Open Letter To The Scotch Whisky Industry

by Oliver Klimek on February 21, 2014

Dear whisky industry,

yes I know you don’t exist as an entity, but as I intend to address all your incarnations, including the trade, I decided to choose this opening. Whisky bloggers often appear to forget that you are a “beast with many heads”. You speak with many tongues, but at times you can be surprisingly unanimous.

But it is just the same with us whisky bloggers. We are just as diverse, or even more so. Some of us may appear to you as if you are their natural enemy. But of course they still want to enjoy your products. On the other hand, some are secretly regarded as industry shills by other bloggers.

The lines between industry and bloggers are blurred. Some of you are bloggers themselves, some bloggers have decided to join your ranks and stopped blogging. Some sell their own whisky and continue blogging. Some pour whisky at shows out of enthusiasm. Some have moved to professional writing and consulting, and others do a bit of everything. Potential conflicts of interest indeed. Some cope better with it, some less. Some are even afraid to speak out too loudly because they fear consequences from their employer.

There is no such thing as the stereotypical whisky blogger, even though some of your comments may suggest so.

You court us when you believe that we can be useful in promoting your brand. You give us samples, invite us to glamourous product launch parties or even to all-expenses-paid trips to your facilities. But when we say something you do not like you prefer to ignore us. Because then, all of a sudden, we are only the voice of the small but vociferous minority of single malt geeks who are irrelevant to your real business of selling super premium blends to Asian yuppies. And of course we have no idea of what is really important in the whisky business.

But then again some of you hire people for their PR and promotion work who know even less about the whisky business than us bloggers. Some of the good looking people who pour your whisky at shows know hardly more than what is written on the labels of the bottles in front of them.

Yes, we bloggers are aware that the fantastic choice of single malt whisky is only a by-product of your production of blended whisky. But this does not mean that everyone of us says amen to everything you do out of thankfulness or lets you do as you please out of fatalism.

As a trained journalist turned whisky writer once said, there is no truly independent whisky journalism because all professional whisky writers are to some degree dependent on income from the whisky industry. But there are bloggers who are not. And it is their bloody task to do the job of watching you and criticizing you if they feel it is necessary. Even if they have not attended Fleet Street School.

Our influence is limited, we only reach a tiny fraction of your customer base. But regardless of our perceived ignorance of how the whisky business really works, we may be able to provide you with direct feedback of how your actions are seen from the other side of the shop counter. Because, believe it or not, we are not only sitting behind our desks, knocking back dram after dram while reading and commenting on other bloggers’ musings. We actually meet “normal” whisky drinkers too and listen to their opinions. It’s all a give and take.

Sincerely,
Oliver Klimek

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Whisky Industry February 21, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Not bothered

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Oliver Klimek February 21, 2014 at 6:13 pm

For not being bothered you were checking surprisingly often if this was approved.

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Jeff February 21, 2014 at 10:47 pm

As we both know, if the “trained journalist turned whisky writer” was Dominic Roskrow, he went considerably further than to say “professional whisky writers are to some degree dependent on income from the whisky industry”; he indicated that professional whisky writers are actively recruited and greased with expensive freebies in return for helping the industry market its products. I’d argue that simply admitting this, that what professional whisky writers do “isn’t journalism – it’s marketing”, is the single greatest service that any writer has EVER done for whisky consumers because it defines the terrain in very clear terms: the professional whisky media speaks for the industry, not for the consumer.

There is a lot of truth in what is written in the above post but, if one keeps “Roskrow’s Revelation” in mind, I’m not entirely sure of the overall thrust of it. The industry (and the great majority of professional writers) will never acknowledge that Roskrow was right, or that the bloggers who are the industry’s true critics (as opposed to its many sample-chasing shills) know anything about whisky, or that these critic/bloggers will ever be anything more than weak voices in the wilderness. The industry has no reason to validate its real critics or their criticism.

I’m wary at best if the purpose of the post is to offer the service of bloggers to the industry to provide “direct feedback of how your actions are seen from the other side of the shop counter”. I don’t see the role of real critics (vs. that of the shills) as being one of extending the consumer-feedback-gathering arm of the industry even further – the industry already has LOTs of friends (and paid people) gathering data and “testing the waters” for them. The role of real critics is one of simply speaking truth to power, and reality as they see it, VS. ANYONE’s spin/perception, not providing the industry with feedback on how effective its latest marketing campaigns are with the normal whisky drinker.

