matters. I’ve been unfairly attacked for it in the past, which sucks, but I realize is now part of the game. I can’t control what every two-bit Kato Kaelin thinks about my blog or ethicals, nor do I really care. They’re going to decide with or without knowing what the truth is, which, I might add, isn’t very objective.
I think Joshua puts himself in a challenging position wearing the different hats that he does, but if you read his blog, you know that he’s about much, much, much more than just reviewing industry samples, he’s not just regurgitating content. He’s passionate about the whisky and its history and production. The challenge will be to keep the passion there and not let it creep into the professional relationships.
Ironically, my blog lately seems to only be posts reviewing industry samples. An expensive cross-country, whisky-collection-killing move, and expensive kids have left me with little money or time to rebuild my collection and post more reviews of my own bottles. I’m fully aware that it might appear to someone that I’m basically shilling for a few companies. I don’t like it, but I’d like to keep the blog rolling, I’d like to continue to broaden my experience, so for now, it is what it is. It is definitely a lot easier to keep that critical distance when one is more distant from the industry. I don’t know any industry people in my new locale. I’ve half-heartedly suggested to MAO that we get a drink sometime, which I would actually like to do, but he should be aware that I’ve already decided to write negatively about the experience so as not to appear too cozy.
Also, speaking of being objective, why is it that only glowing positive reviews about samples get slammed for not being objective, but overly negative reviews rarely do. I’ve read several reviews or comments where a blogger calls something undrinkable when the whisky in question is more or less universally accepted as being at the very least, decent, certainly not undrinkable. That’s a completely subjective opinion, not an objective review. Being objective, giving an educated assessment of a whisky, is looking for positives and negatives regardless of personal preference. Deciding to write a review or make a comment about a whisky that disregards any positives or negatives renders that review subjective to a fault. If some independent, no-samples-allowed blogger (no, I’m not thinking of anyone in particular), slams a whisky as undrinkable, one that I know for a fact is obviously acceptable stuff…that’s just subjective bullshit, and no better than the glowing review someone writes to keep the samples coming.
I think the focus on “objectivity” is misplaced–taste is purely subjective (i.e., it only matters if I like the whisky I’m drinking). If someone gives a bad review to a whisky other people generally believe to be good, then I conclude that the reviewer is either inexperienced or does not have a taste matching a majority of people’s (or they have “bad” taste in whisky–same thing).
However, importantly, that bad review did not cause me to buy a bottle.
If I’m looking at reviews of something I have not tasted, the harm of a review that wrongly exalts a bottle is much greater than the harm of someone panning a good bottle, especially given prices these days and considering that a bottle that is rare enough to only have few reviews is likely to be even more expensive. And the chance of a whisky being rated higher than its worth seems much more prevalent than a whisky being wrongly slammed. Besides, if it was truly wrongly slammed, chances are I’ll find lots of other positive reviews. But where all the reviews of a whisky are positive, and yet many of the reviewers have a stake in the game (whether that’s access to free samples or anything), it is harder to find a contrary opinion.
And of course, generally speaking, the ulterior motive to overrate a whisky has to be more prevalent than any motive to underrate a whisky.
There cannot be an objectively “good” whisky that everyone likes and that everyone believes is fairly valued. Note that plenty of “objectively” good wines are hated or at least valued as overpriced by some part of the population, either because they prefer Old World to New World, because they prefer rich wines to thin wines, because they prefer sweet and simple to sour or tannic and complex, etc.
Reviews are only useful to me if they express a range of opinion. I look for the negative reviews, even of something I like. And if I can’t find any, especially where there is such a wide variation in the taste of people, it’s suspicious.
Lastly, somewhat unrelated, my least favorite reviewers are those who offer no justification for their opinion. At least if someone overrates everything, I can ignore them or discount their opinion. But when scores seem to vary but they are not explained, that’s absolutely useless to me. For example, there is a particular pro-am reviewer with a strong relationship to the industry who gives scores from the low 80s to high 90s (maybe even broader) and yet every review is the same “tasting note” of some positive flavors. There is never a negative comment, and there is never a justification of the difference between an 81 and a 97, except that maybe the review for the 97 goes on with a longer list of positive descriptors. What a joke–completely useless. I expect any review to explain the perceived flaws of a whisky, even if they like it and give it a high score. Unless you’re scoring it a 100, I expect to hear what you think it is missing that would justify a higher score.
