Ethics In Whisky Writing

This is a big topic. Bound to offend some.

Anyone else out there noticing a glaring lack of critical writing when it comes to whisky? Yes, there are threads of rampant discord in the commentary sections beneath many an article or post online, but what about the actual article itself? Is it critical? Or the printed word in hard copy? What happened to the type of writing that was meant to parlay objective truth, and not merely tout the rainbows and unicorns side of things? Is it a thing of the past?

Once a year (conveniently, not long before Christmas) the ‘prophet’ Jim Murray takes to his pulpit and spews forth two pages of fine print fire and brimstone on subjects such as sulphured casks, the rise of world whiskies and decline of Scotch or what have you. But two pages?  Once a year?  That’s a mere blip in the grand scheme of things. And I have to admit my own cynicism in this regard. How much critical thought is actually behind these diatribes in terms of representing reality vs simple self-serving agenda-pushing (read: “I need a new tack to help sell this year’s ‘bible’). Just as an example: sulphur is honestly about 1/50th the problem Jim makes it out to be.

Aside from Jim, though, who is at least doing something in his own twisted way, who out there is actually taking the industry to task? The whisky periodicals (Whisky Magazine, Whisky Advocate, Unfiltered, etc) are nothing more than ad space, seemingly endless and over-generous awards and the occasional distillery feature. Even worse…pseudo-irrelevant articles about cooking and such.  These publications are pretty much nothing more than an extension of the various marketing departments.  I mean, c’mon…any supposedly respectable publication that puts that Beckham/Haig bullshit on their cover and still expects to be recognized as a reliable authority on the subject is at best delusional, and at worst absolutely contemptuous of their readership.Haig & Haig

And unfortunately, yes…it is indeed true. Most bloggers (not all, mind you) are simply so enamoured with whisky that it seems nearly everything is awesome. I don’t question their hearts being in the right place, but I do question the rose-coloured glasses they seem to view the spirit through. Hey…we all wear them in the early years. Been there and had to recognize my own shortcomings through experience.  I honestly do think most bloggers are truly in it for love of the game, but a lack of criticism to offset the praise leads to the scales tipping immeasurably in favour of the brands. Do I think these bloggers are throwing out glowing reviews and kind words in return for free goodies? Not really, no. Some do perhaps. They’re probably the exception though, and not the rule. I can really only think of one egregious example of overt shilling for freebies (even self-confessed, in fact), but this is not as much of a problem as others seem to believe (or so I choose to believe).

So, I guess what I’m asking is: Where’s our Noam Chomsky? Our Naomi Klein? Not necessarily pure journalists, per se. But researchers par excellence who do the sifting through tons of information to collate truths into digestible chunks for the masses? Critical writing, that is. Does this even exist anymore?

We almost need our own sort of crisis to force change, I think. A ‘Whiskygate’, if you will. We need a ‘Deep Throat’. An insider to come forth from the industry and speak in a way that blows the doors off the sleight of hand the brands try to bamboozle us with. We need more truth telling.

I highly recommend reading the Whisky Sponge, if you don’t already. Any reference he (or she) makes that you don’t understand…google it. There are many truths buried therein. Additionally…our own Maltmonster teases here on ATW with conspiracies and far-fetched takes on reality, but the nuggets of criticism are real and founded. Read My Annoying Opinions for much less annoyance than you might imagine. I think he was a little more cantankerous in early days, but still occasionally pulls the curtains back a bit. There are others. Find them.  Don’t be lazy.  Don’t be content with what you read in the magazines.  Nowadays they only exist to exist and to sell you stuff.

Read the comments in the forums and sites by some of the more cynical whisky lovers out there. They may not have their own podium from which to orate, and yes, some of the overt pessimism and seeming anger need be ignored, but the insight is often priceless. Take these cynical views and temper them with optimism.

Before closing, I do want to laud one individual who has spoken out about this very issue. You likely know him. Lads and lasses, Mr. Dominic Roskrow in video form.  The eight minute mark of this video is key. Well done, Dom. Appreciate the candid approach.

That’s my two cents (and probably worth only half as much).  Up to you now whether you want to reach for the red pill or the blue one.

 

– Words:  Curt

– Image:  Shamelessly cribbed from The Whisky Sponge site

115 thoughts on “Ethics In Whisky Writing

  1. Chris 2

    There is no doubt that there is a dearth of quality unbiased writing from the big magazines; but you have to expect softball journalism when the majority of their revenue stream comes from industry ads. Biting the hand that feeds you and all that. Obviously that’s why many whisky fans turn to the internet and such sites as yours. You’ve mentioned some fine sources, and for those that are looking for others, I’ll add to the list;

    Oliver Klimek frequently provides some in-depth non glossy looks at the business: http://www.dramming.com/articles/

    Chuck Cowdry does the same with a little more vigor for the US whisky scene: http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.ca/

    I trust your reviews, and a small handful of others (Diving for Pearls, Sku, Chemistry of the Cocktail). Most others though I see as just another co-opted marketing avenue for the industry. If I could kindly offer a small suggestion for your future reviews; note in the actual review the source of the whisky (purchased, shared by friends, industry provided sample). I know you talk about it under your Ratings tab, but in the spirit of providing transparency, it’d be much appreciated.

    Thanks for opening up the discussion.

    Reply
    1. ATW Post author

      “Biting The Hand That Feeds” And there is the problem.

