Why Private Whisky Blogging Is So Important

by Oliver Klimek on April 5, 2012

Here’s one of those thoughts that circle around in your mind for ages in some way but for a long time you don’t really get a grasp how to put them down in an article. As a blogger I naturally look at other whisky blogs too, although I admit that I have lost track of all the new ones that have appeared lately. Some of those blogs are owned by professional whisky writers but most of them are run by whisky enthusiasts along their daytime jobs.

I have noticed that whisky writing in general – not only in blogs – very much focuses on the liquid itself. Reviews, reports of tasting events or festivals, distillery visits, educational articles and the likes make up the bulk of what is written in the whisky universe. But looks beyond that, especially critical ones, are a very rare breed. Criticism is often restricted to not liking a particular whisky or its pricing, sometimes with a little caramel added; so almost everything that is written about whisky on paper or on screen is more or less a praise of our holy spirit.

But is this really everyting? Commentators in other fields like arts, technology, business, politics and yes, also food in general, seem to be much more critical about trends and tendencies in their respective areas. Food producers for example often get a serious hammering in the media for their policies regarding ingredients, marketing or packaging. Whisky writing in comparison is mostly done wearing silk gloves.

The Void Left By The Pros

For professional whisky writing, the reason for such behaviour is quite simple. Last year, Dominic Roskrow wrote a very interesting article about Old vs. New Media where he stated:

“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’.”

Professional writers in the areas mentioned above usually are employed by the media, it’s their job to critically reflect the goings-on in their industries. Whisky is too small for that. A newspaper can’t employ a whisky guy like it can do for general food, and the handful of dedicated whisky magazines that exist don’t have the resources to give nine-to-five daytime jobs to their contributors. No, professional whisky writing is largely done by freelancers running their own personal businesses. An article in Malt Advocate or Whisky Magazine won’t pay their monthly bills, they have to rely on other things too. Writing books maybe, hosting tastings, organizing festivals or even doing consultancy work for the industry.

Swimming on your own in that shark tank is not easy, so it helps if you maintain good relations to the whisky industry. Being invited to product launches or distillery visits is just as helpful for your career as receiving review samples. Swimming against the tide requires stamina not everyone is willing to invest. I guess the refusal of some professionals to score whiskies may be connected to this as well. Scoring forces you to open your vizor, to tell people how you really think about a dram. If you want to have a distillery in your next festival, giving their best selling malt only 72 points may be counterproductive, even if it is justified. But with some creative writing such a whisky can still be turned into a great dram.

Freelance writers may call themselves independent, and this may be correct in a legal sense. But in fact they generally are not for the reasons cited above. It is not impossible to be truly independent, but it makes your life as a pro much harder.

The Advantage Private Bloggers Have

It becomes obvious that the professional whisky writers have left a journalistic void here. Where are the people raising their fingers because they feel uneasy about something? Where are the watchdogs who tell us that something may be heading in the wrong direction? Who, if not us private bloggers, is to fill this gap?

Even if we are no professionally trained journalists, we are the ones who can voice our opinions without having to fear the wrath of the industry or others involved in the business. Of course this is not about bashing for the sake of bashing. Criticism should always be backed by arguments, and it should be done not to show off your ego but to show that some things can also be regarded from a different angle than from the official viewpoint. Sometimes it is worth to have a look behind the curtain or under the carpet.

Sadly many private whisky blogs – deliberately or unconsciously – emulate the writing pattern of the professionals. I see four main reasons for this:

  1. The wish to become a whisky professional in the future
  2. Enjoying to be courted by the whisky industry with freebies
  3. Lack of interest in topics beyond the liquid
  4. Fear of negative reactions to controversial articles

If non-professional bloggers do speak out, they have to overcome a natural ‘barrier of trust’ in comparison to professionals, simply because they are not trained journalists. There will be people disagreeing, sometimes sharply, and bloggers have to learn how to deal with words like ‘self-proclaimed’, ‘envious’ or ‘pompous’ that are likely to pop up in the aftermath of a controversial posting.

