Marketing, Investment Whisky, Bloggers

[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!]

92 thoughts on “Marketing, Investment Whisky, Bloggers

  1. >>>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.<<<<

    Let's really spell it out. They are acting as brand advocates.

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  2. Good points raised. Really disappointed with the latest coordinated releases and find that the coordinated tweets were ridiculous and had no value at all and are just advertisements.
    Really bored with the constant good reviews from some bloggers. Perhaps it is time for a Top Gear moment where a blogger starts writing strict reviews.

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  3. Just started reading. With luck, I may be able to finish this by next week.

    You ain’t a whisky blogger unless you piss off a distillery as a result of your review.

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  4. Hi again.
    Funnily enough, I have been thinking about this exact thing quite a lot recently too.

    Has there been a rapid and marked increase in this blogging-for-hire phenomena, or does it just seem that way due to too much twitter reading?
    I’m tempted to think the former.

    Just yesterday (I think it was yesterday – being on the other side of the world messes with one’s sense of media-release time) we saw the simultaneous announcement on several blogs and twitter accounts of Diageo’s latest marketing fart – Haig Club.

    Most of these – with the exception of Tiger over at the Edinburgh Whisky Blog, who has recently displayed an admirable unwillingness to orally lubricate the hand-that-spoon-feeds Diageo et al’s PR bullshit – simply regurgitate the provided press release, offer a glowing, gushing review of both liquid AND reason behind said campaign (eg ‘this new bottle shape will bring whisky to the masses’ or ‘Finally, David Beckham and grain whisky – together!’), gloss over the issue of pricing (or in fact ominously intone the fact that whisky has been under-priced for, what, decades?) then sign off, occasionally thanking whichever firm has been responsible for inviting them to participate in said Twitter/secret tasting.

    Now, as you note, most of these bloggers probably have no qualms about being identified as being part of the industry machine – I mean, this is probably the reason they started – so it’s just some of us who see a problem.

    I’m going to have to cut my rant short here – sick child – but you get the gist.
    Maybe more later.
    Cheers

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  5. I’m so glad I cut back on blogs I follow, to the point that I missed completely on all the examples that Chairman Mao* brings up (Bowmore, Karuizawa, AnCnoc, Glen Garioch). We know that Serge is “different” and he straddles the line between blogger and industry. As for Oliver K… what say you, Oliver?

    ====
    * Chairman Mao says: “As far as our own desire is concerned, we don’t want to fight even for a single day. But if circumstances force us to fight, we can fight to the finish.”

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    • My take-away was that this practice needs to be called out as bullshit by blog readers.
      MAO, for being such a negative nelly you sure are idealistic about what the future of independent whisky blogging could be, haha.

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        • I think cynicism is formed from repeated disappointment. So all true cynics had (or have) an idealistic structure in place. Some go through a slow transition, while others are bombarded quickly.

          If one believes that disclosure is a necessary aspect to ethical whisky reviews, and if one believes that none of our online words about these increasingly expensive luxury items exist in a vacuum, then that blogger is inevitably going to be one cynical SOB.

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        • Most cynics are intellectually lazy people who are afraid to be exposed as rubes, and find it easier to be knee-jerk cynics than to actually know enough to avoid being caught out. But that has nothing to do with MAO.

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  6. Just reading Mark Thompsons review of the new Ardbeg over at the spirit bureau and wondering if he will get dropped off of the sample list for next year.

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  7. Excellent excellent post. So many points I’ve personally thought but can’t convey them with quite the same colour as yourself.

    I’ve long since held the belief that many bloggers and reviewers have their ‘views’ purchased by the industry, which is why I pay so little attention to them. Those who do this and admit it, I have no problem with at least they are honest, those who tell us their views are impartial, yet never utter a bad word on the other hand are either lying or terrible at writing objective opinion pieces, either way I suspect their vocation in life isn’t reviewing.

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  8. In addition to my previous comment, and this isn’t directed at yourself, but have we as humanity really gotten to the point where we have to apologies for the length of a well written informative piece that’s only 2461 words. Are our attention spans really depleted that badly?

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  9. Nice article and encapsulates exactly the dilemma I encountered recently. I responded to anCnoc’s Twitter promotion and won a pair of tickets to the launch. Was I going to refrain from writing about this? Absolutely not! However it was probably my first inside exposure to this kind of thing and I think the hospitality, the glad-handing and, lest we forget, the free samples (plus minis to take away) indubitably would make it that bit harder to write honestly about the product if it was wanting. I genuinely enjoyed the whiskies on offer though I did point out the ‘muted’ cask influence of the Rutter (increasing numbers of malt whiskies now seem to be partly comprised of spirit from reconditioned casks) and stated this was my ‘least favourite’. However I didn’t criticise the pricing of the releases (c. £52 for what are, essentially, 8yo whiskies) as they are limited editions and it didn’t seem outrageous by today’s standards.

    As Oliver Klimek recently pointed out, the limited releases themselves are just a marketing gimmick to generate interest for the core bottlings. This reinforces the fact that, if you get involved at all, you’re part of a marketing push. And I wouldn’t deny that this applies to me. I think we should expect actual critics to be honest enough to criticise if it is required, after all that is their actual day job and their opinions are relied upon by others. Amateurs, as us bloggers are by definition, seem to be held to a less exacting standard by many and I share your view that the relationships do often appear to be very cosy and the reviews obsequious.

    Proverbs 23:6-8

    “Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats: For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee. The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up, and lose thy sweet words.”

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    • Oliver, thanks for the candour of your response and for examining openly your own role in some of this without getting defensive. Two points, one in response to your first post, and one in response to the second:

      1. Yes, amateurs should not be held to the same standards as the professionals, but the problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to draw the line between amateurs and professionals. And also, in whisky marketing amateurs seem extremely important to the industry. So, I’m less and less willing to give an “amateur pass” to people.

      2. Jim Murray’s points would be easier to stomach if he weren’t himself so associated with certain distilleries and brands.

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      • I’m not sure the line is hard to draw in the simplistic sense that professionals make a living from reviewing (and other whisky-related activities) whereas amateurs have another day-job. I would say though that, in these days of blogging and Twitter-tastings, the sheer number of commentators is overwhelming whereas, as Jim Murray points out, there is only so much oxygen to sustain ‘professionals’. This is a existential crisis that affects all journalism at the moment. A.A. Gill concluded his critique of amateur critics in the Sunday Times with the words: “The greatest idiocy of the collective internet is the fallacy that quantity is a measure of quality.” But everyone has to start somewhere, right?