      Yes, both Chuck and Oliver are good.

      Regarding noting source…not sure how much point there would be. As everyone can see, this is all my own work, photography included. That means that all bottles are mine, or belong to a friend who is sharing or to the whisky club, of which I am again involved in buying and sourcing.

      In the event something is a sample from a retailer, I do tend to note it. And the only true ‘industry’ provided whisky I’ve written up was a Deanston. You can check that review for transparency. 😉 Not sure they’ll be sending me anything else.

      Point is taken, though. If it IS a sample, I will try to note.

      Cheers.

      Reply
  2. Skeptic

    I think the reason there’s no one like Naomi Klein or Chomsky raising the red flag is precisely because this is whisky.

    As a percentage of the world’s population, people who LOVE whisky (and I mean that in reference to the topic, not volume ingestion) make up a minute number. And though the NAS issue, cask fatigue and bad finishes are all “important”, no one’s life is truly hanging in the balance.

    It’s a drink, that most people who partake of mix with ice or soda, and drink too much of.

    I think the social activists of the world are probably focusing on issues where making a difference actually MAKES A DIFFERENCE.

    Bear in mind, here in Ontario where we discontinued the penny, my two cents round DOWN to zero…

    Reply
    1. ATW Post author

      Let’s not get too literal. I don’t mean that there would be a full time dedicated researcher digging into the grit of the whisky industry and writing tell-alls. It simply isn’t financial reality. As you rightly say, the people who LOVE whisky are a small fraction of the whole. No one could make a literal career of this. And you’re right…it’s for the love of the drink, not for the good of the nation or anything.

      I’m not looking for a social activist to take up the cause. I’m looking for whisky lovers to take up a bit more activism. Particularly those that are already devoting time and effort to spreading the word, be it paid or otherwise. I think if you’re Dave Broom, Jim Murray, Davin de Kergommeaux, Lew Bryson, Dom Roskrow, John Hansell, Charles MacLean or whomever…your job is not simply to fellate and defend the industry, but to actually share the word, GOOD OR BAD. The reality is…we almost never hear the bad from these leading figures.

      And to be clear, I love some of these guys personally, and almost worship some of their writing abilities.

      Reply
  3. two-bit cowboy

    Great topic. I majored in journalism so I hear your cry, and I fully believe there’s a place for the type of pieces you’re asking for.

    Time will tell, but this new magazine might offer a response to your plea: http://whiskyquarterly.com/

    The site will publish subscription information on the magazine’s release date: 15th January 2015.

    Reply
        1. Skeptic

          Isn’t that what the shepherdess (who did some fortune-telling on the side) said to Oedipus Tex when he asked why the town was plagued with plate and she said “you really don’t want to know” and Oedipus said “tell me anyway!” ?

          (PDQ Bach – Oedipus Tex, a choral calamity….it didn’t end well after that)

          Reply
  4. Andrew

    If the finer points of English aren’t your thing, I would highly recommend the Bourbon Truth over on Tumblr. Pure, unfiltered, unedited (severely) commentary from someone who cares about honesty in the industry as much as you do. While I do wish that a “Deep Throat” would come forward, no one else seems to have the inside information or insight that this guy does, nor the fanatical willingness to pursue any story that catches his ear.

    Reply
  5. Jeff

    Where to start? Maybe with points in the order they’re raised… (I almost feel like you’re doing this shit to lance my boils and give me peace – I need my angst!!! – like Al Pacino in Heat, the movie that is)

    Where are the whisky journalists? Roskrow is one in that he at least tells the truth about the professional writers (http://thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk/Blogs/domblog/2011/06/20/new-vs-old-media/)::

    “Let’s make one thing clear. What whisky writers do is not journalism. Not even close. The best definition of journalism I’ve ever heard is ‘someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read’. Accepting free flights, accommodation, food and premium whisky from the people you are writing about and then printing nice stories about them isn’t journalism – it’s marketing.”

    As Chris points out, the financial support base for whisky “journalism” is just too narrow for the pros to be anything less than extensions of the industry they supposedly “cover”.

    As Curt points out, what’s lacking isn’t necessarily always a degree of truthfulness in what’s written; it’s far more insidious than that – it’s an unwillingness to cover the downside. I did comment on this earlier (forgive the length and the venom):

    “If there’s a lot of mud-slinging in the little whisky world, there is also very little proportional truth told in it, particularly about the distasteful downside that people can only wish wasn’t there. If there’s distrust, it’s distrust which IS largely warranted because it was, and continues to be, created by the industry and its defenders, and mostly by the topics that aren’t fully or openly discussed. The same people who will conduct impromptu kindergartens on Adam Smith economic theory as justification of the industry’s self interest in pursuit of profit fall silent when industry tricks are discussed except, sometimes, to defend those tricks on the basis of “all’s fair in business and marketing” or essentially “of course they’ll lie to you, that’s their job”. Fair enough, but lesson learned – I can’t trust those who make these arguments, or avoid comment, to see my interests as anything more than secondary to those of the industry, so I speak on behalf of those interests, as a consumer, myself.

