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The Ethics of Whisky Blogging

by Oliver Klimek on October 2, 2010

At some moment in their career, all bloggers and whisky writers will have to make up their minds how they want to position themselves in regard to their readers, other writers and the whisky industry. For me, this moment has come now.

Dramming.com has seen a constantly growing interest in the past months since the redesign. The Facebook page has gained a lot of fans, single articles or the entire blog have been plugged by influential people. Then came the news of Dramming being featured in the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011 which will certainly have an effect not purely on the visitor numbers but also on how the site is perceived by others.

Being On The Radar

Final proof for Dramming.com “being on the radar” is that the first freebies from various sources are looming at the horizon. It is quite obvious that people are not giving away things for free just by pure altruism. Bloggers and traditional whisky writers alike are seen as multiplicators and become part of the marketing strategy of industry members. And for this it does not matter at all if they are professional writers or just amateurs who make their living with an unrelated daytime job.

But it’s not only about how you will react to individual freebies. Will you still speak up against something you don’t like in a specific company who have provided you with freebies? Will you still attack alarming trends in the industry or parts of it by risking the flow of freebies to stop?

It’s a Symbiosis

The whisky industry and whisky journalists – and in the eyes of the industry, bloggers are regarded as journalists – are living in a symbiosis. The industry needs us to make their products known to the buyers. If you have reached a certain level of influence, this is done by handing out freebies. Whisky writers need the products of the industry to have anything to write about. They can choose to buy them themselves or they can accept free offers.

Recent developments have shown that there is a growing tendency towards speaking up loudly, even if it is unpopular with at least part of the industry, be it against chill-filtration and caramel colouring or against marketing shenaningans. Let me me just pick John Hansell from the professional camp and Ralfy Mitchell from the amateur side as two prominent examples among many others heading this trend.

And it shows that speaking up loudly can have its effects! Chieftain’s recently announced to raise their bottling strength to 46%, specifically stating John Hansell’s influence on this decision. And the recent rebranding of the Burn Stuart range much points to the same direction.

What About Self Marketing?

As a blogger you have to have a certain amount of exhibitionism. A blog whithout readers is pointless. But how to make your blog popular? You can place links to your blog in forum postings or in coments on other blogs, you can open Facebook pages or twitter accounts and you can try to get listed in web directories. And these are only a fraction of the possibilities you have.

But be aware that if you reach a certain level, your moves are monitored by your readers. And the line between creating good publicity and spamming is easily crossed.

I have been thinking a lot about these things recently, and I have distilled this in

My Personal Code of Conduct For Whisky Blogging

I will adhere to these points, and you can pin me down on them. I don’t expect anyone to follow me as most of it is not controllable anyway. This is just my personal view of things as they are. Everbody has to make up their own minds.

1. I will not accept free offers that require or expect me to bend my opinion.

It is understandable that the whisky industry likes to be presented in a positive light. Handing out freebies is not an inherently bad thing, but writers should take care not to let this affect their integrity. Produce good whisky, and you will get good reviews. Produce bad whisky, and you will get bad reviews. It’s as simple as that.

2. My future writing will not be influenced by free offers of the past or advertising money

There is always a psychological component if you have criticism about someone who gave you something in the past. Related to this is the fear that your writing may have influence on your future relationship. For me, honesty and integrity are the highest goods we whisky writers have.  And we should defend these assets against influences of the industry and also against our own weak moments we might have.

3. I will not ask for free offers

Yes, there are writers who do that. And there are even some who ask for freebies in return of favourable writing. You don’t believe that? Mark Connelly, the organizer of Glasgow’s Whisky Festival, told about a request for free press passes in return for a positive review on his blog. Not with me! This is corruption.

4. I will tell you when I write about something I received for free

Even though I don’t want my writing to be influenced by free offers, I think you should know about it anyway. I think this is only fair.

5. I will plug my own blog only if I have something worthwhile to contribute

I don’t have a problem when bloggers leave links to their postings in forums or blog comments, but I think this should not be done just for the link’s sake. If you can contribute to the topic or can offer a different angle on it, that’s just fine. The usefulness for the readers should always be more important than generating traffic to your blog.

