Saturday, May 25, 2013

Buy me a drink, sailor?

Two of the things that surprised me when I first started following whiskey blogs in earnest a couple of years ago were:
  1. Some whiskey bloggers get free, unsolicited samples sent to them.
  2. Some whiskey bloggers don't want free, unsolicited samples sent to them.
The first one isn't really surprising. Despite all the marketing legerdemain, whiskey production is the business of turning grain, yeast, water, and wood into money. The cost of free samples sent to bloggers must be a tiny fraction of the total promotional budget, all of which can be factored into the price of the whiskey. It wouldn't take too many sales to recoup the investment, and with core expressions a single sale could easily become steady sales for years to come.

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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The elephant in the tasting room

I've read a lot of gloomy predictions recently. People who know a lot more about these things than I do are saying that whiskey enthusiasts are in for a tough time, as emerging markets, speculators, and trend-followers with more money than sense provide a market for distillers to sell worse whiskey for more money.

This is, of course, a very different angle on the Whiskey Renaissance than I get from popular articles written around a private tasting with a master distiller. Those all stress excitement and experimentation and new ideas and creative ways to keep up with demand.

You'd expect the folks making more money to be happier about the direction the whiskey business is headed than the folks spending more money. The blind man at the front of the elephant has a much different experience than the blind man at the rear.
Even decanters favor the front end.

For my part, I think my own ignorance, inexperience, and low standards will serve me well. Ten and fifteen years ago, which I'm told was a great time to be into Scotch, I was buying a bottle a year whether I needed it or not. I don't have the historical perspective to resent having to pay $40 or $50 for a 10 y.o. single malt; I just don't do it very often, and almost never without having tasted it before. (As for the price explosion on the higher end stuff, I frankly wouldn't have paid the old price of $120 (or $300) anyway, so the new price of $180 (or $900) doesn't really confront me. When I crack the bottle of Talisker 18 I got for $42, I'll just do so with the expectation that I won't be replacing it when it's gone.)

With American whiskey, there's a large and growing selection available for less than $50 -- and a fair number of decent whiskeys for less than $20. I can play very happily in this shallow end of the pool, if only because I've never really been in the deep end. And while few of the craft whiskeys are good value for the money in the blind tasting sense, I enjoy trying them and look at it as an investment in better whiskey to come.

So while an Iron Age of Whiskey Exploration may be upon those at the back end of the whiskey business elephant, I think I can still hope to manage a bit of a Silver Age of Whiskey Enjoyment.