[Let me make some apologies before you read this post. First, for the length. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard with me, I’m afraid (well, occupational for me, hazard for you). Secondly, for the genre of this post, which is the universally unloved one in which bloggers critique other bloggers–even I’m sick of it and barely engage it in anymore (not that I ever engaged in it much on the blog–just this post and this post, really). But the problem, you see, is that I’m contractually obligated to live up to the name of my blog from time to time. Anyway: you might want to come back to this when you have a lot of time on hand to read it.]
So, for months now I’ve been referring to an upcoming post on “investment whisky” and the inconsistent way in which the whisky geek community responds to bloggers and other figures involved with it. That post was mostly written last October, and then for one reason or the other I didn’t have time to finish it and it just kept getting pushed to the next month and then the next month and so on. As I’ve said before, despite my reputation in some quarters, I don’t really seek to be a controversial blogger and so try to keep potentially controversial posts to no more than one a month. Conversations that develop around them require a lot more engagement and as whisky blogging is not my job I don’t have that much time to give to conversations that need it. The (very long) draft has thus sat around for many months now, and predictably when I finally came back to it this week it seemed easier to just begin again from the beginning.
The initial impetus for my post was the circumstances of the release last year of a Karuizawa cask for the Polish Wealth Solutions group, but I’m not going to begin with that now. Instead, let’s begin with Morrison Bowmore, and specifically Glen Garioch’s recent launch on Facebook of what they are calling their “Drambassador Program“.
Once you “like” this page you are told what it is about: it is an invitation specifically to whisky bloggers “who would like the opportunity to receive and review an exclusive new mystery dram ahead of the release”. Anyone interested can apply and Rachel Barrie will then select up to 20 bloggers to participate. And then one of those people will have the chance to join Barrie “and the team” at the distillery for “an exclusive VIP experience package”. This seems to have engendered some controversy in some quarters, but as that’s happening in a closed Facebook group I’ll not make specific reference to it. I’ll note only that all that is happening here is that Glen Garioch has made public and transparent what is standard operating procedure among many, many whisky bloggers who accept free samples from the industry.
In just the past week we saw two social media onslaughts. One was a Twitter Tasting for Bowmore’s new Travel Retail releases, and the other was the simultaneous publication of a number of reviews of An Cnoc’s new line of peated whiskies. None of this is in any way new, of course, and nor is the phenomenon of whisky bloggers participating in blind tastings of other “mystery” releases. It just seems funny to me that bloggers who participate in this kind of marketing push seem to get uncomfortable (or go very quiet) when companies come close to formally acknowledging the reality of the relationship.
Let me spell it out: bloggers who participate, whether on Twitter or via reviews on their blogs, in the coordinated marketing of new releases are part of the marketing push whether they like to be identified as such or not. When whisky companies get for free something they would otherwise have to pay for–extensive coordinated p.r., “organic”, “viral” marketing–they are executing a business plan, and the other parties involved in it should try not to delude themselves (or their readers) about what they are doing. (This is quite separate from the question of whether the reviews and scores that result are biased or not.) Paid-for junkets are nothing new either–and a number of prominent bloggers who seem to remain above the fray have gone on them (but not always mentioned them later when reviewing the whiskies). So there’s nothing extraordinary about what Glen Garioch are proposing, merely that they are more or less formalizing it.
Another way of looking at this, of course, is that Glen Garioch have been rather gauche and have probably eliminated in the process some of the more influential bloggers who probably would have voluntarily participated anyway (see the An Cnoc/Bowmore stuff referred to above). It’s not that bloggers are uncomfortable with doing this kind of thing; it’s that some of them are uncomfortable with the thing being given a name (granted, it’s a cheesy name even by whisky marketing standards) and their co-option all but publicly acknowledged. Others still, I’d guess, see no problem with it, and probably seem to see it as an opportunity–for recognition from the industry and from fellow bloggers and geeks, for plaudits etc.. And this is probably largely because, as I noted earlier, this kind of thing (the participation in marketing, if not the motivation) is standard operating procedure among many whisky bloggers, including some of the most respected and influential.
On that note, let’s get to the case of the Karuizawa I mentioned at top. A 48 yo cask of Karuizawa, 1964 was bottled and released last February for the clients of a Polish company named Wealth Solutions (a follow-up to a 1953 Glenfarclas released the previous year). 143 bottles of “investment-grade” whisky for the clients of a company that specializes, as per their website, in the “management of alternative investments” seems like perfect symmetry. The packaging from what I can tell was appropriately luxe and came with a 35 page booklet containing, among other things, tasting notes.
Among those who wrote the tasting notes are Marcin Miller (head honcho of Number One Drinks Co., I wonder if he liked it); Dominic Roskrow (a prominent proponent of the idea of whisky as investment); Dave Broom (an acknowledged Japanese whisky expert and a respected writer); and the authors of the industry blog Cask Strength and Carry On (whose business is brand promotion). So far, so unsurprising. The other two writers of tasting notes, however, are Stefan Van Eycken (the current editor of the Nonjatta blog, the number one online English language online resource on Japanese whisky) and the redoubtable Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun (perhaps the most respected and read whisky site on the planet). Both also wrote glowing reviews of the whisky on their own blogs (not having read the booklet I’m not sure if the reviews are the same as what was printed there). But they were not the only ones involved. If you can bear to watch to the end of this “World Premiere” video you’ll see blurbs drawn from reviews by a number of other bloggers too (Keith Wood, Oliver Klimek, Miguel Angel Blanch Lardin etc.; and for all I know, there were others not mentioned in the video):
So, what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t bloggers be free to review anything they like? Well, of course. This is a boring question and it pains me that I set you up to rhetorically ask it. Yes, of course, bloggers, big or small, influential or otherwise, are free to do whatever they like, and not even one with as large a God complex as mine would imagine that they have any power to change that. So if you’re going to hit me with that old chestnut, save your time; I’m well aware of it and indeed it’s the freedom to write about whatever we choose that allows me to write about this. Here’s a slightly better question: Isn’t it a good thing that we plebs get to sniff this whisky from a considerable distance via our blogger representatives? Hmmm okay, I fetishize things that are out of my reach as much as the next sap, but let’s think this particular case through a little bit more and ask what else these reviews are doing (their authors’ intentions aside).