Shutting up or speaking out? That’s not always an easy decision, and I myself am not sure if my own decisions were always right in hindsight. But in general I believe that it is better to warn too often than too little or not at all. A personal blog is not a newspaper or a magazine, it is subjective by definition. And after all, the possibilties to react promptly to news and to voice an unfiltered opinion are the main assets that set us bloggers apart from the professionals, and so we might as well use them to help making the whisky world a better place.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Maloney April 5, 2012 at 11:18 am

Nicely written Oliver. An interesting topic too. I often find that consumer reviews (in general) tend to the negative – i.e. people are more likely to complain about something they thought sub-standard than they are to compliment something they thought unusually good. That’s why I use sites like tripadvisor with a pinch of salt But, as you point out, that doesn’t quite seem to transfer to whisky. Perhaps people are enthused about the products they enjoy the most (hence glowing reviews) and (like we do) consign those that don’t please them to the “for hot toddies and cooking only” pile?

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Michael April 5, 2012 at 11:28 am

Oliver, once more you have hit the nail on the head. As a (now semi-retired) private whisky blogger, I have wondered about this in the past. There is certainly no shortage of whisky bloggers posting tasting notes, but far fewer posting critical analysis of the industry as a whole. In my view, the best of the reviewers add something by reviewing uniquely – either by what they review or how they review. But there is still a niche for broader commentary.

Certainly the reasons you outline have something to them. The prospect of being on the free sample distribution list can be very alluring. So can being on first name terms with distillery managers and brand ambassadors. Perhaps the general silence (present company and select others excepted) on industry matters is taken as a polite consensus which it would be rude to interrupt.

Ultimately, these days I am much more likely to stop and read an article about this than read a review. But hopefully as whisky blogging continues to grow, there will be more exceptionalist voices.

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Josh Feldman April 6, 2012 at 3:27 am

Oliver, a wonderful and thought provoking post – that’s really several posts in one. My first reaction, as a new whisky blogger who mainly just writes about the liquid, is umbrage along the lines of ‘I know so many recent blog posts that have important content beyond merely the nature of the liquid’. For example there is Jason Debly’s recent post on the need to slow down:
http://jason-scotchreviews.blogspot.com/2012/03/slow-whisky-movement.html
And there is Ryan’s sign off at Value Whisky Reviews which discusses obsession:
http://valuewhisky.blogspot.com/2012/03/end-of-value-whisky-reviews.html
And don’t forget Ryan of Whiskey-Reviews.com’s recent post on “A Thirst for Knowledge” – about how we grow, personally, in learning more about whisky:
http://whiskey-reviews.com/2012/04/a-thirst-for-knowledge/
All these through provoking posts just appeared in the blogosphere over the past few days.

Then, however, I properly understood your thesis to be independence from industry influence. I hear you. A strong and independent voice is a good thing. As a blogger I strive to “call ‘em as I see ‘em”. The trouble is, as the Whiskey-Reviews post makes clear, palates evolve. What I once liked now seems thin. Other things that seemed odd I now understand better and have come to appreciate. This is whisky – and whisky is a bit like sex (i.e. even not so great is a good if it’s what you need at the moment). Whisky is a light hearted thing. Journalists covering the news or hard core industry have bigger fish to fry – like wars, poverty, the livelihoods of thousands. (And I have many of the criticisms against the pro journalists as you have against the established whisky press. For example why wasn’t there more questioning of the rush to war against Iraq in the US press back in the early 21st century? It seemed as if the media was just repeating the Bush Whitehouse line at the time.) Whisky, however – mostly ranges from decent to amazing. Criticism has the aspect of a tempest in a teapot.

That being said – I strive to be completely honest. We all want better whisky and that will come from a better educated marketplace. Bless Ralfy for telling us to vote with our wallets for no caramel color and non-chill filtered products. When the whisky buying public understands good whisky and votes with their money we will all have better whisky. The market will demand it. Thus our duty as bloggers is to educate and to convey tastings as accurately as we can. We must evangelize good whisky.

Heck – it’s like falling off a log. I can honestly say that I LOVE good whisky. Testifying that love is just natural. If that’s my job (as an amateur fledgling blogger) – I’ll stand and deliver.