        To be fair to the whisky industry, the marketers would be missing a trick if they didn’t take advantage of the Internet and some, such as Inverhouse, have been very innovative with their strategies. It’s probably also very cost-effective as, whipping up a few bloggers, they get others to do much of the work for them. Marketing has featured heavily in the Scotch industry since the ’60s but the game is always changing. Again, I would agree that some of the examples you provide are at the more cynical end.

        Lastly we should acknowledge that rising prices may be partly driven by marketing but are also enabled by a burgeoning international market and demand from cash-rich foreign buyers (by some accounts more concerned with status than discernment). Whether this demand continues and, by extension, whether a correction in investment grade whisky prices is due, remains to be seen.

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      • Murray would also be easier to take if he didn’t engage in endless self promotion, usually at the expense of Michael Jackson, while presenting himself as the “doyen” of whisky writers. Although he’s entitled to his opinion, Mr. Murray’s numbers are so inconsistent as to make the Whisky Bible useless to those who haven’t tried the whiskies and unfathomable to many of those who have.

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  10. Hi, many interesting questions, considerations and interpretations! Just ask me about anything you like, even what you think may be very embarrassing ;-), and I shall reply. Santé!

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    • Serge, if this is really you (hard to confirm from the email address), welcome and it’s an honour to have you comment on my blog. If it weren’t for Malt Madness and Whisky Fun I wouldn’t be obsessed with malt whisky let alone blogging about it. That said, I do have some questions if you’re willing to answer them; however, both for your sake and mine (and that of others who may ask questions) I’d prefer to wait till I have some sort of confirmation of your identity. I would hate for this to be an opportunity for someone else to take advantage of the ability to type any name into a blog’s comments field and thereby misrepresent you. I hope you understand.

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  11. Here’s another ongoing example of coordinated reviews on popular blogs, involving blends. Please note: I’m not saying the bloggers are coordinating these, but the providers/producers.

    Item 1: A review two days ago on WhiskyNotes of Grant’s Ale Cask. http://www.whiskynotes.be/2014/blends/grants-ale-cask/

    Item 2: A review on Dramming.com from March 28 of Master of Malt’s latest “Lost Distilleries Blend”, complete with purchasing link. Here the officially provided sample is disclosed.
    http://www.dramming.com/2014/03/28/the-lost-distilleries-blend-batch-4/

    What ties them together?

    Item 3: A grab bag of reviews of forgettable blends today on Whisky Fun which ends coincidentally enough with first a review of the Grant’s Ale Cask and then the Master of Malt Lost Distilleries Blend. http://www.whiskyfun.com/#100414

    (The reason given for this grab bag of blend reviews is that it’s an opportunity to exercise a broader range of scores; Serge is nothing if not discreet.)

    Now maybe each of these luminaries is unaware that the providers of the samples are engaging in a broader marketing push, and perhaps they would have each wanted to review these whiskies anyway (though I think we have to strain credulity a little with the Grant’s Ale Cask). But looked at together it’s not difficult to see a marketing strategy that involves the participation of three of the most prominent “amateur” whisky bloggers.

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    • I have no ethical problems to add purchasing links to my reviews. After all, the reason why I review whiskies is to offer a service to the readers who might be interested in buying them. The links pay a modest commission which pays my for web hosting bills and the occasional bottle of whisky,

      On the topic of accepting samples I’d like to point out that I am well aware that even I, having often been critical about the industry/blogger symbiosis, play my little part in this game. For me it is all about being honest and open about it and not overdoing it with the risk of being seen as a shill. Funnily enough the whisky industry proper has stopped sending me whisky samples before they really started. I wonder why. I only receive very occasional samples frome the likes of MoM or TWE and the very occasional independent bottler.

      Do I really support whisky investment when I review a bottle designed for it? I don’t think so. I have written more than enough critical articles about this, and if someone REALLY is interested in the “investing or not” question, they will effortless find my opinion about it. If the liquid is good or bad has nothing to do with this. You could also view it from the opposite side: The entirety of those glowing reports demonstrates how seriously magnificent some whisky is that is being wasted on collectable bottles. If nobody reviewed them we’d probably wouldn’t even notice this phenomenon or just shrug our shoulders about it, and there might be even fewer voices against this prcatice. ;)

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  12. With regards to helping to create hypes: for this precise reason, I’ve chosen to publish my reviews of the Glenfarclas and Karuizawa by Wealth Solutions well beyond their planned timespan. Having my tasting notes referenced to is not my primary concern. I still have to try the Glenfarclas Queen’s Coronation for example. For me personally this is the best I can do to balance my curiosity and at the same time staying critical towards commercial trickery.

    The Lost Distilleries blend was definitely sent out to multiple reviewers. I’ve also noticed the Grant’s Ale Cask. I think this review was in my Drafts for about eight months now. Sometimes it’s just plain, innocent coincidence. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve postponed a review for a couple of days just because someone else posted it the day before.

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    • In the case of Wealth Solutions bottles, Ruben, that seems to me to be a bit of a fudge. My understanding–please correct me if I am wrong–is that these are not bottles released into the general market; the bottles are released only to their clients. And if your reviews are included in their materials at release you’ve obviously sent them the reviews well before you publish them on the blog. And again, this is “appropriate” because the effective audience for that whisky is not the general enthusiast reading your blog but the Wealth Solutions client who needs to have it hyped to them–which you are helping doing regardless of when you publish the review on your own blog.

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  13. One small addition, but probably quite essential, is the (mostly unspoken) assumption that free samples result in a raving review, or at least a biased one. I don’t think any of the major blogs can be accused of that, I’ve also written critical things and given bad scores to free samples. We may have personal opinions but that’s not the same as being biased.

    In the current climate, with so many bloggers and opinions, I don’t even think the producers find bad reviews annoying. Just send it out to enough sources, the result will be a huge web of tasting notes and scores. It results in exposure and the consumer will still have to make up his own mind in the end. Which is the only right thing to do anyway.

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    • This is not my assumption in this piece. I think it’s true of many bloggers but I don’t think it is true of you, Serge or Oliver (though there are some times when I see tougher scores accompanying softer write-ups and ascribe that to awkwardness resulting from the situation). And I’ve made the very same point before in another discussion here about the most important thing for the industry being their products getting exposure on Google.