As with Roskrow, the greatest service the critics can provide is the one they are already doing: speaking and spreading the truth and shooting down industry spin and lies wherever they see it them in the interests OF consumers, not gathering data from them. If critics are doing their job correctly, they are the LAST people on Earth the industry will EVER lend any credibility, because to do so is to acknowledge that the industry itself is either wrong or lying, usually compromising consumer interests for the benefit of its own. And, where there is ever any division at all, it’s the duty of real critics to advocate consumer, not industry, interests.

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Oliver Klimek February 22, 2014 at 8:37 am

Thank you for this great comment, Jeff. To be honest, I don’t expect this to have much thrust either. Although hope dies last. There is a German saying that translates to “Why should the German Oak be bothered when a wild boar is rubbing itself against it”. That first troll comment – which I do have reason to believe was made by a relevant person – perfectly reflects this.

This post was meant to sum up my somewhat bitter feelings about the ambiguos relationship that the whisky industry has with bloggers. It was more a case of “I feel I need to write this” than “I want this to have some effect”. Over the years I have become too disillusioned to believe any crticism of the whisky industry has an effect as long as it’s only the geeks who complain.

The immediate trigger was the fact that two industry insiders wrote anonymously about the NAS issue, probably mainly out of fear of flak from the geeks. Again the troll comment fits the picture. This fear of open discussion highlights the point I made in my post. The most we can expect from them is that they hear us. But I don’t excpect that they listen because we are considered irrelevant. Many reactions or non-reactions of industry people make me believe they think “Everyone is entitled to an opinion but we don’t give a shit about it”.

It is important that whisky bloggers are aware that they are regarded as tools in the toolbox of the marketing department more than as partners for communiation. But blogging is all about communication. Sadly, large parts of the whisky industry see this as a one way street and not as a dialogue.

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Oliver Klimek February 22, 2014 at 8:47 am

And another thing: My bitterness is NOT caused by the fact that I haven’t received a review sample in six months now ;) I actually appreciate that but I draw my conclusions. Last time I checked, dramming.com was in the top ten whisky blogs according to the Alexa traffic ranking while some well-known review blogs rank quite a bit behind it. So you see reach is not everything in whisky marketing…

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Jeff February 22, 2014 at 9:38 am

The crux of the issue for me is that, where those interests diverge (and they do not always diverge), the promotion of consumer interests vs. industry interests is seen as a completely adversarial one on the part of the industry. Critics need to understand that, while their criticism will certainly be read by the industry with great interest, their pro-consumer points (as opposed to other, less controversial, observations) will never be widely acknowledged as valid – hence the industry’s ambiguous hot-and-cold relationship and non-dialogue with bloggers on these points. The critics, on the other hand, can afford to acknowledge where industry people have valid counterpoints because critics are never in danger of losing their “jobs” for doing so – as industry people WOULD most certainly be if they ever admitted that “yeah, you know, sometimes our industry IS just full of shit, insults consumers’ intelligence, and pushes overpriced substandard products”.

So, you see, I don’t think it’s a case that you and other critical bloggers aren’t necessarily having an effect on the industry, or on consumers for that matter – it’s that you can never expect real acknowledgement of the effect you’re having.

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Dunno February 23, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Anyone who has been following whisky long enough (20+ years) has seen how once proud, but somewhat poor craft has been turned into a sexy and very profitable business mercilessly exploiting its heritage. I don’t think there is anything one can do but to let it run until it eventually crashes. One could hope that small craft distilleries would save whisky like craft beer saved beer in some countries, but I’m not very optimistic. Looks like most just want to enjoy the whisky boom and sell three years old unproven stuff at even higher price than the big guys because they are “small, craft, creative etc.”

It used to be that only few people could get their stories published in magazines, so they had some power over the business. Now anyone can (and many do) start a blog and became “expert”. They are often new to whisky and more enthusiastic than experienced — easy prey to industry PR. If one blog fails the expectations they just enroll the next one. Consumers want to believe in happy stories, history, heritage – critical blogs will be ignored by the majority always.

My take: keep on enjoying the good and moderate priced whisky that is still out there, enjoy meeting the good people that are still in the business and keep on writing critical blogs. Just don’t take it too seriously – the whisky industry you once knew is gone. There are other things to be passionate about – small grower cognacs for example are right now perfect as they have lot’s of old stock and very few people know about them.

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