6. I will not ask for links to my blog

Aksing for links is an outdated Blogging 1.0 phenomoneon, in my opinon. I won’t do it and I won’t answer requests to do it. Write good content, and the links will come automatically.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal October 2, 2010 at 11:26 am

Good post Oliver.
I tend to agree. I do not think getting whisky
samples is a bad thing. I as an Israeli blogger
have a very hard time getting some expressions due to poor
availability and the size of the market.
So when I get a sample (which costs so little ) it helps
me and my readers. However i will allways mention
it in the post. It’s the minimum I can do.
You and me not living in Scotland and not embraced
by the whisky industry like some bloggers we know
are less prone to be tempted to positively write about whisky

we do not get flown by choppers and visit distilleries amd dinners

But I promise u that if a whisky I get fir free is shite
I will say so.

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Mark C October 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Glad to see you have continued this, Oliver. There seems to be a few people now speaking out on this and it’s good to have it out in the open.

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Oliver Klimek October 2, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Mark, your remark about the request for press passes actually made me write down now what has been brewing for a while. I put it into a very personal perspective, firstly because it’s everyone’s own decision and then because many different things are happening around me that all seem to have this as a common denominator.

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The Wild Scotsman October 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Interesting write up. I will say if you can keep your objectivity without being “bought out” you will be in a very small group compared to the larger community. I have a lot of personal experience with those who have purported to be non-biased. It is easy to gleam one’s magazine or blog to see if the advertisements are proportional to the gongs given.

From a producer’s stand point you will receive more samples asking for miniatures than bottles. There are a lot of people looking to fill their liquor cabinet vs doing serious whisky blogging and writing. If one cannot evaluate the sample a bottle will not do much better. People like Jim Murray gave up taking bottles years ago and only requires a 5 cl to produce his Whisky Bible.

Keep working hard Oliver, stay true to who you are, and always give the reader objective information.

Slanj
Jeff

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Oliver Klimek October 2, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Thank you for your comment from a producer’s perspective, Jeff. Being not a professional writer luckily I am not dependent on “donations” to make my living, so it might be easier to resist the temptation of preaching the gospel of the donators. Asking for entire bottles just to review them is out of the question by far. Two drams are enough to judge a whisky.

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sku October 2, 2010 at 6:48 pm

You’ve made a good effort here Oliver, and your code is consistent with what most whiskey blogs seems to do. We’ve all struggled with these issues, and I’ve found that the issue of samples is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

For those of us who are amateur whiskey bloggers (which means the vast majority of us), receiving samples is a good way to taste new whiskey without breaking the bank. But if you receive a free sample from a producer, it’s very difficult to have that play no role at all. I’m not saying someone (assuming an ethical blogger doing their best) would write a glowing review of a terrible whiskey, but I think it’s tempting to not review a whiskey that you didn’t like or to soften reviews, maybe because you want to get future samples, maybe because you just don’t want to say something bad about the nice folks who sent you samples. It’s human nature not to want to say something bad about someone who did a nice thing for you. This is one of the reasons I don’t take free whiskey samples from producers for review on my blog.

With regard to “I will not accept free offers that require or expect me to bend my opinion,” make no mistake, all free offers expect you to bend your opinion. They won’t tell you that outright, but that’s why they are giving you free whiskey. That doesn’t mean you have to do so, but that is certainly their hope.

Now, for John Hansell or Serge or Jim Murray, it’s not an issue because they are influential enough that the distillers need them more than they need the free samples. A distiller who refuses to send one of them a sample will lose out. But for the amateur blogger who relies on free samples, they need the samples more than the distiller needs the review, and there is little incentive for a distiller to send samples to a promising, young blog that gives a bad review. Of course, the Catch 22 is that it is hard to become a reviewer of the acclaim of Hansell, Serge or Murray without starting out with a lot of free samples.

By the way, none of this is meant as a criticism of your ethics code or of your excellent blog. I just think these issues are complex and worth raising.