This was not a whisky for general release: it was a whisky presented to the company’s clients as an investment. These glowing reviews then cannot simply be reviews, they are not just out there somehow. They are very directly a part of the process of raising the investment potential of the whisky. The real service is to Wealth Solutions and their clients for whom they’re confirming and driving up the price of this whisky. There is, of course, an ancillary service to readers, who like viewers of “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” may get a queasy pleasure from seeing how the rich drink–but this is very much an ancillary service and completely irrelevant to Wealth Solutions’ needs.
What I mean is that Wealth Solutions is not, after all, an organization interested in promoting whisky. Their only goals are a) to impress their clients with the “status” of the bottling by lining up the experts and b) to drive up the price of this “alternative investment” on the secondary market so as to justify the recommendation. Indeed, a bottle made it to Master of Malt’s website and was sold in the last few months for $16,606. Somebody certainly made good on their investment. Now, I don’t doubt that this is a very good whisky and nor am I saying that anyone’s opinions were purchased–I am merely suggesting that we should try to give the structural role of these reviews their proper name: marketing, not reviewing.
The other issue is that this phenomenon itself, of investment whisky, whisky for oligarchs etc. is one that most whisky geeks–including many of those who participated in this promotion–otherwise decry. We are constantly told (correctly) that these prices and all the hoopla around these releases are silly, that they are evidence of a bubble in the making/popping, that they are in bad taste etc. etc.. But here we are with some of the most respected and well-liked names in the whisky blogger/geek world, some of whom are the very people who tell us that this kind of thing is bad, participating in just such a release and I didn’t see too many people taking any of it amiss. Meanwhile, we’re not shy with our views on Richard Paterson and Dalmore’s investment-grade whiskies, on luxury whiskies from Glenmorangie, Highland Park etc. etc..
It’s also not the case that these obscene prices have no connection to the lower end of the price spectrum where the vast majority of whisky geeks shop. We’re all part of the same large eco-system. Karuizawa, as you probably know, is now essentially sold by a cartel. The distillery is closed, all remaining stock was purchased by Number One Drinks and is sold exclusively through them and a few chosen outlets (the Whisky Exchange among them). The release of the remaining stock is very carefully controlled so as to manage and maintain ever increasing prices. It’s not so very long ago that fairly old single cask releases of Karuizawa could be bought for less than £200. Now people are happily paying $150 for 12 yo Karuizawa and the price of the older stuff has gone through the roof.
The dramatic rise in the price is certainly due to a number of other factors as well, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our expectations of what prices can be asked for Karuizawa (and other similar names), or the investment potential of even far less expensive (though not cheap) releases of its whisky, are not impacted significantly by the fortunes of bottles like this 48 yo for Wealth Solutions. If nothing else, the idea of a £10,000 48 yo Karuizawa has the effect of making £400 for a 30 yo Karuizawa seem like a very good deal. And this is not very far away from what is going on with distilleries like Dalmore and their Constellation series etc.. Regular drinkers are not going to buy them, but the halo effect of the notoriety of these whiskies allows the price of the 12, 15 and 18 year olds to creep up (or rise dramatically, as the case maybe). This phenomenon may be outside our control, but we can at least choose to not participate in the selling of it, which amounts more or less to participating in normalizing it.
We can also choose not to be selective in how we respond to those who do choose to participate in it (as they are, again, free to do). If we think the idea of “investment whisky” and the narratives around it are at least a sham, if not a scam, let us call out all those who participate in them, not just the ones we don’t like. Let us point out the inconsistency of someone decrying in one place a phenomenon they participate in elsewhere. If people are behaving like de facto professionals let us not allow them to use the alibi that they’re just enthusiastic amateurs. And let us not forget what Glen Garioch have reminded us of: that the normalization of the idea of bloggers as marketing tools/stooges happens not just at the high end but more often, and more regularly at the low end. After all, if we’re willing to be co-opted for so little why on earth would we take it amiss if someone else was co-opted for a lot more? And if our readers in turn are just willing to say, “oh, this is just what whisky bloggers do” then who is going to hold us to account?
These, as always, are my opinions, and if you don’t like them…I have others.
[By the way, in the original version of this post I was also going to devote some time to “The Monte Carlo Whisky Conference 2013: For Connoisseurs, Epicureans, Collectors and Investors“. But I decided against it finally because, come on, it’s obviously satire, right? I mean, they claimed they were going to watch a film by Ken Loach at this event for plutocrats. Also, look at the faces these luminaries are pulling while staring at glasses of whisky! It’s heartwarming how willing they are to look like utter twats for the sake of a good joke! I may be an idealist, but I am not so naive as to believe that something like this could actually have been planned and pulled off. Kudos to whoever it was that conceived of this brilliant con!]