God, long discussions in blog comments are unwieldy.
Some fragmentary responses to Peter’s comments with acknowledgment of Alex’s:
I think Peter is conflating two different senses of “objectivity”.
1. On the one hand, there’s the question of whether a reviewer is using terms in their conventional sense i.e. in the ways that the larger context of reviewers uses them. Or are they using the Humpty Dumpty theory of language (“When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less”). If a reviewer’s definition of “fruity” or “peaty”, say, appears over time to have little relation to how anyone else uses those descriptors then their reviews will have little relevance to anyone. Similarly, if they seem to be valuing qualities that others seem to agree, through established convention, are flaws: feinty notes, say, or astringent wood. But there’s plenty of reasonable variance possible before this extreme example: different people can find notes in different proportions (or on different occasions) while sharing the same critical vocabulary. That’s the expected subjective response, and it would be pointless for there to be more than one or two blogs/reviews if this did not exist.
2. Then there’s the question of whether a reviewer may be beholden to someone. A reviewer who relies on producers for samples to review is always going to have to deal with the readerly suspicion that it is in the reviewer’s interest to not cause that well of samples to dry up. This is not to say that any reviewer who accepts samples is necessarily compromised. Transparency is key, but so is demonstrated independence in reviews and scores over time. Someone like Sku, who reviews samples from producers, passes both these tests; and from what I can make out by squinting at your white text on black background blog, you do too, Peter. (Serge passes the second test but not the first).
3. Certainly bias can creep in from other directions too. Confirmation bias for one’s own purchases, as you note, is one source, as can be the desire to not offend friends/fellow geeks you swap samples with. As you also acknowledge, this is not quite the same thing as the previous case but in both cases, I think, transparency is important; your readers can then judge from your reviews and scores if you are pulling punches. There’s also the anxiety for people like me, who’ve come to a serious appreciation of whisky and then reviewing much after more established people, that we may not be authentic if our reviews and scores depart too much from those of the “experts”. Developing this confidence is important too. In my case, in my professional life I do “aesthetic evaluation” on a daily basis so I feel less angst on this score. But I do try to maintain a healthy respect for the evaluations of those who do manifestly know more or have tried more whisky than me when my evaluations differ from theirs.
4. And echoing Alex: I do find it odd as well when low scores (especially for whiskies whose sources have not been acknowledged) accompany notes that do not justify those scores. I tend to look at such situations as cases where a blogger may be trying to have it both ways: i.e. maintain their sense of “objectivity” through a lower score while not offending the source of the sample with negative descriptions.
5. And this last point is not a response to Peter or anyone else but it is, of course, true that bloggers will get caught up in the industry’s marketing whether they want to be or not and quite independent of what their ethics or protocols may be. Amrut, for instance, included my positive review of the Intermediate Sherry in some blog round-up they published; it goes without saying that they’ve never included my other (also positive) reviews in which I’ve said skeptical things about other aspects of their marketing etc..
And when you look at the blogs that publish barely coherent, barely grammatical reviews that can’t possibly be influencing anyone (I fervently hope) but get samples anyway, it seems possible that producers send samples around not because they want high scores but because in the age of Search Engine Optimization the only thing worse than being talked about with a low score at the end is not being talked about at all. To this end I believe that not accepting samples or being reliant on them means at least that my reviewing schedule does not map onto the producers’ marketing schedule.
Then again, the Bruichladdich blog, who gave me the first big push with a recommendation back in June (I still get people coming to my blog from that post), praised my independence etc. in the context of very positive reviews of two Octomores which were still available in their shop, but overlooked my less flattering review of the PC 6 which came between those two. (Though it must be said to their credit that even my reviews of the Octomores took some shots at the distillery which most people would probably have preferred not to draw attention to; including a dig at the sainted Jim M.)
So, there’s nobody who can stand outside these messy contradictions and I certainly don’t see myself in such an exalted way. I do think that bloggers in general need to acknowledge that they are caught up in these messy contradictions and try to locate themselves within them.