    In avoiding talking about that industry downside (all the people, companies, etc. that could be named, but aren’t – did you really call Jim Murray a douchebag – no, not really), the impression is left that the upside is all there is, which suits the industry very well indeed. Does the industry really care what, or how much, anyone says, so long as it isn’t critical of itself or its supporters? A lack of industry criticism, again, to me, indicates a degree of pro-industry bias (as per professional whisky writers), if only by virtue of what people won’t say – if people aren’t commenting on everything they see, the predominantly positive comments that are left do have the effect of marketing, intended or not. “

    Wow, I DO need help – but anyway,

    I do disagree with Curt in the idea that many bloggers aren’t in their trade for alternative reasons: those who aren’t being paid off in samples are TRYING to be paid off in samples and the Whiskysponge is DEAD ON in calling the majority of them bribe units (http://whiskysponge.com/2014/11/06/whisky-bloggers-to-be-renamed-bribe-units/).

    On the Whiskysponge: fantastic satire, in the best tradition of Swift, but the biggest problem is it’s (currently) only a site for observation (and somewhat deserved hero worship), not for debate. This is regrettable, as it’s clearly written by a sharp mind.

    I can’t really say more for MAO or Oliver: they speak the truth as they find it, but not as often as I’d like them to, particularly on NAS. These guys are just too smart not to acknowledge the truth which screams at them.

    “We almost need our own sort of crisis to force change, I think. A ‘Whiskygate’, if you will. We need a ‘Deep Throat’. An insider to come forth from the industry and speak in a way that blows the doors off the sleight of hand the brands try to bamboozle us with. We need more truth telling.”

    Absolutely! The zeitgeist is that, somehow, for whatever reason, things are coming to a head – people HAVE had enough; there needs to be a new dialogue as the average thinking whisky fan knows “the time is out of joint”. (Wade right in here, Maltmonster, you clever, but cowardly, bastard – you’ve been called OUT!). The quota of industry bullshit has been exceeded!

    Written, powered by a very good, but currently non-renewable, supply of Amrut Fusion. (It’s very good – hot, aggressive, closer to a rye profile than that of scotch, etc., etc., etc., …. off to a 70’s fade.

    Sorry for any typos, but I shot an arrow into the air…..

    Reply
    1. Maltmonster

      Sorry didn’t mean not to wade in, was just putting the finishing touches on my new masterpiece, 100,001 Whiskies You Must Try To Taste Before You Die.

      Called out eh ……….. last time that happen the police were banging on/in the front door, and that didn’t end well. Ok my five cents……….. I feel like a castaway on an island lost at sea. The constant sting of this current trend of self-promoting is more than any scotch lover can bear. I fear I’m falling into despair and it seems I’m not alone. Somebody needs to send an SOS ( Save our Scotch ) to the whisky world. I hope that someone gets the message about this liquid in a bottle.

      More specific……ok, Whisky Magazine. Let’s start with their shameless promoting of whiskies that are shite, even more specific ……… a washed up soccer star/ model, promoting an inferior product that he probably doesn’t even drink or know anything about. That product being a 40% grain whisky in a perfume bottle, I mean how offensive.

      Then the awards, OMG the conflict and the totally meaningless stream of made up categories that the industry can’t wait to link back to, the large ads in the magazine highlighting that they won an award from the Magazine.

      Don’t get me started on the pictures of magazine festivals ads , which seem to be all women, when in fact most events I’ve been to turn out to be a sausage fest of the great unwashed non polo playing and non yacht owners.

      I like the writers, but the subject matter seems to really suck. Please don’t upsell me on the next great trend in Vodka or Rum, I’m buying a whisky magazine not a drinks magazine. I could care less about somebody bothering you about minis.

      The content………Travel Australia and chocolate truffles. What next scuba diving on the Barrier Reef and drinking malt underwater ( little briny but that only adds to the palate, tried to nose, but almost drowned) or the best of whisky scented toilet paper ( my ass knows and prefers quality, so only Dalmore will do ( shouldn’t give them ideas) ).

      Reply
        1. David

          I would consider switching to rum. I really did develop a taste for Flor de Cana when I was in Nicaragua. But I like cask strength flavours now and that’s hard to come by in rum.

          Reply
          1. ATW Post author

            “they tell the same lies, but at least they’re honest about them”

            Ummm…but with no standards to be held to. Filthy sugar juice, designed by dentists to keep the dental industry afloat, I swear. 😉

        2. Maltmonster

          Earlier in 2014 I spent a week on the beautiful island of Antigua. On a sailing trip around the Island we happen to sail into English Harbour. While in the harbour I had the strangest feeling, something I can best describe as both upsetting and déjà vu. I did however manage to flush away this clovey filled emotion/taste away with a large glass of single malt & cigar from an emergency kit I carry whenever I travel.

          Reply
  6. Tito Chapman

    If I ran a whisky blog, why would I bother writing ‘bad’ reviews? Most blogs are set up by people who are passionate about the spirit and the business, so why write something about a product that is crap? It’s different if you run, say, a football blog about a team. If they have a bad game, then write about it. But if you write a blog about football in general, you’ll probably only give up your spare time (in which you could be playing golf, having a pint with friends, or making love to your partner- no wait, you run a blog about football… you could be having a quick hand shandy…) to write about crap stuff? No one wants to do that, an if you do you’re just seen as a grouch. There are over 100 top games of football in Europe a week. If you wrote a blog on European Football Matches, why would you write about the bad game? You’d just take your time to feature great goals, well set up teams and fantastic managers. Surely the same applies to blogging about whisky…? Okay, if you ran a brand specific blog, then you can critically review each release. But a blog that has a wide umbrella of release to look at? Nope, I’d only cover the good stuff.