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Oliver Klimek April 6, 2012 at 6:38 am

Thank you for sharing these interesting thoughts and also for the links, Josh. These three articles really are good examples that whisky blogging is at its best when looking beyond the liquid, even though Ryan’s resignation has a bitter edge to it. This also hints to an observation I didn’t mention: It’s especially the smaller blogs out there where you can find such hidden gems of blogging, written by people who may have more time for reflection because they don’t spend their whisky lives hopping from invite to invite.

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Ryan April 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Interesting reading, here. I agree that it seems like most of the “big” blogs fail to really do much beyond tasting notes, talking about the whisky, etc. That’s why I’ve always followed your site, Oliver, and none of the other Malt Maniacs (except for the occasional Ralfy vlog viewing). I generally ignore the steady stream of tasting notes coming out of your site, but I always stop to read your articles. I find them to always be enjoyable and enlightening. I agree the “journalism” type articles are what separate the “good reviews sites” from the “great whisky blogs.”

Being one of the little guys who ended up with a blog that was fairly popular (at least from my perspective), I felt it challenging to not get sucked into the who whisky culture with the big boys. It’s human nature somewhat to want to be popular, and “one of the best,” and that’s probably where the bitter note you mentioned came in, because I didn’t want that to be what my blog was about. In other words, you’re right that the “little guys” are the ones putting out some often thoughtful content, but then as they get noticed, it’s difficult to stay “independent” and keep doing what you’re doing. Or, it’s difficult to keep up if you’re not popular and you know no one is reading!

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Oliver Klimek April 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Of course a general whisky blog like this has to take care of the liquid too. I have thought intensively about how to write about the whiskies themselves. I decided to stick to short tasting notes for the main reasons that I get to taste so many different drams in a year that it would just be too much work to write in-depth reviews for all of them. And this is without getting loads of review samples and industry invites, so I really don’t need this kind of stuff to keep the blog alive.

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Josh Feldman April 6, 2012 at 11:35 pm

The lure of industry approval extends to small time bloggers too. For example, I tweeted about a positive review I wrote. The next day the big distiller retweeted it and I got tons of hits – new audience; new follows. Next week I’m writing a negative review. I’m greeted, quite understandably, with relative silence. That kind of thing shouldn’t matter – but we are human and Pavlov wasn’t just whistling “Dixie”. My integrity is intact but I feel the shadow of trepidation when writing a very bad review. I can’t help but consider, even subconsciously, what bridges I might be burning…

I like to think I’m made of tougher stuff – but this is confession time and I’d be lying if I said those thoughts never cross my mind.

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Oliver Klimek April 7, 2012 at 7:26 am

I guess thoughts like this are only natural when publishing negative opinions, and I think it’s actually a good thing to reflect what consequences an article or review might have. But giving in by changing it into something more positive or even by adding a few extra points to a score certainly is the wrong answer. This really touches the subject of personal integrity.

My Ethics of Whisky Blogging article I wrote back in 2010 was partly prompted by the fact that I was offered VERY attractive freebies out of the blue by a major brand (without obligation to do something in return I should add). After I published that article, there was radio silence. But it’s not just the industry. I would also like to point out Mark Connelly’s story I mentioned in there that he was approached by a blogger offering a good review in return for a free press pass to Glasgow’s Whisky Festival. Which is about the most disgusting thing I have ever heard about a whisky blooger, and I trust Mark didn’t just make that up.

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Oliver Klimek April 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I might add that depending on your perosnal style you may also consider to wrap serious criticism into nice words or a joke, but I am not too talented in this respect, I must admit, so usually I am straightforward and my readers will just have to live with that.

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Josh Feldman April 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm

OMG Oliver, I read that article last year when I was thinking about blogging – but forgot that it was you that wrote it. It has influenced my thinking and my actions. For example I always state in a review if the sample was provided free (not often – so far). I also feel justified in giving critical review because your excellently stated maxim has been in my head the whole time:

“Produce good whisky, and you will get good reviews. Produce bad whisky, and you will get bad reviews. It’s as simple as that.”

Bravo. Yes – it’s natural to feel that bit of trepidation when writing a critical review – but integrity is choosing to act with your convictions in spite of those feelings. This is analogous to courage; which isn’t the absence of fear – on the contrary, it’s executing in the face of it.

