A True Story
Once upon a time there was a beer and whisky writer, famous for his writing style, admired for his extensive knowledge and liked for his personality by those who knew him. His name was Michael Jackson, born on 27th March 1942, died on 30th August 2007 from a heart attack. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for the last decade of his life.
After Michael Jackson’s death the idea for an International Whisky Day on his birthday was born, conceived and supported by his friends with the goal to raise funds for the Parkinson’s UK charity while celebrating whisky worldwide. Unfortunately, the event was not put forward with much effort, so it fizzled out. Also a book about Michael Jackson was compiled by Ian Buxton with contributions from many of Michael’s friends, generating a nice sum for the charity.
Once upon a time there was a student from Aberdeen named Blair Bowman, hardly older than 20 years, who had a vision. He figured that it would be a great idea to have a global day of whisky celebration. Not having problems with his ego, he thought his birthday on 21st March would make a nice date for this World Whisky Day. The world raising a dram to you on your birthday? What a great idea! He decided to turn this into a business venture, it was a triple-win scenario. Whisky lovers would have an opportunity to celebrate their favourite tipple, the whisky industry would have an opportunity to sell more whisky specially for this day, and he himself would act as a middle man, bringing them together while earning commission fees, so to speak.
One fateful day, Blair Bowman learned about International Whisky Day and the connection to Michael Jackson. Blair Bowman got in contact with Dutch whisky writer Hans Offringa who was behind the original International Whisky Day and received his thumbs up. Wow! A big name, a sad story. Just what a project like this needs to take off. So the date for World Whisky Day was changed to 27th March, the venture was trademarked, and the internet domain names wordwhiskyday.com and internationalwhiskyday.com (!) were registered.
But all of a sudden some whisky people started complaining. Especially people who knew Michael Jackson personally were upset by the fact that a charity event was to be turned into a commercial venture. Some critics even tried to advertise International Whisky Day as an alternative to World Whisky Day. [Side note: even though this idea has its charm, I would not really want to see WWD vs. IWD turn into a Monty Python-esque battle like in the famous People's Front of Judea vs Judean People's Front stunt.]
As a reaction, Blair Bowman felt obliged to put up a commitment to charity on the WWD website. But this got lost when the site was revamped in early 2012. Evidently, the hijacking of the original idea for a charity International Whisky Day was too obviously visible, becoming more a burden than a help for the plans to generate money. A toned down version of the origins and the charity devotion was re-introduced in a blog post, so it can’t be said it was kept a secrect. But the format in which this has been done clearly has turned this into a secondary issue easily overlooked.
The ‘About’ page on the website – the place people look at first when they want to learn about the why and how – does neither mention Micheal Jackson nor any charity effort. It is advertised as a day to “thank those who work in the global whisky industry” with no less than ten trademark signs underpinning the commercial nature of the venture.
The Big Day
Then the 27th March came along. And indeed it was a day of whisky celebration. But who actually did celebrate? The whisky industry that was specifically addresed by WWD kept remarkably quiet, especially in Scotland, the home of Blair Bowman. Only omnipresent Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay donated a bottle of the 30 year old house blend to the winner of the WWD photo competition.
But what about the big brands? Glenfiddich? Glenlivet? Macallan? Glenmorangie? Johnnie Walker? Chivas Regal? Ballantine’s? Hey, what’s wrong? It is YOU who were going to be celebrated! Why, just why were there no WWD special bottlings, no events at distilleries, no brand ambassadors spreading the word at tasting events?
Well, the only answer I can think of, although I cannot prove it, is that the responsible people in the Scotch whisky industry still remember Michael Jackson very well, and it seems they would have regarded commercial events on this day like dancing on his grave. The Scotch whisky industry has often enough been criticized to jump on any glitzy bandwagon that promises profit. Them being so reluctant to promote their own product on a day of global whisky celebration speaks volumes.
But the bandwagon did not stay empty. Jumping on it were mainly the second and third tier whisky people, like freelance whisky experts, bloggers, bars, restaurants or general Scottish tourism people. It was very eye-opening to watch the #worldwhiskyday Twitter avalanche that even managed to get into the top ten global Trending Topics for a while. Apart from simple whisky lovers raising their drams there were live tweets from high profile tasting events (often after a substantial advertising buildup in the days before), the US branch of the Scotch Single Malt Whisky Society asked people to “become a member today”, a whisky shop tweeted just about any bottle they had in stock and bars tried to convince pople to celebrate the day in their premises.
Correct me if I am wrong, but to the best of my knowledge, the only World Whisky Day event that actually kept up the charity dedication was a tasting organized by South African blogger Marc Pendlebury. For the rest of participants World Whisky Day was like a giant game of Chinese Whispers. The earlier you heard about it, the more likely you were to know the story behind it. But further down the line this information got more and more lost.
A Wasted Opportunity
In consequence, World Whisky Day turned into an eclectic mix of hedonism and opportunism. Celebrating it for the sake of celebration, advertising it to increase the revenue of one’s personal business. Michael Jackson and the Parkinson’s charity had to feel satisfied with roles as background actors, at best.
The whisky industry has shown that it is able to raise substantial amounts for charity, just look at Macallan’s Cire Perdue or Glenfiddich’s recent charity auctions. Wouldn’t it have been a great idea to show that something like this can also be pulled off by simple whisky lovers? Blair Bowman officially stated his devotion to charity. Why just that wishy-washy “a share of profits” statement? Why didn’t he turn this into a true grassroot initiative, for example with one pound for each dram served at an officially licensed World Whisky Day event going into a charity piggy bank? I am positively sure that doing something like this would not have had any detrimental effect neither on publicity nor on the revenue generated by World Whisky Day Ltd. Quite in contrary, this would really have had the potential to convince the entire whisky community of a global day for the celebration of whisky. Because the idea itself is a great one.
What a shame.