    Reply
    1. David

      A number of people have different perspectives on this. Ralfy generally only reviews stuff he would score above 80, and that he feels consumers could get something out of.

      I think if people are not professional bloggers they get to decide what to review. I think there is benefit to discussing any interesting experience.

      Reply
      1. ATW Post author

        If I only review great stuff, I am effectively an extension of the industry, helping them market products. There’s just as much value in giving consumers an idea as to what I would avoid. Possibly even more so.

        Reply
        1. Skeptic

          Ralfy explains the factors that make the whiskies he reviews good. And he does take the industry to task.

          I think, ultimately, if it’s you’re coin, it’s your call. Can’t expect an independent reviewer who doesn’t take samples to buy stuff he/she isn’t going to like.

          Reply
          1. Jeff

            Ralfy does justify his scores, but his review credibility largely comes from people’s faith that he’s not just a shill for the industry which, in turn, he establishes by talking about bad industry practices in general (and the bad whiskies that can result, but which he only discusses in the abstract).

            “Can’t expect an independent reviewer who doesn’t take samples to buy stuff he/she isn’t going to like.” – no, but I expect the reviewer to honestly review all he buys, not just the good ones because he doesn’t want to offend anyone or seem grouchy. If the reviewer buys a bad one, I want to hear about it.

    2. Chris 2

      Right, because I only read reviews of things I wish to purchase (cars, fridges, whisky) to hear about all the glowing positives, and never to be warned of the negatives.

      Unless you’re completely self absorbed, you understand that a review blog is not only to serve your passion but provide a public service; highlighting both the whiskies that you enjoyed (and why) and those that you did not. Thereby allowing people a more informed decision before putting down their hard earned dollars (and more frequently, more of those dollars are required). An act of omission does little to increase the general knowledge of the product landscape.

      You want to write about unicorns and rainbows day in and day out – keep a diary.

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        I agree. If someone avoids talking about bad whiskies they, by default, create the impression that good whiskies are all there are to talk about and this doesn’t help the consumer (although whether a blogger IS doing what they do to help consumer interests in the first place is a big, and personal, question in and of itself – see MAO, http://myannoyingopinions.com/2013/10/23/annoying-whisky-bloggers/). Whether I ever know about it, much less buy it, a good product can never rip me off, but bad products essentially swindle consumers all the time and, if you’re on the consumer’s side, you try to stop that (which is why I’d like to see Ralfy review some clunkers instead of just refer to them). The point of a review is an honest opinion. If the same standard isn’t applied to all whiskies in terms of what a reviewer says or is willing to say about them, the credibility and the context of the message is compromised: instead of a reviewer saying “this is a good/bad” product in any objective sense, the reviewer is really only saying “gosh, I like whisky”. There are, unfortunately, too many “review” sites of this type already. If I can’t trust them to tell me about a bad product, I can’t trust them to tell me about a good one either.

        Reply
        1. Chris 2

          Bingo!

          “If I can’t trust them to tell me about a bad product, I can’t trust them to tell me about a good one either.”

          Furthermore, as a whisky drinker it furthers your ability to align your tastes/palate with the reviewer at hand if you can read about both the good and bad. This gives you a better metric to judge whether you can “trust” (in a taste sense) their notes.

          As you said, only reviewing the good gives the impression that everything out there is good by proxy. This is counter to what a decent reviewer should be striving for.

          Reply
          1. Chris 1

            I don’t agree with Lord Jim all the time, but he does tell it like he tastes it. If, in his opinion, it’s a dog he says so on no uncertain terms. Eg: his fairly scathing reviews of most of Bowmore’s core offerings. Ralfy can be pretty luke warm on some of the whiskies he scores in the low 80s, mostly because of low ABV and E150 “permaglow.” Ian Buxton is a good writer, but nothing on the negative side, he knows where the butter for his bread comes from. Or to be properly literate: he knows from where the butter for his bread comes.

            I get fed up with come-lately bloggers who have just discovered single malt and become experts almost immediately. I suspect most of them are trolling for free samples and/or a job in the industry. Many of these wankers can barely put a coherent sentence together. If I see one more who consistently uses “then” instead of “than” as in better then, darker then, etc. I might do something regrettable. And then there are super slick outfits like Cask Strength, two guys who are obvious and unapologetic shills for big whisky and themselves.

            The internet has effectively rendered “truth” as dead as god. Who do you trust? Whoever’s version of the truth most closely resembles your own I guess. But as has been pointed out, how many whisky drinkers really give a shit.

            Ralfy, ATW, Serge, whiskysponge, and, yes, King James (Murray) come closest, I think, to giving me the straight goods. Dominic, it seems to me, is still riding the gravy train. His main gripe is about the lack of serious journalists writing about whisky, and the proliferation of two-bit bloggers.

            I think you’ve got another good one going here Curt.

          2. Jeff

            I certainly agree with Chris 1 on the point that Murray does give clear opinions, which I do value in a reviewer. I don’t like guessing about what someone’s saying, which is why, if it’s a choice between the two, I prefer scores to descriptors. My main problem with the Whisky Bible is Murray’s self-exultation at the expense of the reputation of Michael Jackson and the fact that he can find utter brilliance in pretty common drams that I find mediocre at best. Black Grouse comes instantly to mind in the 2013 edition, with its 94/100 – 6 points above JW Blue Label and equal to Four Roses Single Barrel, and Macallan Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (I wonder what Edrington thought of that), so I find the scores pretty unreliable.