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Andrew April 7, 2012 at 1:20 am
Josh Feldman April 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm

LOL! Talk about succinct! I guess you can file that under “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Caskstrength is top blog – hard hitting write ups like that explain why. Talk about not pulling any punches!

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Josh Feldman April 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I meant to say “caskstrength is A top blog”. Obviously Malt Maniacs is THE top blog.

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Paul Curran April 13, 2012 at 12:40 am

Very insightful article! Thanks for sharing!

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John Malatino October 29, 2013 at 11:37 pm

As a relatively new whisky blogger I do feel that topics outside of reviews are critical to expanding the appeal and abilities of the actual blogger. It is also great for the readers to gain perspectives on the industry and whisky trends. Just concentrating on the liquid can be a false trap but there are lots of ways to write a review. My favorite reviews seem to be those that bring in those topics organically so that as you read you gain some further perspective on the industry as a whole. Though it may be easier and cleaner for the reader and author to separate the two. I am still less than a full year into the whisky rabbit hole and I appreciate those blogs that have helped me learn about whiskies I want to get and have also given me something more. Here’s a drink to learning more.

On the topic of overly positive reviews I wonder if we in the modern “Yelp type” world are too prone to being overly critical. Hard work, craft, and luck went into these whisky creations, and while yes some may be bad, try some mass consumption stuff once in a while to remind yourself of how truly bad it can be. I see people all the time who seem to gain status in their own mind by having lots of things they hate. This form of snobbery is rampant. Look at any TV show where they review the artistry of others. Top Chef, Project Runway, etc… These judges are brutal. Makes for good television but do you really want to be that person. All things have their own intrinsic value and it seems better to just point out how something strikes you in a respectful way rather than going out of your way to slam it for style or status. Also before starting my blog I spent a lot of time researching every bottle before I spent my hard-earned money on it. It would be pretty unlikely if I ended of with lots of bad whisky. This is skewing all whisky blogs towards the positive. We are all reading each other and not buying those bottle that are generally disliked. I am sure as I find more and more expressions to review bad ones will creep in there. I plan on honesty since that alone is sure to be the best course of action.

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Oliver Klimek October 30, 2013 at 9:26 am

I don’t see any overly critical whisky reviewer. Most whisky is of pretty high quality and most of the criticism is actually complaining on a fairly high level. And there isn’t just black or white, awful or excellent. Many whiskies are “ok” but often they are praised by people who got free samples or were invited to launch events. In the whisky world the negative snobbery you mention is more against entire companies like Diageo rather than against specific whiskies. I do wonder what mass comsumption whisky you think is “truly bad”. The big sellers like Johnnie Walker Red, Ballantine’s or Chivas Regal may all taste boring, insipid or watered down, but they are far away from tasting truly bad. For a reference for “truly bad” try Loch Dhu or Isawa 1983.

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John October 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I do agree that the majority of the criticism is correctly placed at the door of these corporate behemoths and that there are few actual whisky reviews that slam a particular whisky. Fighting the efforts of these huge corporations and their endless efforts to cheapen the product in a desperate search for more profits requires independent reviewers. We can hope that bloggers can keep their objectivity if they receive these samples. Or we can attempt to call out blogs who are blatant industry shills. Posting comments obviously won’t work since they can just block those comments that make them look bad. Maybe someone will have to start a blog where that is the sole purpose. A forum to call out those who’s opinions are for sale.

Well for bad mass production stuff I was thinking more of American whiskEy. For example Jack Daniels is so bad that it can even make your cola taste horrible. Here in the states the options in most drinking establishments don’t feature many or any single malts. Also I live in a beer Nirvana but a whisky desert, so maybe it is just my location that makes me see so much swill. I agree that most whiskies, especially single-malts, are decent. So then by comparison doesn’t a review of 80 or less mean that the dram in question is truly bottom of the barrel?

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Oliver Klimek October 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Bottom of the barrel is a score below 50. I would rate Jack Daniel’s in the mid 60’s, pretty much next to JWR. I am strongly opposed to the notion that anything “not good” is automatically “bad”. There is whisky out there that would make you beg for Jack Daniel’s.

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