...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, January 13, 2014

NEEDED: Whisky Consumer Advocacy

I began 2013 as a fawning fan of all things whisky.  I ended the year angry.  Much of the latter part of the year I spent internalizing way too much frustration.  But I'm not keeping quiet this year because when it comes to whisky, though the liquid is fun much of the rest is not.

There’s a lot being written about whisky both online and in print.  Most of it ultimately serves as promotional material for large corporations.  Even when the crustiest and most cynical of us bloggers write, “Hey, this is pretty good” about a whisky, we’re helping get more bottles sold.  But saying something nice about something we like isn’t the problem.  The issue at hand is the widespread regurgitation and propagation of marketing material at the expense of factual information and independence.  Plenty of folks are writing to support the whisky industry, but how many are considering the readers and consumers?

Let’s take a step back for a sec.  There are many categories of people writing about whisky, each with different influences in play.

Firstly, we have independent bottlers, like Single Cask Nation and Caskstrength.  Then we have retailers, like K&L Wines, who also occasionally do their own independent bottling.  These first two groups have a vested interest in sales.  That’s their income, it’s their job.  As long as they clearly disclose to their readership their involvement with the industry, then it is up to the reader to consider how much that involvement influences the writers' reviews or opinions on the business.

Next, there are the paid writers.  Their numbers are few.  Paid writing gigs are difficult to come by in any industry and whisky is no exception.  Sometimes these (mostly) men publish books, but more frequently they write articles for a handful of whisky journals.  While books don’t require outright advertising by whiskymakers in their pages, the journals do.  Those print ads can be the cause of healthy skepticism in a reader.  On one page he will see an advertisement for Glenmorangie, then five pages later a loving article about Master Morangie Bill Lumsden, then twelve pages later a rave review of the newest limited edition GlenMo.  While I don’t believe writers are being forced to sculpt their content, journals (and books) will have a difficult time being published if the industry that creates their subject matter experiences a steep decline or is no longer deemed exciting.  So while the writers may not purposely write things to keep the industry zooming along, it is in the publishers’ interest that whisky revenues barrel ahead.

Finally, there’s the vast blogosphere.  There are hundreds of us writing and posting tasting notes.  Some of us have direct connections to the industry, most of us have none.  Some of us get free review samples directly from the companies, most of us do not.  Some of us shmooze industry types, some of us attend free tastings, some of us resell our bottles in the secondary market.  Some of us do none of those things.  But those things we do, those social or financial choices, must be disclosed to our readerships in order to give everyone what he or she needs in order to consume our content in an informed fashion.

Three months ago, MAO from My Annoying Opinions critiqued the blogging community both privately in the Whisky Bloggers Facebook group and publicly on his blog.  He challenged us by saying that all of our warm “fuzzy” buddy-buddy-ness with each other, and with whisky professionals, had created a “(soft) corruption”, and that any sort of “spirit of critique” no longer existed.  He was roundly shouted down and labeled a “troll”.  Perhaps people took issue with his tone, as he minces no words.  Perhaps people were very comfortable in their give-and-receive whisky lifestyle.  Perhaps people felt like they and their friends were being criticized as human beings.  Unfortunately the one blogger who answered the challenge and attempted some public self-deconstruction took all the heat for sins that have been more heavily exploited by others.  The discussion turned absolutist and staunchly partisan and ultimately everyone went back to his and her Twitter Tastings.  MAO's original reasonable point was left neglected, and I was left concerned that most of us couldn’t bear to spare any meditation on the matter.

Those who say that blogging is merely a masturbatory endeavor are either deluded, in denial, or protecting something.  Only masturbation is masturbatory.  Once your blog post is "published" an audience other than you, the author, reads it.  Sometimes it is three people.  Sometimes it is 300,000.  Your words appear on someone else's screen and exist in that person's life.

People buy bottles of whisky after they read our reviews.  Yes, even some of my readers have purchased things influenced by something I’ve written.  Even I, a reader who hates buying blind, have bought things after seeing a number of positive reviews by bloggers I like.  Whisky is getting very expensive and there’s a whole lot of marketing blather out there, so folks are looking for reviews that appear at least somewhat independent.

I’ll frame that last paragraph another way.  For those bloggers who are posting reviews of whisky provided directly from brand ambassadors or other industry employees, please disclose in your review that the whisky was provided directly from a brand ambassador or another industry employee.  And even more importantly, I urge you to consider your readers when writing a final assessment of that free whisky, because that whisky you received for free is not free to your readers.

If you’re posting a 90-point/4.5-star/A-rated review about your free whisky and you yourself are not running out to buy a bottle of it with your own money, then I encourage you to tell your readers why.  Those folks inspired by your words will need to spend their own income to get that same whisky.