          3. Chris 1

            You’re right Jeff. Some of Jimmy’s scores are right off the wall. I’m thinking Ballantine’s 17, Old Pulteney 21, they are both very decent but not 97.5 points decent. AnCnoc 12 is a nice, easy drinker, but, from the 2013 bible, “so complex it is frightening” and 94.5 points? I don’t think so. Mid to high 80s at best.

            I had forgotten to mention the late MJ, definitely one of the all time best writers and authorities on single malt Scotch whisky. Thanks for reminding me.

          4. Chris 1

            I agree with you 100% on your “Bingo” comment above, Chris 2.

            I have another malt loving friend called Chris. We should all get together sometime and have an all Chris tasting session.

    3. Ruminsky Van Drunkenberg

      Utterly disagree. As a reviewer you need to write about all whiskies (rums, in my case) that cross your path. Where’s the balance, the control, if you don’t? If you write only about the good stuff, you’re skewing opinions and effectively providing a free marketing service.

      Also, how can one appreciate the dogs if he hasn’t tasted, and written about, a few stars?

      Reply
  7. jack_faith

    hang on a mo. the same Dom Roskrow who edits Whiskeria? Or, has he moved on now, and standards of impartiality have dramatically dropped? I think Ralfy deserves a mention surely?

    Reply
    1. ATW Post author

      Yes, moved on. And now is one of the one’s who’s seen firsthand the problems in the industry and is saying it needs to change.

      Ralfy is great. Our tastes don’t always align, but our philosophies nearly always do. He’s a great chap and an all around good guy, if you ever get the chance to engage with him. Ralfy is not a writer, per se, he’s a ‘rambler’. And I mean that with all due respect. Spoken word vs printed word. Perhaps I should have included the former in this post as well, but…c’est la vie.

      Either way…let’s consider this Ralfy’s mention. Love the guy. He’s probably done more in the past few years to bring new whisky drinkers up to speed than anyone else out there.

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        I agree wholeheartedly – he’s a great educator – and I believe Ralfy’s role, and candour, will be instrumental in getting some reform in scotch going forward. I can’t thank him and Curt enough for taking stands against NAS, as well as all those who are currently boycotting its purchase. Thanks again.

        Reply
    1. portwood

      What I didn’t say at the time (as I reeled back cowardly from the pounding I received) was that, while JH stopped taking industry-paid trips, the people writing most of the content for the magazine apparently don’t follow the same policy…

      Reply
      1. Maltmonster

        If John Hansell of the Bourbon Advocate claims this moral high ground, is there anywhere one might see the rule book by which him and his crew play by?

        Reply
        1. ATW Post author

          I won’t go on the attack here, but I agree with points in that thread related to what the magazines ARE willing to accept. Ok, so John doesn’t pay for his trips…but does the magazine get a shit ton of bottles sent their way for review? Other industry perks? I’m not calling them out (without doing my own fact checking first), simply saying what sort of suspension of disbelief are we supposed to have when it comes to this? Journalistic writing means being cynical and asking the hard questions.

          Reply
  8. Chris 2

    Curt you mentioned the need for a truth teller…”We need a ‘Deep Throat’. An insider to come forth from the industry and speak in a way that blows the doors off the sleight of hand the brands try to bamboozle us with.

    As I mentioned previously Michael Kravitz over at Diving for Pearls is definitely worth following, most recently with his two part post on pricing, industry profits and all the bamboozling about sales numbers that’s been going on. Worthwhile critical thinking and data:

    http://thekrav.blogspot.ca/2015/01/what-was-scotch-whisky-boom-part-1.html

    While not an insider, he definitely presents some excellent information that’s worth reading. Will it be a Whiskygate, no. Will it make you think twice about where your dollars are spent, hopefully.

    Reply
  9. My Annoying Opinions

    Thanks for the endorsement (it explains why that post suddenly got so popular again on my blog). If you will excuse my being annoying on your blog: I think a good place to begin is to not pull punches when dealing with issues that have to do with our fellow whisky bloggers, who are a large part of the problem you describe (as you yourself note); and also with industry figures. Name names; point to specific problematic activity. It will make you unpopular with #WhiskyFabric but outrage with no actual targets leaves no one uncomfortable; it just serves as a kind of safety valve.

    Reply
    1. ATW Post author

      So incredibly true. There’s a part of me that struggles with doing harm to others, but you are, of course, right.

      Reply
  10. Skeptic

    So basically, our enjoyment of the brown spirit is lining the pockets of big whisky.

    Forget an NAS boycott, it seems a boycott of the entire industry is in order.

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      I think that a lot of people aren’t happy with the overall current direction of the industry (I’m not), and that they might be slowing the rate of purchase and looking for alternatives as a result, and Oliver looked at this as well (http://www.dramming.com/2014/07/23/are-you-being-priced-out-too/). Purchase isn’t just the consumer buying something; it’s also a vote, reflected upon or not, about what the consumer is willing to support in terms of future products and marketing. Discontinuing buying something sends a clear message to the manufacturer, which is why boycott can work. I think those looking for reform in specific areas vs. rejecting something altogether, however, have to make clear what they object to and what they want to remedy the situation – but those now leaving scotch altogether and going to Armagnac do also reinforce the overall message of boycotters that there’s something wrong which the industry needs to address.