Cheers,

Sku.

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Oliver Klimek October 3, 2010 at 8:19 am

I am well aware of this opinion bending issue, Sku. And I think this really is the crux of the biscuit. It’s logical that distillleries are not happy with bad reviews. But at the end of the day it makes no difference if a bad review was from a free sample or not.

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ralfy October 2, 2010 at 8:45 pm

… interesting stuff Oliver, and thanks for the mention !
At the very start of ralfy.com, I took time to think things out before kicking-off with the Vlogs, and reasoned that free stuff from the Industry would be very nice, but that there was more to be gained from being seen to have a clear non-reliance on sponsorship.
The invite by the Canadian Victoria Whisky Festival team to the 2010 gig was a rare privillege and I enjoyed every minute as I was given total autonomy and I was happy to appear at such a prominent, independant, educational gig !!! … but subsequent contractual offers by Distillers have all been declined and will continue to be so.
Scottish people hav’nt got a clue as to how vital the reputation of Scotch (and it’s intrinsic quality) is to the future econonic prosperity of this little runt nation called Scotland, … and if I have any purpose, it is to educate/entertain anyone interested in ralfy.com about knowing quality whisky better, even if at times the Industry McMandarin’s get annoyed !!!
Discribed as a ‘whisky terrorist’, ‘malt-madman’ and more recently a ‘bunnit with an arsehole underneath’ I appreciate the abuse as much as the compliments. As the great Oscar Wilde once said, “there’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s NOT being talked about”

… cheers Oliver, good article.

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Oliver Klimek October 3, 2010 at 9:16 am

Allow me to add another thought on this.

In a way, this discussion is quite academic, some might even go as far as to say hypocritical. If you asked whisky bloggers and journalists if they would give a bonus to free samples in their reviews, I guess you won’t see many raised hands. It would mean an immediate damage of reputation. But back at home, alone behind their nosing glasses, there will still be some who do it anyway. And I think it’s exactly this kind of behaviour that the industry is relying on.

I think the key element in the whole sample review issue is trust. For the industry, giving out samples for free can only work, if the readers trust the writers. And I am strongly convinced that honesty is the single most important element of trust-building in the writer-reader relationship. Every article and every tasting note I write is a small mosaic piece of a picture that determines if a reader trusts me or not.

Basing reviews on bias towards income sources will eventually lead to at least a partial loss of the trust you have built up. Some may not care as their benefits seem to outweigh the loss of reputation, but for most of us I think this is not the road we want to travel.

Wasn’t it Warren Buffet who once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”? I certainly don’t want to let this happen to me,

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Dg Blackburn October 3, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I agree with all statements stated, and now i am happy to see that light has been cast upon this relrationship between industry and media. (bloggers, podcasters amateur or professional)
Thank you Oliver for throwing the first few stones into this lake, as we watch the ripples.

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Oliver Klimek October 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I think the credit for throwing the first stones does not go to me. For example, I recall a blog post by John Hansell whre he declared not to accept sponsored trips anymore http://www.whatdoesjohnknow.com/2010/05/21/my-new-policy-on-company-sponsored-press-trips/

But it’s noticeable that this issue has gained momentum now.

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Dg Blackburn October 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Remember when something starts as a cause,
it soon becomes a movement
then quickly becomes a business.

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Oliver Klimek October 3, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Working professionally in this area is not a bad thing in itself. It’s how you do it that matters.

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Stuart Nickerson October 4, 2010 at 7:33 am