      I’m not really focussing here on the question of reviews based on provided samples and those questions, but on the question of the growing but unarticulated (in my view) relationship between whisky bloggers (putative amateurs) and organized marketing. I think it’s good to have an open conversation about this.

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      • Interesting debate forming here. As I’m a journalist, just thought I’d weigh in with my two cents from that perspective. In the industry it’s normal to get offered samples of things — galley copies of books, advance screeners of films, food and drink, etc. Sometimes the relationship is disclosed, more often it’s left to be assumed. Reviews invariably tie into the marketing goals of the person or company offering access to the product. It’s inevitable. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to review a film 8 months after its release to avoid the appearance of bias.

        All the arguments that My Annoying Opinions is making about whisky blogging also apply to journalism. Do journalists worry that negative reviews will spoil their relationships with companies or artists or marketers? Certainly the good ones don’t, perhaps the weak-willed ones do. And only the thinnest skinned of marketers would trash a relationship with a journalist over a bad review.

        My point isn’t to defend any of these practices, but to offer some context. It would appear to me that many serious whisky bloggers hold a higher standard of transparency than the journalism industry proper, which is actually pretty cool.

        For what it’s worth, I think samples are great because I’m an enthusiast and want to be exposed to as many whiskies as possible, particularly limited or hard-to-find ones. I don’t really see a problem with that. Those bloggers that are honest will win loyal readers with their credibility and those that sound like marketers won’t because no one likes to read relentless upbeat marketing drivel. That’s the mistake that Glen Garioch is making, they’re drafting marketers instead of building relationships with writers. The Wealth Solutions thing, however, does raise red flags for me, since it’s an investment outfit looking to drive prices up.

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        • I think the distinction between journalists and bloggers is key here. While the working assumption of a journalist reviewer (e.g. books, movies) is that s/he is “embedded” in the industry, for the blogger the working assumption is that one is an amateur, just like me the reader. Undisclosed deviations from that assumption are a breach of trust – even if implicit.

          I don’t have as big a problem with Serge, because I never assumed that he is “independent”. But some like Oliver K make more of a case of not being involved with the industry. I guess that once you are a Malt Maniac it’s like being a Congressman: the working assumption should be of playing ball with the industry, rather than of independence.

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        • I think one of the fundamental differences between whisky (plus other wine & spirits reviewing) and other varieties is that once one gets past the standard expressions, it quickly enters the realm of limited supply. What one person gets to taste is something that another person doesn’t. So access, as much or more than money, is an extremely valuable commodity. While there is some value in getting to read a book or watch a movie earlier than everyone else, it’s ultimately an experience that others will be able to have in effectively unlimited quantities. Most restaurants, with some exceptions, will be able to provide you the same meal if you can get a table down the line. When someone gets to try a very rare whisky, that is an experience that is often completely out of reach of the average blog reader. With the decreasing quality of new releases and continuing infiltration of marketing, it has been hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Transparency is necessary because people often lay down large (and growing) amounts of money on rare bottles. I think this is a big part of why Ralfy has gained such a dedicated following – he’s put his own money on the line when reviewing whiskies, so if he doesn’t like something he has plenty of incentive to warn others away from it so that they don’t waste their money. Expectations are higher because there’s often quite a bit at stake.

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        • As I said in a comment above–in response to Ruben–it’s not just a matter of receiving and reviewing samples: as long as disclosures are made I don’t think that’s a problem per se; and for people like Ruben, who, I assume, see themselves as providing a purchasing guide for new releases, it would be impossible to function without them. The issue I’m pointing to in this post is–and now I’m repeating what I said in my response to Oliver P. above–that the line between amateur and professional is being increasingly blurred and that bloggers seem to be becoming an organized sector of the marketing.

          This is something that I think needs some discussion–just cramming it all into “Oh, it’s fun, don’t think too much about it” seems limited at best, and in the interests of that very same marketing machine at worst.

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  14. Okay, I have confirmation that it is indeed Serge himself. Thank you all (and especially Serge) for bearing with my over-scrupulousness in this regard

    So, here is my first question for Serge (and also Ruben and Oliver and anyone else associated with the Wealth Solutions stuff):

    What do you see as your role there? What attracts you to it? (I am assuming, of course, that it was not a compensated role.) It would seem to me that Wealth Solutions needs Serge more than Serge needs Wealth Solutions (this bit doesn’t apply, I don’t think, to anyone else who involved–apologies for any hurt feelings).

    And how do you draw the line between what Wealth Solutions is doing and the general trend of “investment whisky”/”whisky for oligarchs” that you, and others, often decry more generally? I’m not suggesting that this instance is exactly the same as Dalmore Constellation, say, in terms of price, quality or details, but I’m curious about how you see the distinction.

    Okay, so that was three questions.

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  15. A few years back the friendly distillers/brokers asked me if I would like to taste their whiskies and write tasting notes for them, and I said yes, because they were very rare and exceptional whiskies indeed. What I like to do is tasting great whisky and writing tasting notes, I’m not tasting/endorsing the companies, the price tags, the people, the packaging or what they’re doing/advertising. I never charge anything. I don’t quite know what Wealth Solutions are doing, but I’ve met the owner later on and he’s a cool guy who’s passionate about whisky. To me, it’s all a matter of having fun and a Karuizawa 1964 is loaded with fun. I don’t care much about what companies are doing with my tasting notes (it seems that quite a few use them), because it’s not a business for me. Plus, it’s only whisky!

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    • So, if I understand you correctly, Serge, you’re saying that you compartmentalize completely what you get from it (the ability to taste good/old whisky and write notes about it) from the rest of the whisky business that it’s all caught up in. You’re not interested in what anyone does or doesn’t do with your notes, or why they might be interested in getting them from you for their use.

      If I have this right, I have to admit I was not expecting this response. It seems to amount to “it’s only whisky, it’s fun, so anything goes”. Or is that too reductive a reading?

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      • No, that’s right, it’s only whisky and it’s not my job. My notes are online and it’s all for free. I’m only in it for the fun of it, for the friendship, for the meetings, for sharing. All the rest is cheap rubbish!

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        • Yes, but things like the Wealth Solutions thing don’t just come about randomly, I would assume. Somebody must be contacting you and asking you if you would be fine with your notes being featured in their booklet–you don’t ask at all what any of that is about? Once you do find out how do you make the distinction between this being something just for fun and friendship and sharing and other issues to do with investment etc. which you seem to be more critical about? And would you say that any relationship between bloggers and industry can be justified as long as it’s for fun and friendship and sharing? I must say, the industry would find that view very much in its interests!