      Our enjoyment of the brown spirit has always lined the pockets of big whisky to greater or lesser degrees, but I’d agree that big whisky getting bigger through acquisitions and mergers is one of those trends which don’t help the consumer in the long run. As I’ve indicated before, I don’t think that Diageo being broken up into smaller parts would be a bad thing for consumers, if only because those parts might not be so silly as to try to convince them that NAS is really about “running out of numbers”.

      Reply
    2. two-bit cowboy

      Ok, I get the emotion behind an industry boycott, but who really is the target? The big wigs that make decisions will simply move on to another spirit or region, but how ’bout the coopers, malters, and warehouse workers at the local level?

      I’m not suggesting we all owe them a living. Their bosses are to take care of them. I wonder what happened to all those folks in 1983… hmmm, there’s a topic for a hungry investigative reporter. Tell those workers’ stories. Perhaps that could get to the big wigs from a different angle. Diageo and Pernod Ricard have slashed work forces recently to help the bottom line; where did those who were put on the street turn? How ’bout that town that used to house the Johnnie bottling facility? How are those folks doing? That had to have further reaching effects than the workers’ lives. Ah, the potential story lines….

      Reply
      1. Skeptic

        Wow, you sound like David! We’re being overrun by socialists!

        But you have a point. The companies attract labour who commit to living and working where they are needed, but when times are tough they get laid off without a second thought.

        Maybe we should forego the scotch and put the cash directly into the hands of the workers.

        Reply
        1. two-bit cowboy

          Negatory, big Ben!

          Nobody gets anything for free. We all make choices in life, and those choices determine outcomes. Some’s free, and some ain’t.

          This thread’s about Ethics in Whisky Writing and how there’s nobody digging out the dirt. I simply offered up a shovel.

          Reply
          1. Jeff

            I sort of hope that, by now, the ideas behind the NAS boycott are well understood. Again, I don’t really support the idea of an industry-wide boycott, if only because no one can tell what’s specifically being complained about – unless it’s simply that there are better competitive values to be found with other spirits, and then that’s not so much a boycott, which is usually aimed at reforming the target, as just consumers’ choice as far as where their money is spent. Even so, and even if it really doesn’t take the form of a boycott per se, consumers leaving whisky for other spirits does send the message that whisky producers need to start offering their customers better values, perhaps in a number of areas (QPR, product information, more honest dialogue, etc.).

          2. David

            You’re right, you don’t sound like me at all….I would never, ever use the word (or rather, non-word) Negatory, except perhaps in the context of the next federal election…

            I think there is an inherent dishonesty in big businesses who set up factories, often with the help of your tax dollars (and a few of their friends in office), lure people to uproot their lives and come work for barely over subsistence wages, then lay them off and close up shop at the earliest whim, leaving people in ruin.

            The irony in the drinks industry is that often this can lead to problem drinking… putting even more money into the hands of the offending companies.

            Should we stop buying Scotch and GIVE the money to laid off workers? I think not, but that money could be recycled into society in a number of ways to support ordinary people to have homes and jobs…

            But the chance that we could achieve an effective boycott and shutdown of the entire whisky industry is as remote as the chance of successfully visiting and interacting with a snowball in the Sahara in mid-July, and even if we could, I think it’s a far from a “measured response” to any of our current gripes with the system.

            “I want to punish the bad people in the industry so I’ll completely give up the product I enjoy?”

            Yes, if these people are causing direct harm to others (Apartheid comes to mind).

            No, if you want to see a number on a bottle…

          3. Jeff

            People COULD boycott whisky altogether because of its negative personal, social and economic effects (as opposed to just “leaving whisky” for the greener pastures of other spirits, and the two ideas shouldn’t be confused), but I haven’t heard/read of this seriously being proposed before. I think it’s worth taking action to see a number on a bottle because consumers are paying ever more for those bottles and all of the excuses why the numbers are sometimes absent simply don’t hold water – again, it isn’t that age isn’t relevant production information, it’s that the industry prefers to skip it where it isn’t perceived as a selling point. I’m not entirely sure if it’s what being said in some roundabout way, but I wouldn’t want anyone to use the fact that a boycott of NAS won’t cure all of whisky’s, and the world’s, problems as some reason not to boycott NAS because, in my opinion, it’s like criticizing a screwdriver for not being a deluxe tool set.

          4. ATW Post author

            Patience of Job? No. Was away for a few.

            Here’s the thing: I don’t want to censor. There is too much of that in the wider whisky world already. Having said that…I will step in if we get to the point of outright “your mother is so…” kind of fighting.

            There are a lot of smart and articulate folks on here. Hoping they govern themselves as such.

        1. ATW Post author

          Or just those who believe in the concept of meritocracy and achievement-based reward systems, as opposed to outdated Marxism. Ease up now, haters, before you go further. I was a died-in-the-wool leftist in my university days (Sociology major, Latin American studies minor). Underdevelopment studies, political science and all that jazz. Socialism is a great ideal, but in practice? Flawed beyond all abilities to rationalize away the deficiencies.

          Reply
          1. Jeff

            Your point’s well made but, although it probably is a fight best left for another day, “believe” is the key word in your first sentence; it isn’t the market which decides that CEOs should make more than 300 times as much as their workers, it’s cross-pollinated compensation boards, backed up by shareholders who don’t really care who gets less so long as they get more. Big bonuses awarded to those at the top imply that those at the top are responsible for company performance, not in the sense that they have to answer for it as part of their jobs, but in the sense that it’s they, and not those below (and/or changing market conditions), who (which) made the performance possible. I’m simply not convinced that anyone CAN make $96 million “worth” of decisions in a single year just because the money is sitting around to be awarded.

