Monday, December 2, 2013

Blurred Lines: Having Fun Pouring Whisky and Skirting The Edge of the Ethics of Whisky Blogging

Pouring Smooth Ambler at Whisky Fest NYC October, 2013 -
Photo courtesy of Greenie McGee (in my pocket) (@greenietravels)
I've been taking risks lately.  These include biking through urban Newark, NJ late at night to get home from a distant train station and biking in traffic in New York City.  I've hit the pavement a few times (luckily without injury so far).  I've been taking risks in the whisky domain too - and I'm not talking about drinking a lot.  I'm talking about toying with the limits of accepted ethics for whisky bloggers.  But I'm doing so for a reason - although the primary reason is "for my own amusement".  But there's more to it too.

What I've been doing is pouring whisky (and whiskey) at events and at tastings - sometimes in the apparent role of Brand Ambassador.  I've brought home samples of the whiskies I've poured and I have every intention of writing up critical tasting notes and then posting them to this blog as if I were an impartial and honest whisky blogger.  Impartial - yet on one or more particular evenings I've stood behind a table and poured these same whiskies and schmoozed them to a the paying public.  And, in a few cases, I've received an hourly payment for doing so.  The payment was considerably less than I usually make for working and given the work and incidentals wasn't very lucrative and certainly wasn't why I did it.  In most of the rest I've received the dregs bottles.  That's nice - but it's also not why I did it.  Personally I have quite a bit of whisky and I'm way behind in my tasting and writing.  Believe it not, a bag full of half full bottles aren't a compelling reason for me to spend several hours on my aching feet after a full work day while tons of people pack in and hold their glasses out.  I did it for a complex of reasons that center around the following:

Pouring Gordon & MacPhail at the Whisky Guild "Whisky on the Hudson" cruise
Fall, 2012.  I'm nervously talking up a really awesome Mortlach cask strength to
Malt Maniac Peter Silver (right) & Dr. Brian Silverman
Photo courtesy of Greene McGee (@greenietravels)

1) I wanted to see what it feels like to be on the other side of the table.  Part of me thinks it might be kind of interesting from a journalistic perspective - like George Plimpton pretending to be a QB in the NFL in order to write an "insider's perspective piece.  

2)  I wanted to feel an "insider's" sense of belonging in the whisky community.  The industry people have a tremendous esprit de corps and sense of belonging.  I wanted to feel that too.  Indeed, since I've poured and done events, I have been accepted by industry people to a much larger extent than I was formerly.  That feels good - and it also gives me access and insight into their ways and their world.  This has been fun and gratifying.  It's also grist for the blog.  I want to party in the scene to so I can kiss and tell.  (Granted I'm way behind in telling these stories).

3) I really enjoy talking about whisky with people.  Pouring at shows has been a blast because I get to teach people about whisky and share some of the passion from an implied position of authority (because I was the one doing the pouring).

But the burning question I must address here and now is whether this stuff compromises my ethics as blogger.  Will this lead me to write some puff ball reviews of the whiskies sold by the people in my #whiskyfabric?

The issue of the ethics of whisky blogging has been a hot topic lately.  On October 2, 2010, Oliver Klimek of Dramming wrote a manifesto called:  

The Ethics of Whisky Blogging

In brief - the commandments were:
1. I will not accept free offers that require or expect me to bend my opinion.
2. My future writing will not be influenced by free offers of the past or advertising money
3. I will not ask for free offers
4. I will tell you when I write about something I received for free
5. I will plug my own blog only if I have something worthwhile to contribute
6. I will not ask for links to my blog

I read this post early on, was influenced by it, and have attempted to honor its tenets in all my actions.  Nothing in this list prevents me from pouring whisky as a pretend Brand Ambassador.  But when I put the question bluntly to Oliver Klimek he was clear and unequivocal in his reply:

" I guess we all agree that bloggers should not be industry whores. But how close is too close? It seems ["Preacher'] thinks that any visible connection to the industry already compromises the writer. I would not go that far, the real issue is how you deal with it in your writing. How honest you are and how strong you are to also express criticism about products of someone you are close to. But there is also the public perception. People may think you are corrupted just because you are actively endorsing a brand. It is a very fine line. And my personal opinion is that For a blogger it may be better to keep a visible distance to that line to avoid any misonterpretations. For example I would never pour for a company on a public event."

But Oliver is a Malt Maniac.  He's also a judge at the Malt Maniac awards.  He can't afford to be too cozy.  I'm not under those same constraints.   But I am under some very real constraints and this was brought home to me forcefully in a comment made by a friend of mine, Tim Read, blogger of Scotch & Ice Cream, in the comments section below an important and potentially influential post about whisky blogger ethics written by a different friend - the blogger of My Annoying Opinions, who prefers to remain anonymous, and who I call publicly by the nickname "Preacher" (because his Twitter Avatar used to be a black and white picture of a country preacher before it became his awesome free-hand line drawing of a hand-holding-the-glencairn.)  Here is the meat of Preacher's argument:

"Lifestyle journalists can’t question the industry very much because the publications they write for (mostly on a contract basis) are deeply reliant on the industry for advertising, materials etc.. Whisky journalism therefore functions mostly as a celebration of the whisky industry and everyone’s happy with the quality and quantity of reciprocal backscratching (or wanking, if you prefer).