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  16. That’s interesting to hear Serge, I’ve often wondered about the lack of any kind of copyright notice on your blog. Given your laissez-faire attitude I’m surprised more retailers aren’t using your scores and notes as shelf hangers.

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    • Dave, the problem is that even if I wanted to and had time for that, I couldn’t control/check what’s done, especially since probably 70 or 80% of all that is done in languages that I do not understand. The ‘whisky web’ in English is only a fraction of what’s happening online. The largest forums, for example, aren’t in English. Same with very large retailers, many aren’t using English.

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      • Believe me, there is a business to be made from monetizing your body of work. If I had the time and energy I’d pitch you on how that could done, but alas, like you, I’m otherwise occupied. I hope some young whisky geek with a feel for merchandising approaches you with a plan.

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    • I suspect that “Serge”/”WhiskyFun” as a brand name for shelf talkers is less compelling to retailers, assuming that the only people who will catch the reference are likely hardcore whisky nerds already. It may as well be “Ted’s Awesome Whisky Scores” to the average person.

      The “Triple Gold at SF Spirits Competition” seems to work for them, or god forbid as with bourbon, Robert Parker’s notes.

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      • It’s really a chicken and egg thing. Same could have been said about Robert Parker. The Parker brand was built in the main on the use by retailers, not on the basis of subscriptions to the Wine Advocate.

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      • I’m not an attorney, but your statement is counter to everything I’ve been told by attorneys regarding copyright in the past. My understanding is that without not only clear notice, but rigorous and consistent enforcement one relinquishes one’s copyrights. Please elaborate on your comment.

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        • I’m not an attorney either, and I’m no expert in copyright law. I’ve heard of trademarks being lost because of failure to enforce them, but I’ve never heard of losing a copyright for the same reason.

          See the Berne Convention for the principle that copyright notice is not needed. Over 150 countries are parties to the Berne Convention. France joined in 1887. The U.S. joined in 1988 and agreed to do away with “copyright formalities,” including requiring notice, as of March 1989.

          See this wikipedia article for an introduction to the topic.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berne_Convention_Implementation_Act_of_1988

          More information is readily available, including from the U.S. Copyright Office, through a web search.

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  17. Regarding copyright, Serge does indeed have it, but he chooses not to enforce it.

    Serge works in the advertising business, so I think he knows the mechanisms we are taking about very well, maybe better than any of us. His writing proves that he is not a spokesperson for the people who send him samples. But his reputation allows him to hover over all this nitty gritty in an almost zen-lime manner. ;)

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    • I would think that precisely because Serge works in advertising he would not be so naive as to believe, or expect us to be so naive as to believe, that his participation in something like the Wealth Solutions thing doesn’t have a strong advertising element to it. Then again, advertisers do usually try to convince people that fun and persuasion are the same thing.

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  18. Just because a whisky is now rare and limited and has a price push doesn’t make it good.
    If you want true editions the hazelwood 100-105-110 are good and as rare as it comes.also glenfidich snow phoenix. Rare specialand never to be rrepeated.

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  19. While it’s true that endorsing a whisky’s quality is not the same thing as supporting its marketing or price, that is the impression created by separating such quality endorsement FROM critical comments made by the same reviewers ON marketing and price, whether in the same or different venues. Silence indicates consent and that’s the problem with this sort of approach to promotion: it’s essentially positive comment cherry picking, with or without the blessing of the reviewers involved – and the rest is silent implied approval. Whether or not anyone can “easily” find out what Oliver “really” thinks about this sort of approach to whisky investment or that, elsewhere, can read that Serge thinks that whisky is fun but “all the rest is cheap rubbish!” isn’t really the point; their comments are being edited to create a false impression of their opinion of the product and its presentation as a whole. Both promoters and reviewers respectively are essentially “talking around” the parts of this that disagrees with the image that they like to present to their audience.

    The most troubling aspect of this, however, if in fact that’s the case, is that the reviewers themselves don’t seem to care about being misrepresented, certainly in the larger sense; so long as their criticism appears “somewhere” they seem to consider themselves ethically “covered”. But you can’t really have your whisky and drink it too; if this sort of stuff is indeed rubbish, it shouldn’t be palatable to have your comments presented as if you support that marketing by participating in it. While many bloggers are very good at skewering the hype and exaggeration involved in whisky marketing, and there is no exaggeration here as far as it goes (it probably is good whisky), I don’t agree with active or passive blogger participation in marketing or the false impressions that it can, evidently, create – unless they’re willing to be known as marketers.

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  20. Hi there,

    interesting things you are saying. Let me add my few cents.

    Following the whisky news you can find things like these at the moment

    http://www.wirenews.co/uk/trade/13643/dram-fine-export-figures

    http://www.just-drinks.com/news/scotch-whisky-fy-exports-flat-as-china-troubles-bite_id113392.aspx?

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/markets-economy/far-east-weakness-weighing-on-exports-of-scotch.23936854?

    That learns us that politicians have obviously a never ending capacity for seeing the world as they want to see it.

    Not so the whisky industry…. and I take only the Scotch whisky idustry as an example here. But worldwide the drinks giants have spent billions of money or are in the process of doing so for the increasing of their distilleries warehouses bottling facilities and distribution centres. Very big money.

    Like they preached to us that age does matter they preach that they need all this production capacity for ever new emerging markets.
    And along come the Chinese and really do clamp down on corruption and bribery where many an expensive bottle of whisky or cognac discretely changed hands to keep things smoth.
    Promptly Pernod Ricard Diageo Remy Cointreau et cetera suffer losses and for the first time since the year 2000 the Scotch whisky industry stopped growing into the skies.

    What am I numbling about?

    We live in a very modern world where today becomes yesterdays tomorrow so fast that you can hardly follow. It is hard in such a world to keep up the pyramid system of selling and marketing whisky you need to sustain the growth rates everyone predicted.
    It may be true that in ever more emerging markets the middle classes develop a taste for expensive imported luxury goods such as whisky.
    But that can not keep you from nursing your old markets. You never know when and how fast you need them to fall back upon. Fall back when someone is disturbing your predictions thoroughly and critically. Like the Chinese government.

    Companies who have things like Heads of Whisky Outrage ups, sorry I always spell that wrong Outreach I mean must make use of and cater for all markets and all channels for their marketing efforts. And they do. Shareholders have little tolerance and patience. Especially when things get rougher.
    The thing for everybody connected to the whisky industry is either to be a part of it and take their money (samples invitations you name it) or to watch out and try as hard as you are able to keep your independence.