Good article Oliver and an issue that has been troubling me for a long time and one which, as you say, John Hansell recently raised and which I also commented upon there.
I have been “encouraged” over the last two years to send samples of our products and more recently our new book to all whisky writers and and a number of bloggers. This goes against my instincts, maybe because I am a tight Scotsman, certainly because I am against the ethics of trying to influence in this way but the dilemma for me was, if we don’t do it then how do we spread the word about our products, especialy the aged expensive ones and secondly in some potential markets I was getting asked questions such as what were you scores in such and such a publication and how many medals have you won!
On this point I don’t really know the answer but I do know that I will reduce the number of samples sent in future because (a) some writers/bloggers just never seem to review and the samples disappear, I would rather have an honest critical review than none at all, and (b) yes I have also had “complaints” that a certain reviewer had not received samples which they expected and that just annoys me, and (c) I have had two requests from reviewers that wanted a copy of our book for review, but it should be the hard copy so that it looked better on their book shelf!
The good news is that there are some good traditional writers, reviewers and bloggers around that take their role seriously and will review from an independent/unbiased point of view and who do try to review everything that they are sent and who do not ask for samples, trips, freebies or complain when they don’t get them. We should all encourage and support them.
Like any population there are also a few who ask/demand the freebies and are not a good advert for their “profession” and there are the majority – some where in between.
Me, I will be more restrictive when sending samples than previously ( and yes we only send samples unless the magazine review specifies otherwise and even then we will send in a cheaper bottle) but we will still do this as many consumers want and demand that “independent” reviews are available.

Cheers
Stuart

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Oliver Klimek October 4, 2010 at 7:49 am

Stuart, thank you for sharing your views as a distiller. In conjunction with Jeff’s remarks as a bottler, we can clearly see that it is not just the oh-so-simple black and white woodcut picture of the evil whisky industry trying to bribe the poor bloggers. Both sides have to find a way to deal with it in an honest manner.

And regarding book reviews: A PDF should be sufficient ;)

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Keith October 4, 2010 at 8:12 am

Nice article Oliver and good to see you taking a similar stand that I wish was more prevalent in our world of whisky websites and blogs.
Independence is imperative as borne out by Stuart’s & Jeff’s replies.

I also agree fully with the comments that anywhere from 3cl to 5cl samples is ideal for a single review and yes, why not a pdf file for a book review.

Keith
(WhiskyEmporium)

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mik_us October 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Great post.

Cheers
Miroslaw

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kallaskander October 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Hi there,

hello Oliver. Well said and a heroic effort.

Especially about an issue nobody would probably have understood 10 or even 5 years ago. The guys over at http://caskstrength.blogspot.com/2010/10/roseisle-tinted-glasses.html state in their report on Roseisle

“The Scotch whisky business worldwide is made up of around 93% blended whisky sales, leaving 7% for our beloved Single Malts.”

How very true. And yet the whisky industry only recently started making such a fuss about the opinions of bloggers afficinados and lay men and women who have too much time on their hands and an uncurable urge to tell the world what they think about whisky in genral and sometimes in detail.

To be precise the whisky industry cares very much about a thing which effects only about 7% of their market. Would there be an outcry if one of the major blended whiskies received a rating of 50/100 points? The industry would not like it especialy the company which makes it but would there be an outcry? Would we really care?
Probably not.
But give the new Easter Elchies 100 yo a rating of 50/100 points and you will have Ken breathing down your neck. If not more.

How influential have we bloggers become?

And why is that? Because spreading bad news recently has become much speedier and much easier.

And I would say, when some marketing genius in any given whisky company goofed half a day later the whole world will know about it.

Not good for marketing not good for business not good for the industry as a whole.

But we internet whisky fans are an unruly community. I am sure the whisky industry would like to be able to influence or even control us and the things we post.
Not possible but the next best thing is to control or influence the sources where the news starts and where opinions are forged and spun.

The attempts are manifold and they are made and I am sure that the whisky industry not only reads almost all the blogs and forums and has their own spin doctors to watch and interfere if neccessary among us.
Above all markeing efforts and budgets they can no longer well afford not to.

As I said Oliver an heroic effort. But the forces you challenge neither be idly nor do they ever sleep. They will try to get at you one way ot the other.

On the other hand – besides that we are with you and will give you all the courage and support you need – sometimes being a whisky blogger can be the start of a career.

So keep up the good work.

Greetings
kallaskander

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Oliver Klimek October 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Heroic effort? I don’t know… I have absolutley no intention to play Don Quichotte fighting against the windmills of the whisky industry. I refuse to see the industry as my enemy. We are partners, and both sides have to recognize this.