            Capitalism is a meritocracy in theory, just as capitalism values and depends upon a free market and competition in theory, yet the natural tendency within capitalism isn’t to maintain and value competition within the market – it’s to buy the best and destroy the rest. Capitalism unrestrained gives you Walmart. I’m not really at all convinced that capitalism is really any less flawed than socialism in terms of its theory vs. practice, but I am sure that it won.

            I’m not hater, per se, but I guess I am to the left of you.

          2. ATW Post author

            You’re right, of course. Capitalism allows for just as much corruption as the next system. It does, however, present people with a reason for forward progress, whereas socialism breeds sloth. Why work any harder than the guy next to you if you all end up with the same?

            This is a big discussion, best saved for a closed room, a fireplace and a bottle of Talisker 25.

    1. Jeff

      “NAS: Beauty Before Age” – as if not knowing the age of a whisky is the same thing as a whisky not having an age or that age not being important(?). Given that it’s a master class on Mortlach, I wonder what a company rep would say about the distinction being drawn between the value of beauty and age when a (500ml!) bottle of Rare Old (£53.95 at the Whisky Exchange) sells for less than 10% of the price of the same amount of the 25 (£585) at the same strength – but it does look about as plausible as anything else that you can fit on a Post-It note.

      Reply
      1. My Annoying Opinions

        The famous exchange between Dorothy Parker and Clare Booth Luce comes to mind (though, of course, in reverse). Booth Luce held a door open for Parker, saying as the latter went through, “Age before Beauty”; Parker responded, “Pearls before Swine”.

        Reply
    2. two-bit cowboy

      I’d been slated to attend Miss Bell’s class for several months prior to your post, Chris2. I went anyway.

      I’ve become a fan of BIG, meaty IB Mortlachs so wanted to discover how Diageo’s heavily marketed, ultra-luxury offerings would compare.

      After a tediously long description of how Dr. Mathew Crow used four different barrel treatments to create Mortlach Rare Old we gave it a go. Well, I shouldn’t like to repeat the flippant, “corporate” answer to my question, “If you had to put an age on this what would it be,” but it had my classmates roaring with laughter. And the $100-a-bottle NAS whisky? Meh.

      The 2013 Spirit of Speyside Festival bottling at 48% was the night’s best, then we slogged through a new make, a non-Mortlach mystery Speyside new make (really tasty), 18 and 25 year olds.

      Two things struck me. First, why would a company pour a whisky from another distillery? Somebody in the company might falsely believe that no one could possibly find this mystery whisky better than ours–that didn’t work. Second, we were “treated” to a slide show of the presenter’s life, herself growing older as did the whisky in the barrels that became the 25 yo.

      Joy turned to dread when the price for a bottle of that last dram was revealed: $1,000.

      Now, mind you, I’m not trying to trim the heads off the tall poppies, but I left the class pondering the question posed by the not-so-genteel lady in the Wendy’s restaurant commercials in the 1980s: “Where’s the beef?”

      Lucky for me, the recently retired managing director of a notable IB answered the call the next day with three delicious Mortlachs: a 15 yo, a 21 yo, and a 1976. Faith restored.

      Reply
      1. Chris2

        Thanks for the re-cap TBC. It surprises me that they appear to have stripped what made Mortlach such a cult dram with the whisky crowd (the beef), and with at least the Neither Rare or Old expression I tried they’ve hewed to a middle ground blandness, but that decanter sure is pretty.

        Some more comedy from the ambassador: http://blog.thewhiskyexchange.com/2015/01/georgie-bell/

        Particularly this gem…”We went for 50cl bottles to reflect the rarity of the liquid, and to make sure it can be shared. I think they’re a really nice size to have at dinner parties, too” Oh really, when you note in the same breath that the stills are cranked to the hilt without a moment to breath. Doesn’t sound like the makings of a rare craft like luxury product to me.

        On a positive note, I’m sure the Victoria festival was great, and no doubt Gordon & Macphail restored your faith.

        Reply
        1. David

          Thanks for posting that link…. what an article. I’m sure Macallan and Dalmore will be happy to know that Mortlach is the first ever “Luxury Malt”

          If that’s a luxury malt, I’ll take a non-luxurious Bladnoch, matured 10-12 years (depending on the bottle with an AGE STATEMENT), bottled at 55% with no added colour and no chill filtration, and at a price where (when the distillery was not closed) I could get 10 for one of the 25 YO Mortlachs.

          Reply
        2. two-bit cowboy

          Yeah, I saw TWE’s post a few days ago.

          And, yes, most certainly the Victoria Whisky Festival was spectacular. I can’t imagine a better one anywhere. G&M, amen.

          Reply
      2. Jeff

        What was the corporate answer to the question “if you had to put an age on this what would it be,” two-bit (I need a laugh too)?

        Reply
        1. two-bit cowboy

          Jeff, I have this feeling that had you been in the audience you–like me– wouldn’t have been laughing. Just wasn’t at all funny, and I’ll leave it at that.

          Reply
          1. Andrew

            I think that’s the most elegant way of saying “Who cares what it is as long as it tastes good?” Which is a tough sell when it tastes moderately fine at best.