    That is not always easy it seems. And I blame no one should he or she fail. I just hope everybody this may concern realises when they cross the border.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    Like

    • I draw a distinction between logical motivation (what we’re seeing does indeed “all make sense”) and ethical standing. Those who participate in marketing are marketers and marketers are about selling/promoting whisky, not telling the truth – or at least not telling any MORE of the truth than helps them achieve their ends (“the unappealing parts of the story? that’s for someone else to talk about”). The industry already has far more than enough people to fulfill this role and real critics being co-opted by the industry for this role doesn’t help the whisky consumer, or even whisky itself, in the long run if the main problem is that the current market can’t see the bullshit for the manure.

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      • Hi there,

        true. But using bloggers beats several flies with one swap.

        All whisky companies are in the “social” media by now. But using “unaware” bloggers is so much more elegant.

        You gain an independent experts view and can use his or her net and reach. You have their standing work for you and can create the illusion that your hyper marketed product is apreciated by its own merrits by the experts.
        When the marketing depatement of a company comes up with fancy double talk it is one thing but when the marketing bla bla is sustained or confirmed by experts….

        I am all with you Jeff in the question of what ethical questions this arises.

        And I would be even more interested in ethical answers – if there are any.

        Let me add that I have high respect for all the persons mentioned here and for the work they do and fun they bring or experience in doing what the do. I share!
        I do mean nothing I say as a personal attack

        Greetings
        kallaskander

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  21. Let me add that I am not arguing in this post against reviewing super-expensive or investment whiskies per se. I am concerned specifically with this Wealth Solutions thing: what we have here is not analogous to a reviewer being sent a sample of an investment whisky that’s on the open market to review. It’s instead reviewers being asked to participate in the promotion and confirmation of the whisky’s merits as an investment for the clients of the company–they are the only ones who have access to this whisky, and the further service is to them when/if they try to re-sell the whisky. In this context to say that your review of the whisky is not an endorsement of the investment whisky phenomenon seems to me to be either myopic or convenient. I don’t for a moment doubt that everyone gave their honest reviews and ratings–but that’s not really the point here: the point is the blurring of the activity of independent reviewing with the activity of marketing.

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  22. On the one hand, you have a point that bloggers are used/have themselves be used by the industry, intentionally or not. And if transparency is lacking, readers might be tempted to think a particular whisky is worth the “investment”.

    On the other hand, your personal blog success, with all big blog names reacting on your post, does prove that all bloggers get the following they deserve. Consumers are not stupid and if you see certain releases pop up all at the same time in certain blogs, you already know it’s marketing at work.

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  23. Fantasic job with this blog and thanks for not skirting controversy (e.g. also the earlier Glendronach discussion). The reactions to this topic show you’re on to something……some of the bigwigs of whisky blogging felt compelled to respond. Some time ago it used to the John Hansell who used to keep life interesting with whatdoesjohnknow, but I think you’ve really moved into that vacated space. Keep up the good work! As for the promotion/enjoy life distinction, I agree it is fuzzy. For all I can see, the endorsing words of a well-known independent “maniac” or something like that carries far more weight than that of the best “brand ambassador”. On the other hand, for reviewers to get their hands on exceptional whisky is not as easy as even 4-5 years ago given the recent price hikes, etc…. That has to some degree turned the tables in favor of the producers, I think….(especially for the new bloggers, reviewers). So all I can say is: beware!! At the same token, I still do respect the blogs and voices (such as Johannes) that have been around for a long time already and that have proven (largely) independent over time.

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  24. Guys, I won’t try to convince everybody, that’s probably impossible. I’m not saying everything I do is perfect, far from that, but please remember I’m doing all this for free. I don’t even take adverts. I pay a lot. I refuse a lot of paid gigs – well, all of them. When I travel for whisky I always try to pay. One poster has mentioned a William Grant blend. I just checked, I had paid for it, that one wasn’t a ‘free sample’. No ‘marketing’ operation whatsoever. As for saying that ‘free samples’ are a way of paying us reviewers, as some people regularly suggest, that’s codswallop. You wouldn’t imagine how much whisky reviewers already have/own. We’re always afraid of a spark that would blow our houses up ;-). I’m receiving much more whisky than what I can review. I’ve got several thousands on hold, and it’s growing. My problem is not to get ‘free whisky’, it’s to select the ones I’ll taste and to keep a kind of balance between all the makers and brands, while trying to take good care of my health. And yet I do buy/retrieve myself a lot of whisky, to make sure that I’m not only tasting samples sent by the industry, because mind you, they wouldn’t send you the “bad ones”. And it’s also the only way to taste whiskies by brands that do not want you to. Those you have to retrieve yourself. Speaking of the industry, they have a body that’s called the Keepers of the Quaich, where they reward their members and partners. I’ve refused to become a Keeper and will keep doing so (never wanted to advertise that publicly, I think I’m being very inelegant now, but there, for the sake of completeness – err, I hope the honourable Keepers won’t take umbrage…) As for this Wealth Solutions thing, those were extraordinary and truly rare whiskies. I have no problems with the bottlers claiming that those are investment-grade whiskies, because a Karuizawa 1964 might well be an investment-grade whisky indeed. I’m not too fond of the concept, but I don’t think they’ve been lying. We’re seeing much, much worse elsewhere, aren’t we? Again, all I did was to write tasting notes for them, and I’ll never, ever refuse to write tasting notes because I don’t like the people / company / marketing / packaging / whatever. That’s not my thing, my thing is to taste whiskies and sometimes other spirits, and to write about them, punto basta. Frankly, all the rest just bores me more and more, especially since I’ve been doing this for 12 years ;-).

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  25. Serge: Thanks again for writing in and responding to some of the critiques. You didn’t have to–despite the kind words of some folks above, mine is a very minor blog, and not too many people, relatively speaking, are interested in what I have to say.

    You’re right, you won’t convince everybody. Indeed, you haven’t convinced me re the Wealth Solutions thing; I do have a clear sense now of your thinking about the general relationship you see between your activity and the interests of the industry and its marketing. I appreciate the candour, but I have to say I am also somewhat disappointed by what seems to me to be an airy dismissal of some messy issues. (I know, I know, you’ll manage somehow to cope with my disappointment.)