And to all bloggers, before you continue perpetuating popular whisky tales, go in and do some research.  Give us facts.  For instance, here's one issue: people writing extensively or repetitively that whisky prices are going up due to shortages caused by massive whisky sales over the last several years.  There are tables and PDFs available via the SWA and Shanken News Dailey and Drinks Business Review as well as other (often free) spirits news sites demonstrating that growth of volume sales has not risen consistently from year to year nor has volume growth been consistent across all brands.  I am not denying that whisky revenues have been up, nor that volume sales were very good in 2013.  Just give some numbers and facts before contributing to the scarcity fears stoked by companies that stand to profit off of fear-based purchasing and the resulting price bloat.  If your research supports the scarcity story, then that’s fine, give us the info.

I also encourage independent bloggers to challenge the industry when their tactics either mislead consumers or blur the truth.  There are the small things cropping up on a regular basis.  For instance, when "news" broke that Diageo will be releasing a new range of Mortlach single malt, it was revealed that the entry malt will be named Rare Old.  As an entry malt, a non-age-statement entry malt, it is almost certainly neither rare nor old.  But nonetheless they named it that and it is purported to be priced in the JW-Platinum-$90-range.  Or, how about the catalyst to my current discontent?  The Glenlivet Alpha.  There was an almost total lack of comment on the cynicism behind the abandon-all-ye-brains-and-wallets approach to the Alpha, a glorified version of the Nadurra but at thrice the price and with a lower ABV to match.  Rather, quite a portion of the blogosphere seemed to fall over itself to get a sample and encourage the mad rush to buy into a zero-disclosure ugly marketing stunt.  Meanwhile, the Rare Old and Alpha lead to another concern on a much larger scale: the growing spate of NAS releases means even less disclosure about what's inside the product consumers are buying.  Why should we not question the industry's fear of informed consumers?  If we don't question, then who will?

This is my plea for all of us to maintain a level of independence and keep our readers in mind.  I used to have 40+ blogs on my newsfeed.  Now I have 10, and a couple of those I keep on the feed just to piss me off.  Yes, whisky is a tremendous and glorious thing.  But not every whisky is tremendous and glorious and excellent and a rip-roaring rollercoaster thrill ride.  If every single review you write is about an amazing whisky, then I stopped reading your blog.  If you never site where you've sourced your whisky, then I stopped reading your blog.  If your blog actively encouraged scarcity fear, then I stopped reading your blog.  If your blog made generalizations that only served to benefit the industry, then I stopped reading your blog.  All it would have taken to keep this reader around would have been some background information about your whisky and some facts to back up your stories.  These elements lead me to believe you have thought about your readers before you clicked Publish.

So where the hell did this post come from?

Stop and consider for a moment what you value as a drinker and what the industry values.  Do those values match up?  As a whisky consumer, I would like good whisky I can buy.  Publicly-traded whisky producers would like to sell as much of a product at as high of a price and at as low of a cost as they can.  I don’t like paying more for less.  In order to satisfy their balance sheets and investors (which they value more than their employees, customers, and product quality), and to thus maintain rising growth, corporations need me to pay more for less.  You see how these things don’t really match up?

I believe many of the actual distillers and blending teams are working their tails off trying to create a product they can be proud of, often with ingredients of lessening quality.  But because most companies desire constant revenue growth above all else – thus all of the lawyers, lobbyists, and marketing divisions – selling a brand is what’s important.  So what if they lose a customer like me?  There are new malleable customers to be had, everywhere.  The lose-a-customer-gain-a-customer approach is not the best way to do business, but the tobacco industry got by on it for years.

If you think I’m a commie dick for my anti-corporate ravings, that’s fine.  You won’t be the first.  But at least think about your readers, your fellow drinkers.  There are enough mechanisms in place to support the whisky industry.  Why not recognize the rest of us, the humans?

Nothing we, the blogosphere, write exists in a vacuum.  Our rave reviews can sell bottles, which may eventually influence prices.  Our perpetuation of marketing blurbs (whether fact or myth) can sell bottles, which may eventually influence prices.  I doubt my little bloggie here has much influence on its own, but it is part of the larger blogosphere and sometimes contributes to The Whisky Talk.  In fact, I think half my readers are my fellow bloggers, which is why I wrote this.  Diving for Pearls has been far from exemplary in the past and should be held to the same standards I just wrote.  So here are some disclosures:
  • 96% of my reviews have been from sample swaps, sample purchases, gifts from friends outside the industry, or my own bottles.  The remaining percentage includes whiskies I’ve consumed at ambassador/rep-led free tastings.  As of the beginning of 2013, I stopped rating whiskies consumed at these events.  I will make an effort in every review to reference where the whisky came from.  If I don’t, please call my attention to it.
  • I do know a few brand ambassadors and distributor reps.  I say this not as “I’m kind of a big deal”, but instead there are a few folks from The Dreaded Industry whom I find cool to chat and drink with.  None of these people have requested any reviews of their products.
  • I actually wouldn’t mind working in the industry in some fashion.  In fact, I’ve snooped around about a few jobs.  But since I socialize and network terribly, that’s probably cost me some employment.  And I’m pretty sure I’ve written a couple things that potential employers wouldn’t be terribly excited about.
I would like to see a strong smart independent whisky blogosphere.  That would be fun.  I would also like some good whisky I can buy.  That would be fun too.  These are things within our reach.  So, let's all work to bring the fun back in 2014, okay?