- Some whiskey bloggers get free, unsolicited samples sent to them.
- Some whiskey bloggers don't want free, unsolicited samples sent to them.
Factor in the small number of relevant blogs -- with 8 bottles, you could send a sample to every English language whiskey blogger known to SKU -- and sending samples to whiskey bloggers makes a lot more sense to me than book publishers sending review copies to bloggers, and I've been getting review copies from book publishers for years.
I started reviewing books I got for free at my college newspaper; when reviewing for a grad school paper, I learned you can request specific books, and publishers will actually (sometimes) send them to you. For a while in the 1990s, I was sent boxes of random mystery novels to review for a tiny quarterly magazine. That taught me two important lessons: first, there most certainly are books that deserve to be burned; and second, getting a free review copy in no way obligates the receiver to so much as read the book, much less write a favorable review.
I admit I was surprised when I started getting emails from publishers asking if I wanted books to review for the blog I started in 2002. How many of my dozen readers were going to buy the book anyway? But I'd spent enough time with writers to know everything in the publishing business is nuts, and if someone was willing to waste a book on the likes of me, so be it.
All this may be why I never would have predicted that some whiskey bloggers don't want free whiskey samples. I wouldn't say nice things about a book I didn't like just to keep getting books from the publisher, much less as quid pro quo for the review copy itself. Why would I, or anyone else, do something like that for a few bucks a year worth of free whiskey?
But a segment of the whiskey blogging world does think free samples at best give the appearance of a conflict of interest, and at worst produce reviews that might as well have been written by the marketing department. (A biased review is not the same as a blog post that literally was written by the marketing department -- i.e., that simply transcribes a press release; that sort of thing is, if nothing else, perfectly transparent.)
All this leads to the question raised by Matthijs Hakfoort of @VattedBlog and the blog Vatted in a conversation we had on Twitter the other day: Are whiskey fans too strict or book fans too lenient toward reviewers?
First, I'd say most reasons to write a fluff book review hold whether or not the book is free. The key relationship for the reader is with the author, not the publisher, and authors can as easily (and would just as soon) be buttered up by someone who bought their book at retail. A reviewer who wants to stay on a publisher's mailing list will start by only requesting those books they're likely to enjoy. If they don't like a book, it's easier to not post a review than to write a fake one; their blog readers won't know, and (in my experience at least) the publisher won't much care. (As I said, the business is nuts.)
In short, I don't see much of an angle in feigning enthusiasm for a book you got free, simply because you got it free.
Things may be different for whiskey reviewers. There may be particular whiskies that one must review if one is a player in the whiskey blogosphere; there are certainly nine-days-wonder whiskies that all the cool kids seem to talk about at the same time. If you are sent three or four samples in the same range, I suppose you'd feel odd just reviewing the two or three you genuinely like. Promotional departments may have quicker hooks in the whiskey industry than in publishing. The reviews themselves are highly subjective, so it might be hard to tell when someone gives an 89 to a whiskey they really consider a 75. There's certainly more of a cachet to reviewing a sample of whiskey that retails for $200 and is only sold in duty free shops than to reviewing a book you can read for free tomorrow at the library.