    You are the most influential of all whisky bloggers/amateurs, and more influential probably than almost every professional. Your scores and recommendations move product in a way that no other amateur reviewer’s do. Now, of course, this would happen, and does happen, even when you are reviewing things entirely on your own steam (as you are doing most of the time). As Sku reminds me elsewhere, all of us reviewers (even people like me) are helping sell whisky. I do understand that (and have said so myself–see the bottom of this post if you have the patience).

    But it seems to me that a different arena is entered when people who are trying to sell very expensive whisky explicitly ask for your participation (and that of other influential figures like Ruben and Oliver K.) and make it a structured part of their sell. They are doing this precisely because your name(s) mean a lot and helps to make their case. Your participation in something like this is qualitatively different from a retailer throwing in your independently posted tasting notes or scores on their websites without asking you–and to sweep all this aside as not important because all that matters is “fun” seems to me, as I’ve said above, either myopic or convenient. It also authorizes, I suspect, the activity of many others far lower than you in the whisky reviewer food chain. After all, why not join in on coordinated Twitter Tastings to launch new whisky of whatever quality: It’s fun! It’s an opportunity to taste and write tasting notes! All the rest is rubbish!

    None of this is to suggest in any way that the reviews you write in such circumstances are purchased or inauthentic. God knows you’ve had so much great and old whisky that no one should be so stupid as to hope to buy you with a few cl of yet one more. But I will say that I don’t think your description of reviewers floating on a sea of their own purchases and not needing samples in a more direct sense applies to all but a small number of bloggers. But industry-provided samples is not really the issue here–it’s the increasingly formalized and rarely-criticized participation of bloggers/amateurs in marketing. And your comments on that subject seem to suggest you don’t really see any problem with that either.

    Anyway, thanks again for writing in (especially while traveling). Cheers!

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  26. So if I understand you well, only paid journos/bloggers should be allowed to taste and comment on samples of whisky that a part of the industry is mailing out whenever there’s a new whisky? Amateurs who work for nobody couldn’t, while professionals who do consultancy, or ambassadorship, or retailing, or whatever could? Let’s take that boring Wealth Solutions issue once more, since you seem to like it ;-) (that’s two whiskies out of 9,500+ in my own case), so only journos/professional experts could send over some tasting notes for a booklet, whilst I, as an amateur, couldn’t? And I for one do support the ‘younger’ bloggers, as long as they’re sincere and tell/write what they think. I’m happy for them when they can get some expensive/rare drops that they couldn’t afford or source otherwise, thus couldn’t comment on. I think the fact that pure amateurs from many countries can now do a part of what only paid journos – however talented – could do in the past is pretty refreshing. I agree some stunts by the industry can be quite silly, but I hate judging what other bloggers do. I’m not Torquemada and I find white knights very dirty. In the end of the day, only one guy is right, Mr Google Analytics. Because no reader is stupid, Mr Google Analytics tells all bloggers whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, all the rest is pure conjecture in my opinion. Santé!

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    • No, I’m not saying that.

      In the case of industry-provided samples, I think it should be disclosed clearly when they are the basis of a review, and then it’s for readers to decide if they think the review is honest; in most cases–at least in the blogs I read–I believe they are. But the fact that many bloggers are fine with accepting industry-provided samples does not have to mean that they have to also line up to participate in the industry’s marketing campaigns/schedules. This is the thing I am decrying here. Talking about samples per se is a bit of a distraction from that.

      As for Wealth Solutions etc., or even things more low profile, by all means you, or anyone else, should send over notes if you wish to for inclusion in marketing materials. I’d just like to call this by what I see as its proper name: marketing, not independent reviewing. I don’t know if amateurs should be allowed an “amateur pass” when they’re doing more or less the same thing as the professionals. And how nice it is for the industry if they can more and more get amateurs to do for free the exact same thing they might otherwise have to pay for.

      I do agree with you that it is a good thing that pure amateurs can now participate in this activity of reviewing (especially the very, very, very young, such as myself…) and not just paid journalists. It would be good, I think, if there were some attempt to articulate some sort of rough community ethics to guide this activity beyond just “have fun!”. Especially as we amateurs have an opportunity to maintain a critical distance from the industry (while still enjoying whisky and having fun) which many professional journalists either don’t have or seem to have abdicated.

      Like you, I don’t expect or hope to convince everybody of my views.

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  27. I think we agree on most issues now. I have to confess i don’t exactly know how ‘Twitter tastings’ or similar ventures work, I’ve never participated.
    As for ‘marketing’, seriously, I have no problems with brands using my lousy literature for free when their product is great and loyal. No problems at all! They’re all businesses anyway, so they all do marketing, and testimonials were always used in marketing. All it takes is honesty on both sides. There are enough whisky people out there who’ll quickly smell any rat, should there be one. Plus a few obligatory truthers like anywhere else, of course.
    As for a code of ethics (of some sort), some ‘old’ bloggers did come up with one, the ‘drink blog code’. You’ll find a small green banner/link on my website (right column). Anybody can use it.

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  28. The idea that Mr. Google Analytics (with its obvious emphasis on shaping marketing to consumers) decides what’s right and wrong is pure horseshit. Popularity does not equal truth, never has, and the idea that no reader is stupid in the sense that everyone can see through whisky marketing sleight of hand, whether found at large or repackaged in the form of blogger intellectual support, is undercut by the whole concept of marketing as a cost-effective form of persuasion and of enhancing sales in the first place. People spend a lot of time, effort and money on this stuff because it’s proven to work – when not subjected to critical examination/deconstruction. This doesn’t mean that those who don’t subject that marketing to critical examination/deconstruction are stupid, but neither does it follow that marketing tricks are transparent to those who don’t do that analysis – and this fact is well known to the industry; in fact, the industry banks on it. The entire idea behind marketing is to skew the marketplace of ideas to the advantage of those able to do it best. Serge has no problems with “with brands using my lousy literature for free when their product is great and loyal”, yet his previous defense for its use wasn’t based on product support but on the practical consideration that he “couldn’t control/check what’s done, especially since probably 70 or 80% of all that is done in languages that I do not understand”, which is a fair shift of position, so there’s some selling being done there as well.

    Given that even professionals admit (as per Dominic Roskrow) that what they do is marketing, not journalism, it’s hardly surprising that the industry IS turning to amateurs to provide positive reviews with the needed notes of objectivity, honesty and legitimacy. It is, in fact, exactly what I described in comments on “Annoying the Whisky Bloggers Again”:

    “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).”

