It’s Only Whisky. Or Isn’t It?

by Oliver Klimek on July 6, 2014

A word of warning to begin with: I have been occasionally blamed for being a bit repetitive with what I write at times. This article may serve as an example. But still I find it useful too look at something from different angles.

I have a reputation of being very critical of the whisky industry, some might say overly critical. But this does not mean at all that I regard the whisky industry as a kind of natural enemy. I deeply love their product (please note the singular) despite my generally critical attitude to much of what is happening in the business.

Of course I have received criticism myself, which is fair enough since I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on everything I write. Most of it can be subsummed under taking things (including myself) too seriously.

“Whisky is to be enjoyed, not analysed and picked apart.” – “Hey, it’s only whisky” – “This whisky sure is tasty. Isn’t this all what matters?” Those are some typical phrases I have encountered. But also “How can you write negatively about a whisky that you haven’t even tasted?”

Of all those, the phrase I probably dislike the most is “It’s only whisky”. It is one of those rethorical killer phrases that are designed to quell any counter-argument while providing no useful argument themselves. “Whisky is to be enjoyed…” is its more elaborate sibling.

Go to Glasgow and try to appease a Celtic and a Rangers fan who are caught in an argument – be it verbal or physical – with the words “Don’t fight, it’s only football”. Chances are they will forget about their rivalry for a moment and go after you instead…

Of course there are a lot of differences between football and whisky and probably nobody is as enamoured with a whisky brand to the same extent as diehard football fans with their favourite teams. But it shows that passion for something can actually mean to take it seriously and it is not necessarily equivalent to accepting everything that comes with it.

There are some key things that whisky and football have in common. Both are not vital. We could live without them very well, and actually most of the people on this planet don’t care about either. For the fans they are a pastime and, yes, something to be enjoyed. But both are also big businesses with lots of money involved.

And it is here where my critical conscience about whisky kicks in, it is the tension between providing joy and earning money. A sustainable and profitable business must find a balance between providing joy (or consumer satisfaction to put it in business speak) and making profit. It is not about maximising one or the other but about optimizing both, finding the sweet spot where most people are happy with your product while still earning well.

Unfortunately this sweet spot has the tendency to be pushed towards the profit end. Rising demand, falling stocks, pressure from shareholders are the main culprits. Over the years I have become very sensitive to the noises this makes.

“Here is our exciting latest release. We are using more sherry casks for this one. It is also younger but you definitely won’t mind paying twice as much for it as for our current standard bottle because we are sure you will like it better. The price is still comparatively cheap because it will come without a fancy wooden structure around it.”

But sometimes it’s just plain chutzpah that alerts me. “Our fascinating new experiment will be the start of a whole new whisky category. Forget about the others who have done this before. We have given this category a nice name so it is ours.”

Like it or not, but as an independent whisky blogger I see it as my task to point out misleading information and PR smoke grenades, no matter if intentional or not, and no matter if the actual whisky is fabulous or crap. Some of the things I mention may be unavoidable, others may be not. But I want my readers to at least understand what may be behind them.

And indeed I think I can express my thoughts about the marketing of a whisky before I had a chance to try it. I judge whisky in blind tasting for the Malt Maniacs Awards. This forces me to also judge whisky with known identity only by what is in my glass, because otherwise my judging would be inconsistent. I can not let pricing, packaging or marketing interfere with my verdict about the liquid. But in turn this also means that my opinion about “meta” stuff like marketing should not be influenced by what is in the glass.

“Whisky is to be enjoyed, not analysed and picked apart.”  – “This whisky sure is tasty. Isn’t this all what matters?” These notions take a direction I am not comfortable with. To me they imply that you shouldn’t be critical about a whisky if it is good. Essentially what they say is “The end justifies the means.”

For me, and this is purely personal, I would much prefer to be dubbed overly critical than uncritical. Because this is what it would mean for me to stay away from “analysing and picking apart”. Yes, it’s still only whisky. But.

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