In response to Nick Morgan’s recent article, ‘Without criticism there is only marketing‘, award-winning journalist Felipe Schrieberg makes a defence of whisky writing.
In a recent story on this website, ex-Diageo executive and archivist Dr. Nick Morgan argues that ‘honest’ whisky criticism is basically doomed. “Whether from authors, journalists posing as authors, self-styled experts posing as journalists or influencers posing as self-styled experts,” he complains, “this cacophony of kindness directed towards whisky makers and their whiskies is almost deafening.”
He accuses this motley crew, of which I count myself a proud member placed, I believe, somewhere between “author” and “journalist posing as author”, essentially of becoming PR mouthpieces due to the blurred relationships between writers and whisky brands. Because of how we work and gather the information that informs our ‘content’, whether in an article, video or social media, Morgan believes we are compromised and cannot offer a valid critical view of the whisky industry.
What is critical whisky writing?
While he addresses clearly important issues regarding whisky writing, and he’s not entirely wrong, Morgan misses an important point in lamenting the death of critical whisky writing: He neglects to define what it actually is. I’ll attempt to do so here.
Generally, I regard our collective task as the process of seeking to understand, explore and dissect the contexts in which whisky is produced, and the multiple effects of whisky’s production on the worlds around it. That purview ranges from aspects of production to whisky’s role in history, agronomy, economics, public and industry policy, sociology and ecology.
While not a perfect definition, it will do for this article.
By this standard, there’s great work both in print and online that fulfils this brief. It’s unfortunate that Morgan ignores it, only offering the most flaccid praise I’ve yet encountered in whisky writing, commending well-known amateur whisky vlogger Ralfy Mitchell’s honesty while also labelling him ‘often ill-informed’.
By Morgan’s standards, whisky writers commit cardinal sins such as mine by:
– Receiving samples from brands and PR agencies to do reviews. Other than haunting bars and pubs it’s the only practical way to get new whiskies to do my job. That said, I issue a disclaimer in my reviews stating that I often receive samples and I make clear that I’ll be as honest and unbiased as possible.
– Taking all-expenses paid trips to visit distilleries and brand events – a useful way to meet distillery staff in their environment and affords insights unavailable otherwise.
– Nosing and tasting whisky on camera for a distillery’s new-release marketing video. When I was part of a promotional video (which I wasn’t paid for) for a 30 year old Rosebank, I didn’t nose or taste the whisky itself until the cameras were rolling so I could provide as honest a reaction as possible.
– Receiving sponsorship, either in cash and/or liquid, from a variety of brands and companies for events that I run. I’ve been hired to host tastings and play with my band at their events, and I have also taken on other kinds of paid work from whisky brands.
Journalism is far from lucrative
All that is what it takes to maintain a full-time career as a freelance whisky professional. Unfortunately, whisky writing, like all freelance journalism, is far from lucrative. “I don’t think rates have changed much since the 90s,” Dave Broom told me in a recent interview, meaning that we must find other gigs. We do what we do because we’re fascinated by the industry, its traditions, history and products.
As for all journalists, our jobs require cultivating relationships, in our case with makers and sellers of whisky, as well as with their gatekeepers, usually PR agencies. Arranging interviews often needs those gatekeepers, especially to reach higher-ranking, informed sources.
Which brings us to Morgan’s headline, final sentence and central point: “without criticism there is only marketing.” Snappy line – but wrong. By its very nature, whisky criticism, no matter how well-written or independent of brand connections, is and always has been a fancy form of marketing for the wider industry.
It’s always marketing
Here’s why: in writing about whisky and the many details that involve synthesising three ingredients into the water of life we love, we’re helping brands move inventory. Any consumer of our work is interested because either a) they’re open to buying a bottle/dram or b) they work in the industry. A positive story or praise of a specific release or brand may lead lead to purchase of its products. A critical review or hard story about a brand simply encourages purchase of a different whisky. Ultimately, our goal is to convince the reader to purchase something produced by the industry.
Regarding reviews, Morgan worries that the constant stream of positive feedback found online and in print and perhaps undermines a writer’s honesty, grousing that “we live in a seven-plus world”, where whiskies are given generous scores of 7/10 or higher because reviewers don’t want to risk offending or losing access to brands. I disagree. If you leaf through the legendary beer/whisky writer Michael Jackson’s book The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, first published in 1989 and continuously updated, you’ll see nearly all the whiskies are scored 70 or above on a 100-point scale. Clearly, this has been going on for a while.
In defence of whisky writing
Rather than writers playing softball, these relatively positive scores reflect a widely-recognised industry truth: whisky has never before achieved such a high baseline standard, especially with the rapid rise of the single-malt market, thanks to modernised production methods and the dissemination of quality-whisky-making knowledge.
This trend towards positivity, Morgan’s “cacophony of kindness,” is symptomatic of another aspect: almost everyone working in whisky is really, really lovely. This is a fact near-universally acknowledged by those working in the industry, and by writing about whisky I have the pleasure and privilege of meeting fascinating, generous and kind characters with great stories to tell. Us whisky writers want to spread the gospel of the water of life, so we can’t help but pass on the positivity. This doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing depth or more critical perspectives.
Unlike Morgan, I believe our expanding whisky ecosystem is providing rich ground for whisky criticism.
Upending traditional narratives
For example, if we look at books Broom has just released A Sense of Place, an excellent examination of the importance of location to Scotch whisky through the lens of an academic concept called bioregionalism, and its effects on flavour. Or master distiller Rob Arnold’s analysis of the provenance of the grains used to make whisky and how that translates to what we taste in the glass in The Terroir Of Whisky.
Whisky Magazine, for which I regularly write, features great interviews with whisky figures around the world and covers a variety of topics at a high editorial standard. On this blog, Henry Jeffreys sounded the alarm of a potential peat shortage on Islay as Port Ellen Maltings stopped supplying malt to non-Diageo distilleries. I may disagree with Morgan here but I enjoyed his 2021 article in the Daily Beast tracing the origins of the term ‘The Angels’ Share’. It’s a great example of tight, informative whisky (and Cognac) writing upending traditional narratives.
Authoritative online commentary
There’s plenty of places that write reviews and aren’t afraid to be critical. Whiskyfun.com, run by Serge Valentin, is one of the most authoritative, having reviewed over 18,000 whiskies since 2002 and still going strong. Belgian Ruben Luyten at Whiskynotes.be has also been providing high-quality reviews since 2008. Superb Spanish blogger Emma Briones has been instrumental in providing honest whisky reviews to Spanish speaking consumers for ten years and was a pioneer for the rapidly growing Spanish-language whisky geek community. They are all amateurs, making their body of work that much more impressive.
There’s plenty more substantive print and digital work out there. Sure, you’ll also find plenty of weaker ‘content’, but isn’t that the case in any field?
It’s heartening that high-quality whisky criticism is still available for eager whisky fans today despite the limited publishing opportunities. I think it’s far more useful to celebrate rather than deride the work of professionals and amateurs doing their best, driven by a love of whisky.