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:
- The wish to become a whisky professional in the future
- Enjoying to be courted by the whisky industry with freebies
- Lack of interest in topics beyond the liquid
- 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.