But this is precisely where I think bloggers have the opportunity to open up room for critique that the industry–the distillery owners/marketers and the major publications–cannot or will not give us; to write about issues, and from perspectives, that don’t align with those of the industry. I’m not suggesting that this is what bloggers should write about all the time–I myself spend all my time writing fussy tasting notes that a handful of people read; but keeping the theoretical space open seems important. This independence and potential critical perspective is what it seems to me gets lost very quickly when bloggers so happily jump in the pool with the professionals; and indeed many bloggers seem happy to be co-opted in this way, it seems proof of their success that the industry acknowledges and “rewards” them with access."

In this context, my recent spate of pretend Brand Ambassador gigs, and cosying up to industry folks makes me guilty of this specific form of whisky blogging ethics treason.  (The following brilliant image is taken from Shane Helmick's brilliant review of Cromwell's Royal Box Scotch Whisky - which is guilty of the sacrilege of being a Scotch Whisky in a box)  I've borrowed it here to represent my heresy):

SACRILEGE - Blurred Lines association
on Shane Helmick's "How to Drink Whisky" blog.
The text of Preacher's post is potent - but perhaps even more potent to me was Tim Read's comment that reads, in part:

Josh Feldman (left),
Ellie (of
and John Little, Master Distiller
Photo courtesy of Greenie McGee -
WhiskyFest NYC 2013
"There’s a problem I as a reader and consumer have though, and I’ll call you to a pair of specifics. You said: “But as I’ve said elsewhere, when I suit up for an amateur Brand Ambassador gig, I’m thinking of it being like being a pretend quarterback ala Plimpton’s Paper Tiger, than being a blogger who has crossed the line into overt brand advocacy.”
Here’s the problem I as a consumer have with suspending my disbelief. I know you have a basic contract you have to sign and you’re acting as a representative for the company. No one’s going to want the brand ambassador who, as he’s pouring the mainline NAS release, says to the recipient, “This is a mess and it’s a real shame the distillery has made this their primary entry-level whisky.” Presumably, given your professed desire to stay involved in this promotional capacity, you’re going to broadly make nice. I don’t personally have a problem with it – IF THE RELATIONSHIP IS KNOWN TO THE READER. You gave Smooth Ambler’s year-old bourbon high marks, and then a few weeks later, there’s a photo of you in an Ambler shirt pouring at an event. Boy, I wish I’d known that you were cultivating or had a relationship with these guys."

To which I replied:

"I wrote the Smooth Ambler blog post several weeks prior to agreeing to pour for Smooth Ambler. I fully disclose my warm personal relationship with John Little in the Smooth Ambler blog post. At the time I wrote the post that’s as far as it went. If I had a pre-existing relationship with Smooth Ambler I would have divulged it. Later on, I asked John Little if needed help at Whisky Fest. He agreed to put me on the list. I poured Smooth Ambler and took a dregs bottle of Old Scout 10. Other than that dregs bottle and admission to Whisky Fest (which I saw little of, between pouring and having my sister in town) I was otherwise not compensated. When I review the Old Scout 10 I’ll divulge the source of my sample."

I won't tell you that didn't sting a little.  But it was important for me to hear and to rebut.  I reiterate: I've never signed any contracts or made any assertions or agreements that I'd give anything a good review in exchange for anything.  I haven't - and I never will.  That said, the fact that Tim jumped to those conclusions is proof of Oliver's warning that "People may think you are corrupted just because you are actively endorsing a brand."  Oliver was right, and Preacher was right too.  The warning and the issue in general is clearly valid.  My response is to try to counter with clarity and some statements of good intentions:

1) I'm going to abide by Oliver's Klimek's 6 points of whisky blogging ethics.

2) I'm going to stand up here and now and promise to myself and to you that I'm going to tell the unvarnished truth about any and every whisky I blog about.  I will not soft ball whiskies I don't like just because I have a relationship with the importer, distiller, or ambassador.
Pouring Purple Valley Imports at The Casker's Showcase, November 2013 -
Photo with my own camera by the Casker's event staff photographer
 (while I held his camera)

3) I'm going to review my dregs bottles and I'm going to be completely honest where the whisky came from - just as I have been very honest about the source of all the whiskies I've reviewed so far.  If I've been given a sample or if I swapped for it I say so.  If I don't bother to say where I got it - it's because I bought it in a store.
4) If and when I pour whisky at a show and you happen to walk up to me, I'll tell you the truth about the whiskies I pour.  Ask anyone who has come up to me at a show and had me pour them whisky.  I tell the truth about what I'm pouring.  There have been some whiskies that aren't as good as the others and I've said so.  However, the rare times I pour, I pour whisky that I'm interested in because I think it's good or I think it has some redeeming feature that makes it worth trying.