To answer numerically:
1. I don’t think I was conflating the meaning of “objective” in as much as I was just totally misusing the term, or at least using it as a catch-all phrase. I suppose I could of used “bias” in the same way. But, yeah, within each of our own subjective reviews, there does need to be objective valuation (and critical distance), and that objective valuation should relate to some loosely accepted standards (the presence of peat can smell like smoke, band-aids, diesel…but probably not spearmint gum, marshmallow fluff, and guava juice). I guess my point was that a knowledgeable reviewer has to recognize both positives and negatives, and while the final overall opinion of a whisky might be positive or negative because of the reviews subjective opinion, at least the diligence has been done and the explanation carries more weight if all aspects are considered…which point agrees with Alex and MAO’s #4, but who’s keeping score.
And yes, Alex, I totally agree, the odd hyper negative review is far more rare and easy to blow off than the plethora of overwhelmingly positive reviews, and those are the ones given the most weight by PR/google/industry/etc. My point there was that I’ve seen that kind of review given by people I ordinarily think of as having a decent, educated opinion, so it can appear that they’ve blown off doing that due diligence. While the other is certainly more prevalent, I think it’s still worth remembering that the bullshit goes both ways sometimes.
#2. I do appreciate that you think I pass the tests, MAO. I think I do, too, but it’s nice to hear it from someone that has a critical eye. My whole response was pretty much just fishing for validation, so…mission accomplished, I guess (just FYI, The Casks 2.0 is being worked on and it will not be utilizing white on black. You’re not the only one who hates it. the guy who writes it hasn’t liked it for years, he’s just lazy).
#3. I totally feel that anxiety as well. Especially when it comes to reviewing single cask independents. How the hell am I suppose to accurately judge a Rosebank when Serge has judged 6,000 of ’em? Again, I think it’s trying to do that due diligence, and trusting not just your palate but the accompanying knowledge. I also seriously don’t think anyone truly understands distilling unless they’ve actually spent time doing it. I have not spent any time distilling, nor have most whisky bloggers, so our knowledge is mostly theoretical and sometimes it feels a little shaky. In the end, it always helps to remember that my blog is chronicle of my experience with whisky, and letting that growth show is ok, as long as it’s (again) consistent within the blog.
#4. Kinda covered that.
#5. Fuck it, too tired. We take this shit way too seriously.
Thanks for that, Daddy-O. I confess, that as a recently divorced Dad I might seek to ‘let it [the passion] creep into the … relationships’ I have with whisky women (by hopefully getting one or two of them into bed. That’s about the level of maturity I’m operating on here most of the time.
I’m pleasure seeking. The whole enterprise is really just about having fun. At least that part is working: I’m having a blast. I love all you mooks. I appreciate that you’re looking out for the soul of whisky blogging. The vast democratizing long tail of access to free blogging platforms that require zero technical ability is, inevitably, guaranteeing that the “pool” of whisky blogs is so wide it includes a bunch of that are crap. But this is part of a wider phenomenon where anonymous idiots post hateful screeds all over simply because they can. PR culture poisoning isn’t limited to vacuous puff pieces on whisky blogs written by people who may not know whisky well enough to write about it: it’s all over. PR poisoning is there in the fact that Justin Bieber has the most Twitter followers in the world (or close) and that there are more blog hits on a single post written by a teenage girl about the new clothing choices seen in paparazzi pictures of members of the boy band “One Direction” than are garnered by the entire whisky blogosphere in a one year period. PR works and its effects are pernicious. We see it in a host of ways that prove its power to distort the cultural apprehension of reality. For example, in the field of the political debate concerning Anthropogenic global warming (Climate Change) a large, well financed, PR campaign operated by the coal, oil, gas, and chemical lobby has produced a body of pseudo science think tanks and blogs that has convinced a majority of Americans that global warming isn’t actually happening and that there is debate among legitimate scientists on whether CO2 is actually affecting climate (rather than just on the details of how much and when). read a blog like” http://www.c3headlines.com/” and you might come away believing that there is real scientific evidence contradicting the theory of AGW. But it’s the work of a paid Washington lobbyist and every post is a constructed lie based on quoting things out of context, using statistics incorrectly, or otherwise just adding spin. But it has convinced a numerical majority of the lay public and this demographic majority of misapprehension, of course, votes. Which is the whole point.
PR creates its own realities and these things then take on lives of their own. For example the concept of branded leisurewear (i.e. sweat pants and hoodies with the brand names and logos of popular clothing and fragrance designers. This completely asinine fashion trend is now celebrated in literature and song (mainly street poetry and rap music) never mind that it turns girl’s butts into billboards for overblown products – without compensating them (indeed, they pay top dollar for the privilege). Topics like cola brands and “saving money on car insurance” enter our minds unbidden.