    The above is exactly what’s happening here; Serge and Oliver like the whisky, but what’s “left on the cutting room floor” is the fact that they don’t actually support the marketing around it – extremely inconvenient when the point of the exercise isn’t how the whisky tastes, but to get folks to invest in it as a commodity. Solution? Just don’t talk about that part and bluff it out. Positive reviews are used to imply (but not state) that not only the quality but the value being offered is a good one while, if asked in a clear concise fashion, no such statement of value support would be forthcoming – not because of specific shortcomings of the Karuizawa 1964, but because of the lack of support for the marketing idea in general principle (or is that still the case?). For the writers’ part, it’s convenient to say “hey, I only rate them”, and to then disassociate oneself from the ends to which those reviews are used, particularly when those ends are seen as contradicting other principles.

    Indeed, “all it takes is honesty on both sides”, but where is that honesty to be found, in the implied endorsement of the whisky’s value or in the unpublicized lack thereof so long as the implied endorsement is seen to hold up and no one points out the contradiction? Does pointing this out make one a member of the Inquisition or a Truther?

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  29. But I do endorse all whiskies that I find great! I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear, it’s neither ‘implied’ nor ‘hidden’ endorsement, it’s plain and pure, totally open endorsement of those whiskies and sometimes even of the people/companies who make them when entire lines are great in my opinion. No problems!
    Having said that, I think some people usually overestimate the bloggers’ influence, including this very one’s.
    And again, it’s only whisky.

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    • But, again, that wasn’t what was said, or the point of my comment. No one’s arguing that you didn’t like the whisky for its intrinsic qualities or that you don’t endorse it on THAT basis, but if you say “all else is rubbish” and “I’m not too fond of the concept” of investment quality whisky, even if you provide the caveat “I don’t think they’ve been lying”, I certainly find no endorsement of the marketing around this whisky which IS implied, not by you, but by Wealth Solutions in using your quote by taking it out of the context of OTHER comments you’ve made which speak far more directly to the issue OF investment quality whisky and your misgivings about it (cherry picking). What’s implied by the lack of negative comment is that “if Serge had a problem with this marketing, he’d speak up” and, as no such negative comments are included, Wealth Solutions wants to imply that you’re fine with it, despite the fact that you’re actually “not too fond of the concept”. Silence, whether yours, or created on your behalf by Wealth Solutions, indicates consent, and it’s that impression of consent around its whisky’s marketing which WS wants to create just as badly as it wants your endorsement of the whisky’s quality.

      As for the overestimation of the influence of bloggers, I really don’t know; Wealth Solutions came to you, Oliver Klimek and others, so it’s clear that WS thinks you can have a positive impact on the company getting people to shell out cash to invest in whisky that they will probably never taste and likely know very little about. What does Google Analytics say, not about truth, but about popularity – who’s being read, by how many and how regularly? It IS only whisky, but that doesn’t invalidate the points raised or make the entire subject trivial, particularly in discussion with anyone who has spent as much time and effort in talking about whisky and its issues as yourself. Cheers!

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  30. “It’s always the same anger being unleashed towards the system they secretly love with a resentment for their own lack of importance within it.”

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  31. Love the discussion above and salute all the bloggers.

    My only question is would it make sense , in order to stop the marketing assault on whisky and the higher prices, for the bloggers out there to adopt a policy of not reviewing any NAS whiskies and any whiskies which cost above a specific amount?

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    • I think it always makes sense for people to pursue their own interests, not those of the industry, by voting with their money, and it’s probably the only way that things will change. On NAS labels (there is no actual production process involved, and so no way to make anything that’s “NAS whisky”) it’s a no-brainer: in reducing the amount of product information, NAS labels do absolutely nothing for consumers whatsoever, and should be opposed on that basis alone – but the more reviews the better; debate that sucker out. Even whiskies considered to be “good NAS” could bear an age statement while being exactly the same whisky; quality and composition would not be affected – though prices might take a shitkicking when people actually find out what they’ve been buying. It’s an approach to marketing that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other industries: if someone put a new set of tires on a car 4 years old, that doesn’t make the car either “new” or “NAS” because it now has components of different “vintages”, nor does it make the age of the car “irrelevant”.

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      • The other problem with NAS whisky (the age is a descriptor of the whisky inside the bottle so I have no problem describing the whisky as NAS–it is missing the value-added certification, regardless of the manufacturing process, e.g., a helmet and a Snell-approved helmet are two different products) is that the quality can trend downward over time. NAS means that it’s also not disclosed when the blend gets younger than what it once was. So producers of even “good” NAS whisky have more than one reason to omit an age statement. I find reviews of them are particularly useless after a few years. Many of the rave reviews of NAS releases from years ago are outdated (Uigeadail), but people are still swayed by the old reviews.

        If I were a producer, I would be sure to make some really good whisky at first, push it out to all the reviewers, and then I could change the composition of the blend a year or less later. The problem with the coordinated reviews is that they’re all timed at the same time, when the company needs the marketing push the most, and the reviewers are often sent cherry-picked samples. Better would be bloggers who purchase their own bottles, at various geographical locations and over a longer span of dates, which would be a more random sample of the bottles available worldwide over time.

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        • It’s a very small point but I do disagree; the designation isn’t really a descriptor of the whisky as it applies to NAS; to be the equivalent of an age statement in that regard, “NAS whisky” would have to be “ageless”. Whereas an age statement refers to the minimum duration of oak maturation, a certification, true, but of a production process, NAS reflects only what the producer is willing to say about that duration – nothing, and so says nothing about the process, in the case of scotch, beyond three years. I can make an age statement whisky into an NAS by removing the age number on the label at home (no production process involved – it now bears no age statement), but I can’t make an NAS into an age statement without actually knowing something about the production of the whisky and maturing it for the minimum duration to be put on the label. I do understand what you’re saying, and it’s a valid point, but I generally refer to NAS labels rather NAS whisky for the reason above and to remind people that it’s really a question of just withholding available information.

          Your point about these whiskies changing over time is, indeed, the most insidious aspect of NAS as a whole; to establish these whiskies as well-respected “expression brands” and then change their composition without notice – all pretty handy as the industry admittedly runs out of older stock. Reviews of whisky such as Uigeadail can have release year numbers associated with them on upper-level review sites, but it’s true that many are swayed by numbers that don’t refer to current product.