Let’s put things straight: This article is NOT addressed to the whisky industry! It is a statement to my readers who are private persons in their majority. I just want to make it crystal clear to my readers that I am not one of the “grab it all” bloggers who try to exploit the system. Of course “the industry” is reading this as well, but you can see from Stuart’s and Jeff’s comments that this issue is not about “Them against us”.

We are dealing with corruption in varying degrees of severity here, and for this to work it needs always two. If other bloggers share my view, even better! And it’s good to see that at least part of the industry thinks the same.

And regarding the career thing: time will tell ;)

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kallaskander October 6, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Hi there,

perfectly clear.

I am not talking about enemies. It`s money and interests and leverage and lobbying… more alog that line.
And the industry is compartmentalised in at least two categories the big ones and the not so big ones. Which is good and many would wish that it would be more of the not so big ones for the good of whisky as a whole.

As to the intentions you might or might not have :) not working within that said industry put you on one side already.

I think it is a good side.

Greetings
kallaskander

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Wild Scotsman October 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm

In the end my advice to anyone writing, blogging, and etc about spirits, wine, beer is be true to yourself and your style. If you only write in a manner to please everyone you will dwell in mediocrity and probably will not amount to much. Put forth your opinions, be objective, and be honest about any bias. When I produce my Vatted Malts or select a single cask I never ask, “will the consumer like it”. It is irrelevant as I must be true to my tastes much like a writer must be true to their style. If I put out a crap bottling than I should not expect consumers to buy it. If you write crap than you should not expect people to follow you.

If i asked, “who is the best spirits writer” there would be dozens of different people being discussed. Everyone will select the person who best represents their own tastes as they validate your individual opinion. Who’s right? They all are!

Cheers,
Jeff

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Jason's Scotch Whisky Reviews October 13, 2010 at 2:02 am

“You can’t be a little bit pregnant” so the saying goes, and I think it applies to the situation of a blogger who accepts free samples. I think that the whisky blogger’s integrity is compromised on some level when s/he accepts free samples, monetary compensation, “sponsorship” or whatever they want to call it. Ever heard of payola in the radio industry? Same applies here.

It’s a free world, and your blog is your domain, well your’s and your readers. I operate a whisky blog, but dont accept any compensation. It’s hard at times because some of the offers are so tempting and my personal cost of buying bottles is not cheap. But, I have decided for myself that this is merely a hobby. Not an occupation or entrepreneurial venture. For those of you who want to make it an occupation or business venture, I can understand the willingness to offest your overhead. But, it is a slippery slope and where does your integrity get compromised?

You have drawn a line, but for me it is one that is hard to see at times.

Cheers!

Jason

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Oliver Klimek October 13, 2010 at 7:37 am

Jason, everybody has to draw their own line. I have great respect for all bloggers who want to stay 100% independent. But even Ralfy has accepted a sponsored trip to Canada. Did this really compromise his integrity? Clearly not. Don’t forget that you have ads on your blog as well to offest your overhead, turning it into a miniature commercial venture just the same.

But if you generally oppose free samples or receiving money for writing about whisky as being the first level of corruption, I strongly disagree. The industry can’t just rely on a handful of hobby bloggers who may or may not buy their products. Without the “filtering system” by the entirety of whisky writers you would just get bombarded with marketing-babble to the extreme. Whisky Mag or Malt Advocate would have to shut down and there won’t be any books with tasting notes and/or ratings anymore. Do you really think this would be better?

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Jason's Scotch Whisky Reviews October 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I think it is a personal decision. For me, accepting samples puts me in a difficult position. Suppose the good people at J&B fly me to Scotland, feed me, put me up in a hotel with other ‘critics’ for the purpose of a tasting of J&B special release of some kind. I taste it. Taste it several times, and suppose it is terrible. Over priced, lousy. How easy can one express an honest opinion in light of those benefits? I know it would be hard for me. Maybe someone else could do it. I suspect many could not. My review would be tainted as I would be essentially in a conflict of interest.