In this wider cultural context we see that PR serves narrow private interests while it distorts mass perceptions of reality. As such it’s bad. I resent all of it. In the whisky context it leads an “exciting new expression” to garner a ton of attention whether it deserves it or not. The very least we’d hope is that if the cause of better whisky isn’t served, that new expression gets panned. It’s pretty enraging to see it lauded because the writer appear to either know too little about whisky to be writing about it or appears grateful for the sample. To that end I’m totally on board with what this post and this lengthy thread of comments is all about. I’ll do my best to to carry that torch beyond this thread and to try to be a force for good (good whisky that is).
But I’ll do it in my own way and schmooze with whoever I want to schmooze with and take whatever risks I choose to take because I’m doing this to amuse myself. So in light of all this I’ll close by quoting the #1 hit song “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz:
“I came to dance, dance, dance, dance
I hit the floor ’cause that’s my plans, plans, plans, plans
I’m wearing all my favorite brands, brands, brands, brands
Give me some space for both my hands, hands, hands, hands
‘Cause it goes on and on and on…
And it goes on and on and on…
I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,
Saying AYO! Gotta let go!
I wanna celebrate and live my life,
Saying AYO! Baby, let’s go!
‘Cause we gon’ rock this club,
We gon’ go all night,
We gon’ light it up,
Like it’s dynamite!
‘Cause I told you once,
Now I told you twice,
We gon’ light it up,
Like it’s dynamite!
I came to move, move, move, move
Get out the way of me and my crew, crew, crew, crew
I’m in the club so I’m gonna do, do, do, do
Just what the f***, came here to do, do, do, do”
That passage of lyrics pretty much much sums up this entire diatribe….
The enterprise might be about having fun, but criticism (in its true sense, not just in the sense of being “negative”) has to be about honesty to have any value at all. That criticism which is “honestly biased” in any way may be honest, but it is also biased, not just in the sense of everyone bringing their personal biases and experience to what they see, but in embracing agendas beyond criticism of the whisky, including self amusement.
Real reviews are about honest appraisal about what’s in the glass and nothing but. Those who make it more complicated than that (and it is a choice), or see their reviews as a means of achieving ends beyond sharing honest opinion have put the reader somewhere further down on a list of unknown priorities and, as a reader, I don’t need my interests subordinated to those of the writer. It doesn’t even matter whether the writer is “honest” or “forthright” about which priorities of theirs supersede mine because it’s the reader/consumer’s interests that ARE what an honest review is all about – helping them find good whiskies and avoid bad ones. If the reader can’t assume that a review is an honest appraisal, why should the reader care about all hand wringing, soul searching, ethics crunching (and ethical exceptions made) that go into a opinion that isn’t what the writer REALLY thinks anyway? In short, bloggers, real reviews aren’t about you, your issues, who you may or may not feel beholden to, or what you hope to gain or fear to lose in the process of writing – real reviews serve the reader and it’s the fundamental narcissistic failure of many writers to recognize that fact which results in so much being written about whisky and so little being said.
Jeff: “Real reviews are about honest appraisal about what’s in the glass and nothing but. … In short, bloggers, real reviews aren’t about you, your issues, who you may or may not feel beholden to, or what you hope to gain or fear to lose in the process of writing – real reviews serve the reader and it’s the fundamental narcissistic failure of many writers to recognize that fact which results in so much being written about whisky and so little being said.”
I couldn’t agree more, Jeff. When you write a review of a whisky you have to be completely honest about what’s in the glass. If you don’t you are full of !@#$.
But does that preclude me (or anyone else) from writing about more than just whisky reviews? What about writing up an event? How about describing a liquor store or a bar? A tasting? I’m in hot water in this comments hell because I sometimes pour whisky at events as a pretend brand ambassador for a day. I don’t write about it (but that’s about to change because of this post and the comments that follow it). I also haven’t ever written about the whisky I’ve poured at any of those events. That, too is going to change. I’ll be completely honest about my sources, my relationship, and give my honest take on those whiskies. That’s the best I can do.
Time will tell if this #whiskyfabric thing ends up being a great community and good things come out of it – or if it ends up causing more trouble than it’s worth. So far I haven’t seen any problem with it – among the group that I track. Rob Gard wrote a cool book. So did Fred Minnick. I see a bunch of young bloggers getting better. Probably the ones in the group on the diciest ground are Johanne and myself. I’ll keep my eyes peeled and I’m grateful for the perspective Preacher gave in this post and you all have given when adding your two cents below.