            Also, if you don’t want to put an age to it, then why call the expression “Rare Old”? You know you don’t want to state the age exactly because it ISN’T old, not to mention you’re cranking it out by the truckload, negating the “Rare” part too, so why the Orwellian doublespeak? Is bold-faced lying the best Diageo can offer us in terms of marketing?

  11. Maltmonster

    Fact ……………. On July 5th 1996 Scottish scientists cloned the first mammal from an adult cell. The chosen mammal was a sheep, and true to what Willie Tait of Jura said “each sheep must have its own name, after all you can’t go shagging a sheep if you don’t know its name”. So these solitary Scottish scientists from the University of Edinburgh named their little Lamb……………Dolly (named after Dolly Parton, I kid you not), and everywhere that these Scottish scientists went, the lamb was sure to keep its back to them.

    I believe this cloning didn’t go unnoticed by jealous University Glasgow scientists. Glaswegians scientists would be naturally envious of anything from Edinburgh. If scientists from Edinburgh can clone themselves dinner and companion , how hard would it would be for a distillery scientist with a in PhD in Microbial Physiology & Fermentation Science along with a BSc Biochemistry & Cell Biology to clone distillery workers to help lower operating costs. This idea would be very appealing to company shareholders, but would be overruled by the legal department, as they would realize the problems trying to deal with the moody labour unions.

    I think after carefully weighing the ethical and legal implications, distilleries have cloned ambassadors and or writers. The appeal of this would be these clones could be genetically altered to lie without remorse about age statements, ratings or tasting notes , a fish genome could be added for the perfect tasting mouth, nobody would miss them if the project had to be shut down, and they could be altered to repeat, ”Grain whisky is good” or “This whisky is worth any price we charge” and “Your spouse would totally agree with purchasing such a fine whisky”.

    Reply
    1. ATW Post author

      I’m in shock. Why are there no comments subsequent to this? There is no such thing as a throwaway comment from Maltmonster. Rambling diatribes of Tom robbins-esque weirdness and Dan Brown conspiracy tomfoolery aside, his writings are peppered with industry insight.

      Batshit crazy and owl wise at once.

      I think a few more people need to reread that last paragraph, and suss out the truths between the lines. One of the most incendiary things ever posted here. “…distilleries have cloned ambassadors and or writers (…) to lie without remorse about age statements, ratings or tasting notes…” and …”This whisky is worth any price we charge…”

      If you haven’t been paying attention to his words, lemme draw your eyes back. And consider it a favour done. 😉

      Reply
        1. Jeff

          There’s a method to his madness for sure. The interchangeability of ambassadors is quite understandable (they’re clearly just promoters, the scripts are the same, and the specific brand isn’t vital to the job that they do).The clone nature of a lot of professional whisky writers is a lot more troubling (as is the fact, as Roskrow admits, that they’re really just marketers as well). They are all writers, but few are now critics in any real sense – if it’s negative or otherwise hurts industry objectives, it usually just doesn’t get said.

          To give credit where it is due, Jim Murray has twigged onto the objectionable zeitgeist of this, even if only for his own purposes, as he says he’s “honest, forthright, and proudly independent” and that buying his book is “the only way you’ll get him in your pocket”. Murray does say a lot of controversial things, but doesn’t generally engage with other whisky enthusiasts to discuss or defend them, so it is a big question whether or not his controversial/maverick/against-the-grain nature is as much about personal brand definition and differentiation (and expanding his market share) as it is about what he sees wrong with whisky – and if I single him out, it’s only because of his own claims of being unique in the arena of whisky criticism and all the trouble he’s taken to make those claims.

          As for amateur writers/bloggers, many, if not most, don’t engage in real criticism of the industry either. While it’s questionable whether, as the Whisky Sponge says, 70% of bloggers could accurately be called “bribe units” (http://whiskysponge.com/2014/11/06/whisky-bloggers-to-be-renamed-bribe-units/), the question only revolves around whether the real percentage is slightly higher or lower.

          Reply
          1. Skeptic

            you’re the one who said it was a question of what percentage (higher or lower than 70%) were bribe units. You appeared to imply it might be higher.

            I’m sorry if your comments suggested anything other than you intended…

          2. Jeff

            Considering that I’ve already said that I wasn’t referring to Curt, I’m sorry if that’s what you call an argument.

  12. skeptic

    Your “apology” sounds like a politician’s non apology, of which there are several forms:

    1. I’m sorry I got caught

    2. I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks ( but I meant what I said).

    3. I’m sorry if people misunderstood what I was trying to say…

    This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. We can add yours…

    Reply
      1. ATW Post author

        Hi, Athena. Welcome aboard. Thanks for the comments. There isn’t always so much…errrr…animosity ’round here. This is a subject that really gets folks riled up. Hope to hear more from you.

        Curt

        Reply
        1. skeptic

          I don’t think it’s the subject…..

          Anyway, glad to have you back online. The steady hand on the rudder is welcome…

          Reply
    1. skeptic

      I will if he will… But he’s indicated a few times he’s not interested in being nice. He plans to win his legion of followers to the cause through brute “honesty”

      Reply
  13. ATW Post author

    Holy hell. I go away for a couple of days and the peace treaty falls apart. Just got home. I’ll wade in with some comments later this eve in all likelihood. In the meantime…place nice.

    Reply

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