You might say, Jason, that is an extreme example. Maybe, maybe not.

I reviewed Whyte & Mackay ‘Special’, the standard bottling and found it to be terrible. I received a message from Richard Patterson. He was polite but unhappy. That was awkward. How about if it was face to face?

Some critics (I will not name them) have acted as ‘consultants’ for distilleries and do no disclose that fact when reviewing their whiskies.

There are all sorts of possibilities.

As a whisky reviewer, I am sure you receive plenty of press releases from the major drinks companies who want you to promote their brands. You dont go down that road which I think is of benefit to your readers. Other bloggers do. Are they wrong? No, because their site has a different tone or is not so caught up in this issue as I am.

There are ads on my site, but the revenue generated is when someone clicks on it to go buy a book or whisky glass (or other merchandise). There is no correlation between ad revenue and the whiskies I buy. By the way, I spend about $250 a month on scotch and in the past year the ad ‘revenue’ has been $29.

Anyway, thanks for airing my point of view. Many other bloggers and sites have not or promtly deleted them.

Cheers!

Jason Debly

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TheScotsdreamer July 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Excellent article as always Oliver!

I have finally made my mind up to join the every increasing number of whisky bloggers, especially if my plans to host more tastings on twitter takes off.

The article has given me a lot of ideas on both how to present the site as well as how to approach potential distilleries when i am trying to arrange another tasting.

I will make sure that if and when I start receiving hospitality and samples that I do mention it beforehand, and I am sure that the readers will be quick to point out if my notes have been influenced (I will be creating a bit about my preferences as a benchmark – currently fruity sherried whiskies and definately not too peaty)
Cheers

Colin

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Oliver Klimek July 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm

If you have a unique idea, it’s certainly not too late to start a whisky blog. Welcome to the club, Colin!

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Ryan August 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Thanks for the article, Oliver. I recently started up a whisky blog of my own and I appreciate that you are writing articles about whisky blogging! I respect the hard-liners like Jason who won’t accept even a free sample, and I agree that there’s no way to be unbiased with a free trip to the distillery for a special release. However, I don’t think that it is too difficult to remain ethical and true while accepting some free 30-50 mL samples. If you rate it poorly, sure, you won’t get any more free samples from that distillery, but if you don’t like the whisky, why should you care?

Also it’s worth considering that the marketing folks actually are pretty smart themselves. Thus, they’re probably going to go ahead and read a blog thoroughly before sending a free sample, and it should be fairly predictable whether or not that blogger will like the whisky. If one blogger consistently dislikes peat, then the marketing folks will probably be smart enough to not send a sample of their new heavily-peated whisky to that person. Conversely, they will be inclined to send a sample to a “peat-head” blogger, and it’s very likely that they will receive a good review. My point is, there may be a correlation of good reviews from free samples, but this may not be all because of unethical bloggers, it may also be because of smart marketers.

-Ryan

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Oliver Klimek August 9, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Thanks for the comment, Ryan. It’s really not easy to find your own way how to deal with this situation, and everybody has to find their own answer. But the key issue is not so much if you do accept freebies or not. The most important thing is to be transparent about if you do.

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Stefan September 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm

Hi Oliver,
very good points in your argumentation – and I agree completely!
I recently made an experience the other way round. Having (officially) bought a bottle of a 3yo from a small, upcoming but innovative German distillery, my tasting results didn’t really give (me) any reason to buy more of this particular dram.
Having posted my notes and having categorised the dram as ‘better be mixed with coke’ (only one of my 5 tasting categories is worse…), I found a link to my blog on the homepage of the exclusive dealer of this distillery. Here and in the following mailings, he called me anything from being a bad journalist (without any understanding of the making of whisky), being entirely ignorant to deliberately ruining an young distillery’s reputation. Quite rude and smart-aleck.
Well, I offered him to convince me that other bottlings of this distillery are better by giving me samples to taste. I would have given it a second (subjective) chance. But I guess that he simply didn’t dare to read more bad critics on my blog ;-)
Slainte, Stefan

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