You can, of course, write about what you like and cultivate the relationships you want to pursue. My point is that, if those outside topics, or relationships, have a tendency to influence your reviews, then the result IS outside bias, and being honest about that outside bias (“Does this make me soft peddle criticisms on my friend’s stuff – maybe”) doesn’t remove, or correct, the bias itself. It’s like a scientist saying “here are my results but, fair warning, I didn’t bother to calibrate my equipment before I started”. Declaring a conflict of interest is just not the same thing as not having a conflict of interest in the first place.
Jeff, this is kind of a silly point. Blogs, any kind of blogs, are fundamental narcissistic failures to begin with.
No, not really although they can be – people can, and do, blog on about anything they want to, to whatever degree of self indulgence they want to – but any kind of unbiased product review is for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of, or to benefit, the writer (unless they are actually paid to write unbiased reviews).
Peter, your statement is the takeaway from this discussion. Thank you.
All blogs are fundmentally narcissistic, yes. I’m not sure about failures though. Failures at being what? The problem with whisky blogs (which are the only ones I read) is that most bloggers have not even bothered to try and articulate the what.
Exactly. The takeaway that I get from the discussion, and which I think cuts too close to quick for some, is that some bloggers want to invent, and then work, a grey area between consumer and industry interests which really doesn’t exist – not wanting to alienate the latter by supporting the former, trying to become “voices” without the drawbacks of the commitment of saying much of anything, all while making “connections”. The failure, if any, is in the fortitude, not in the form.
Ok, I was pretty much done with this endless, somewhat pointless thread, but your point, Jeff, brings up a fundamental error on the part of all these people judging these fundamental narcissistic failures. I think many whisky bloggers, myself definitely included, did not start writing blogs for any other purpose than to chronicle their experience with whisky, nothing more. No ulterior motive of trying to get samples (who the fuck would waste all their time trying to get 30ml in a plastic bottle?), no ulterior motive of becoming a journalist, just simple writing about a hobby from a personal perspective. Jeff seems to ascribe more meaning and intent to these blogs when in actuality there really isn’t. If suddenly my readership dried up and no samples darkened my door, I would…keep writing about my experience with whisky…gasp!!! Certainly there are some “corrupt” PR whore blogs out there, but of the ones mentioned in this thread at least, plus many, many more, I’m pretty damn sure that their intent is just a simple journal. That whisky has grown so popular, social media so readily, persistently available, there’s now a lot more attention and import assigned to what were just simple blogs. So, while that does mean that the issues discussed here definitely have merit, and should be seriously thought about, it’s also a little irksome to hear people tell others who their blog is for and what they should be doing with it. Like JGF has mentioned, it’s his to do with what he wants, ethical dilemmas and all. If part of wanting to chronicle one’s experience with whisky is meeting industry people, tasting as wide a variety of whisky as possible by any means necessary, and perhaps trying on a few industry hats in the process, why does that invalidate a blog? (I know the reasons why, I’m partly playing devil’s advocate)
On a related note, one could say that the readers and those expecting higher journalistic standards from bloggers are at fault for placing too much importance on these blogs in the first place. All of a sudden, we’re supposed to be seasoned journalists and master distillers, and any mistake or display of youthful over-exuberance exposes us for the frauds we are when, and this goes back to my original point, most of these blogs are just a simple chronicle of one’s experience, learning curve and all. Here’s a shocking fact, most if not all whisky bloggers know basically nothing about how whisky is made. We can talk a good game in terms of yeast strains, fermentation times, new make viscosity, and wood management, but the reality is you don’t know shit about distilling until you’ve actually spent years working in a distillery (this goes for most “craft” producers as well). Both bloggers and their readers seem to forget this. The more I learn about whisky, the more I realize I don’t know, and the more I question whether I’m qualified to write about it…and then I remember that all I wanted to do was chronicle my experience with this crap. fuck the rest.
Well, Peter, as I tried to indicate, I have just a few fundamental points I’m trying to make:
1. Reviews, unlike, necessarily, the blogs they may or may not be contained in, serve the reader rather than the writer – they are to honestly advise OTHER people about the whisky in question or they have no purpose; they are not just creative writing exercises, and so they have to be as free of considerations OUTSIDE that of the quality of the whisky in question as possible. If what anyone is writing isn’t a review, but rather some skewed exercise in fiction that even the writer doesn’t believe, then it’s not a review, just a lie.