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          • The batch variation issue is not specific to NAS whiskies, however. Even age-stated whiskies see vattings and profiles change over time with no clarification from the distilleries/companies. My suspicions are aroused, however, when distilleries are willing to provide detailed information on the first version of a NAS whisky which contains a lot of old whisky but then go silent on subsequent releases: I could be wrong but I think this is true of Balvenie Tun 1401.

            My feelings about NAS, generally, however are ambivalent. I do (want to) believe in the blender’s art and I do accept that age is no predictor of quality–it’s not that long ago that people who knew whisky very well didn’t like it to be aged past 12-15 years. Here is what I said on the WWW forums a while ago with reference to the Talisker Storm:

            “There is a basic contradiction involved in all of our thinking about this subject, and that is because what we know about the relationship between age and quality (that there is no necessary one on one relationship) comes into conflict with what we know about the ethics of large conglomerates (that they are non-existent).

            So on the one hand we know that:

            1) A young whisky can be very good.

            2) A NAS whisky vatted from young and old whiskies can be even better than young and old whiskies with age statements.

            And we also know that:

            3) Because whisky companies have spent decades and a lot of money convincing us that old is better and therefore more expensive,

            4) they cannot sell us whisky with a 3yo or 5yo age statement on the label for the price they might charge for a 15yo whisky even if we might all agree that age aside the younger whisky tastes better than the 15yo one and may have cost more to develop (for example, perhaps people might genuinely prefer the new Talisker Storm to the Talisker 10 and 18, as some prefer the 57 North).

            Unfortunately,

            5) we also know that it is in their interest to now try to convince everyone to let go of age completely so they can sell more young whisky to new markets and charge premiums for smaller quantities of age stated whiskies (see the release of Talisker Storm right after the price increase of the Talisker 18).

            6) And we can’t trust them because if they could get away with selling us crappy whisky with snazzy labels, Gaelic names and silly backstories they would (and do).

            At the end of the day if the money you are willing to spend gets you whisky you enjoy drinking, whether there is an age stated or not, you will be fine. The problem is it will become harder to trust that it will.”

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          • Thanks for your reply, Jeff. I see your point, and I agree that it’s a very small point to make about how to use the term. We agree that No Age Statement is just a deletion of information relevant to the consumer but that the producer has chosen to withhold. I assume most whiskey enthusiasts know this, but we should continue to educate others and try to not let the producers get away with their misdirection on this topic.

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  32. Hi there,

    a view from South Africa on that point.

    “The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply.
    These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth.
    It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it. Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies. More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one. Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

    One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins.
    Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover.
    Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.”

    http://wordsonwhisky.com/2014/02/03/a-year-in-whisky/

    That’s the way it is, ain’t it?

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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  33. I also have faith in the blender’s art, but, with NAS-labelled products, faith is what you’re left with on many levels. NAS whisky vatted from young and old whiskies CAN be even better than young and old whiskies with age statements, in general, but there’s little evidence that it’s made better than its specific whisky components alone – the idea that NAS, through vatting, becomes more than the sum of its parts is hard to prove precisely because producers don’t want to share production information about what goes into NAS. Are some of the older (and even the younger) whiskies that may be included in some NAS sent for vatting exactly BECAUSE they are of lesser quality than some whiskies of that same age which are reserved for age statement? Are some of the better NAS-labeled whiskies simply vats of better base components, components which would also make solid age statements? In that way, is NAS an argument that age maturation isn’t really a valid process for the quality improvement of whisky or just that, as a process, age maturation is not always successful and that the best whisky, in an absolute or even relative sense, isn’t always reserved for age-statement marketing? Both possibilities lead to the conclusion to the oft quoted “older doesn’t always mean better”, but not necessarily to the idea that “age doesn’t matter” – no matter if a whisky is well, indifferently or poorly casked, age indeed matters because, with it, positive, neutral and negative cask influences are increased. There are a lot of variables, and NAS is all about what the consumer doesn’t need to know. I too “want to believe” but I’m not sure that “the truth is out there”.

    It’s sometimes said that NAS labelling comes about on a particular bottle because of restrictions about what information CAN legally be displayed in terms of age and composition. If the industry thinks that current labelling legislation is unfair, it certainly has the money and lobby power to get that legislation changed, but I think the truth is the industry is perfectly happy claiming its “hands are tied” over what can/can’t appear on a label that is “forced” to be NAS, because the industry has a lot of young, substandard whisky to sell and it certainly doesn’t want to talk about minimum age, much less even more detailed information, while it does it. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s up to the industry to pre-empt my or anyone else’s judgment about what information’s relevant to a whisky purchase or those factors affecting quality – if some people feel that age information’s relevant, then it should be available, and the industry can go stuff the idea of “re-educating the consumer about age” given that the industry itself only seems to know how important age is by how much it will add to or detract from a bottle’s market value.

    I certainly agree with most of what MAO says above (particularly the part about Balvenie’s “silent tunning”) and I have no real axe to grind with many NAS-labeled products in terms of quality, per se, although I do think most will get younger, and worse, over time, as I do think the labeling IS designed to allow for this, again without notice. But looking at it from a consumer’s point of view, it’s a form of marketing I can’t support because I believe the former TO BE true – it’s the narrow end of the wedge and I can never see a reduction of consumer information as really acceptable – I’m not saying that other people either really like or “accept” it, but that’s how I feel about it, and I’ve been sworn off NAS for some time.

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  34. Apologies for digging up an old post, and one that was slightly divisive. However I couldn’t help myself after I read this today from Serge @ Whiskyfun:

    “L’Esprit de Tiffon (40%, OB for Wealth Solutions, 150 decanters, 2014) Five stars This extremely old blend of cognacs comes from the owners’ private paradis. It is totally pre-phylloxeric, a significant part even coming from the very Napoleonic 1805 vintage. I find it extremely smart and kind that the distributors would have dispatched samples of this utter glory to a few journalists and bloggers, while the whole batch had already been sold upfront and no further publicity was needed. Thank you!”

    I can’t help but feel this is actually a form of payment from Wealth Solutions to those bloggers and journalists that previously helped push a variety of their other for sale bottlings. I had been a long time fan of Whiskyfun, but I have to say that this discussion certainly made me feel that Serge was being particularly disingenuous, and my respect for him was definitely diminished as a result.

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    • De facto payment aside, the bit you quoted is also disingenuous because it ignores that Wealth Solutions is selling their releases to their clients as investments. They don’t need bloggers to make the initial sale for them but it seems hard to believe that happy blogger coverage from people who are so grateful to receive these samples will not help drive up resale value.

      Like

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