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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov July 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

well put Oliver,

could not agree more.

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Frodo July 6, 2014 at 3:49 pm

In this day and age it seems more important than ever to have independent bloggers and their views for all to see. Regular spirits journalists (in the main) are not going to write the stuff that is critical of the whisky industry. That leaves folks like you Oliver. Thankfully some are doing it so that we can see what is really going on…

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Eric G July 6, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Anyone who says, “it’s only whisky” doesn’t have the level of interest necessary to be reading this blog in the first place.

As for negativity on this blog, I would ask anyone who levels that charge “would you rather he lie?” If people in the industry are being dishonest or pushing a product that isn’t up to standards, they need to be called on that. Why wouldn’t you want someone to point that out?

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Skeptic July 12, 2014 at 6:31 am

As you our first statement: I take exception to that. I am a whisky “academic”, meaning I read everything i can, but generally have fewer opportunities to drink it. But it’s a hobby. It’s ONLY a drink. But after life ‘s important stuff, it’s a fun hobby.

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Oliver Klimek July 12, 2014 at 6:47 am

For us it may be only a drink, but this does not have to mean that we should ignore everything that happens in the industry. You only look at one side of the coin.

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kallaskander July 7, 2014 at 11:31 am

Hi there,

there is no rule that says “The whisky industry is always right”. It may think so itself but day by day proves that it is more wrong than right in an ever increasing alarming frequency.

You did not name the latest cases Oliver so I will not speak of them by name either. But the relationship of whisky producers and sonsumers is a system of checks and balances. The scales always tipping more to the industry’s side because consumers and critics can always only react when the marketing machine is begining to grind away with a new offering.

But it is needed that somebody sees tendencies trends and developments into wrong directions. And speaks out against them. That can only be someone who is independent.

Greetings
kallaskander

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WhiskyBrother July 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Keep doing what you are doing Oliver. I’m in your corner.

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Jeff July 7, 2014 at 11:15 pm

You can always tell when you have the cheerleaders nervous, because that’s when the cries of “you should calm down and just enjoy the whisky” begin. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion until it seriously starts to undercut someone’s marketing campaign. The real problem is that producers are in the process of making a lot of capital investment in an industry which is increasingly ABOUT hype and very little substance; products are not getting better and, with declining age, are not likely to. If the proof was in the pudding, marketing wouldn’t have to put on extra shifts. “Exciting” new distillery here or there? Big prices commanded for inaugural expressions? “New” processes? Age now irrelevant, but now colour’s important? Full-court-press coverage of bottles with “record setting” asking prices, but no “expert” testimonials that they’re actually worth the money, yet somehow it’s all still news? Please. The truth is, there’s very little (other than spiralling prices) for the average whisky drinker to get excited about, either now or in the foreseeable future – and it’s true regardless of whether that truth is analyzed or not, which is what makes it very uncomfortable for those in the industry when it is.

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Skeptic July 12, 2014 at 6:27 am

But in the end….it’s still only whisky. It’s a liquid that came out of a still, picked up some colour while resting in oak.

Be as critical as you want. Say whatever you want. Enjoy it as much (enjoyment, not volume of drinking) as you want. But remember, it’s a liquid. It will never love you back.

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David July 12, 2014 at 6:39 am

And because it’s just whisky, it’s easier for me to say I don’t need a bottle of the next must have expression, even if it is one I would like. Because, an hour with a dram of 50 year glenpricybeg is an hour I will never have back, but an hour spending time with my kids is an investment in the rest of my life.

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Jeff July 12, 2014 at 7:46 pm

Yes, “it’s only whisky” and so the “stakes” can be argued to not really be that high. It’s also probably true that the overall “state of whisky” is not presently as bad as it has sometimes been in the past, certainly in terms of availability, quality and quality control, but I don’t take the industry to task in hopes that the industry, or whisky, or anyone, will love me for it – I do it in a spirit of defense of myself and others as consumers, and because it’s simply an insult to my intelligence to take the industry line at face value.

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Cigar Inspector July 19, 2014 at 11:37 pm

“This whisky sure is tasty. Isn’t this all what matters?”

Yeah … that would make such a -fascinating- concept for a blog. Seriously I don’t get people.

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