2. Many bloggers are honest about their reviews, and other related subjects they write about, but some are, regardless of why they ever started blogging in the first place, as you admit, whores – so much for “who the fuck would waste all their time trying to get 30ml in a plastic bottle?”. I am not criticizing the good, honest bloggers, whether I agree with their opinions or not, only the bad ones. Forgetting about the reader for a moment, if some bloggers can’t be honest, even with themselves, I don’t really see the point of all the writing and ego posturing.
3. People can do whatever they like with their blogs (and incredibly enough, some, in writing, think about their readers as much as they do about themselves) but, if they are whores with their blogs then, regardless of the actual subject content, that is what they are: they are providing the industry with PR in exchange for past or future access or consideration. I don’t ascribe any more meaning or intent to the subject than that, but it is what it is.
FYI – I just blogged about pouring and about the arguments from this post: http://bit.ly/1hurjwE
Josh – my dear whisky friend.
To me it doesn’t matter whether I agree or disagree with what you say. Here’s the thing: you care enough about whisky and social media to write down your thoughts. The passion, time and effort you put into what can be a very emotive topic is admirable.
What I enjoy about the whisky stuff is sitting down with mates, a great whisky or 3 and shooting the breeze. Some of my mates are from the industry, some aren’t, and everything we talk about is a chat between mates, around whisky.
We love the stuff, that’s why we write about it.
We will never all agree on everything and there is always going to be an element of conflict of interest, even hidden agendas. But hey, whisky, used properly, slices through bullshit.
Josh: “In the body of reviews I’ve written there are far more are positive reviews than are negative… Is this because I’m a shill or a pussy? I don’t think so. It’s for a number of reasons: 1) I really love whisky and find aspects to love in many drams of many styles. 2) I love celebrating and loving more than I love scolding and punishing”
Here’s the problem: when you’re standing at the dart board, it doesn’t much matter where your aiming point is, or how much you love darts – your results will accumulate in what is called a normal distribution: a very few darts on target, most missing by a modest distance, and a very few outliers.
That is a normal distribution, the well known bell curve. It matters not what whiskies you choose, or where you aim – if you have – by your own admission – “far more” positives than negatives than you are biased. Whether you understand or admit that matters not. It’s fact.
I don’t think it’s as simple as that. First of all, one can have a normal distribution and still have mostly positive reviews. For example, on a hundred-point scale, one can have a distribution just as normal between 88 and 92 as one can have between 60 and 90, only the standard deviation would differ–there is no need for negative reviews. Also, there are other distributions besides the normal distribution, so to assume a normal distribution without verifying it is dangerous.
Lastly, most importantly, I would specifically NOT expect a normal distribution where the sample isn’t random. Here, I assume the whiskies reviewed are decidedly not random–most people stay away from whiskies known to be bad or overpriced or whatever. Therefore, I would expect most bloggers to have mostly positive reviews unless they are tasting every possible drink on the shelf. Even then, an importer has decided to import only good whiskies, and a producer has decided to commercialize only whiskies that it considers are acceptable. Neither sample is random, as flipping a coin would be. All of these bias the population, and I would expect all reviewers to have mostly acceptable scores, unless they are normalizing them such that they are rating them against each other. In other words, if someone was rating Johnnie Walker Red a zero just because some other whisky is real good. But no one does that.
I agree. In fact, if you were to look at my scores, the majority are over 85 points. This is for just the reason Alex describes: a tremendous amount of selection bias in most of what I review.
What turns me off is when a reviewer seems to be only stressing the positive with a whisky or soft-pedaling the negative, especially when the rating doesn’t match up with the description. Or when a reviewer seems to be over-inflating everything. Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast, for instance, throws 90+ point scores around like so much confetti and explains it by saying that 90 points at his child’s school is a B+ or something. I would say that at best that’s a nice way to not upset the person you just gave 90 points to.
On a separate note: I don’t know what it means that so many of the people who read my blog seem to be statisticians.
Nice. I’m not biting.
Michael K. has a nice post over on Diving for Pearls that articulates his positions on the same issues.
Thank you for the link. No one has called me a troll yet which is terribly disappointing.