Photo courtesy of Wes @wmoe1
4) If I have a relationship with the importer, distiller, or a brand ambassador, I will be honest and forthcoming about that fact.  Look back over my reviews and you will see that this has always been the case.

5) I will not let personal relationships interfere with my telling the truth about whisky.  I'm going to post a lot of reviews in the coming months and years and I'm going to describe what's in the glass to the best of my ability in each case - no matter what my relationship to the person(s) who brought the whisky into being.

6) And, finally, I won't let any of the aforementioned get in the way of me doing whatever the !@#$ I want to do.  And if I want to hang with whisky people and maybe even pour their stuff that's what I'm going to do.  If I start judging for the Malt Maniacs awards I may reconsider this position.

So, what's it like pouring whisky at a big event?  It's loud, frenetic, often repetitive - telling the same story about what you're pouring over and over again, and involves hours standing in a way that makes your feet tired.  It's also a wonderful opportunity to geek out with a huge cross section of the whisky community.  I get to meet and discuss whisky with bloggers and passionate insiders, and also beginners and partiers and sometimes obnoxious inebriated people.   It's a fascinating experience being on the other side of the table.  It makes you feel a kinship with the whisky that you don't normally experience.   Now, the challenge will be seeing if that feeling of kinship affects my ability to write about these whiskies impartially.  I say "no".  Check back and find out.   And don't be afraid to call me on it if I seem to be straying into "bogus".


  1. I remain skeptical about the possibility of maintaining a firewall between the schmoozy/insider side and the independent reviewer side of the self, but foregrounding the contradictions is a good way to start .

    I do note that in this post you do the exact same thing that you and a number of other members of the whisky bloggers Facebook group took me to task for in my post that caused so much controversy on that Facebook group: quoting conversation from the private group in a public blog post.

    1. Your point about the firewall is noted. I'll be watching it like a hawk and others probably will too. If you turn out to be right I'll be the first to admit it. As for quoting from the closed group - I obtained prior approval for the use of the quote. And the tone and context for the use counts for a lot. Here I use the quote in a manner wholly supportive of the speaker (i.e. it's Oliver and I'm using him as my moral compass). I also use you as my moral compass, Preacher. I just go rogue.

  2. [please blur my face and alter my voice for this anonymous comment]. I see no conflict of interest in blogging / reviewing while speaking on behalf of a brand, taking free samples, or pouring at an event. For example, do I mistrust Anthony Bourdain's reviews because he has interests in his own restaurants? No, I respect his opinions more because he has direct experience in the industry. In my own writing I do not disclose where my alcohol comes from - whether it was provided by a distillery / distributor / donated by a colleague / or paid for out of my own pocket. Why? Not because I'm trying to hide something, but because I don't think my readers care. I try not to write things that are boring or irrelevant. Also I think it is actually way more "suck-up'y" to thank people for samples. Does Robert Parker thank people for free wine? Did Siskel & Ebert thank people for free movie tickets? No. You build a relationship with readers by writing honest and interesting content. That integrity is inherent in your writing. If it's not, then people won't want to read your writing anyway.

    1. "I try not to write things that are boring or irrelevant." I would further clarify that statement with "from a reader's perspective." It's clearly what you meant, but there are at least two very different perspectives at play here. One is that of the average reader. The other is that of other bloggers.

      Most readers seem unlikely to care about the source of a sample unless they're intrigued enough to want to get a taste or a bottle for themselves. In that case, being able to say "I found it at Bob's Liquors on Maple Street for $37" could be both interesting and helpful to the small number of readers who live near the writer. For everyone else, the information is irrelevant. In fact, the one time I can picture information like that being relevant to more than a handful of people is when a blogger says "You can buy it from Caskers. Here's my affiliate link."

      Odds are, however, the blogger didn't source their own sample from Caskers. So it's somewhat disingenuous.

      I'm getting ready to launch a whiskey blog of my own. I'm planning to avoid including sourcing information in reviews simply because it isn't interesting to most people. If someone wants to ask me via comments, email, twitter, or whatnot, they can. And I will answer truthfully. But I'll do my best to avoid including content in reviews that mere mortals don't seem to care about.

    2. Thanks for providing the perfect foil for Preacher's comment, above. Yes, this is pretty much how I think about. Integrity happens when you write about it: If you choose to shill then not. Otherwise, you're just a guy in a room having fun. Judge people by their actions. The trouble is - as my post shows - people are ready to read into things when they know you have these relationships. I go to dinner with Chip Tate (once) - actually a formal dinner tasting event - and now my positive reviews of Balcones are under scrutiny as being possibly shilling. It's that "appearance of impropriety" that's the issue here. The only real solution is "don't fraternize" - keep yourself squeaky clean. But I'm doing this for a variety of reasons and "my amusement" is paramount among them. I think I'll sacrifice appearances for the sake of freedom and trust people to sort out the issues for themselves. I'll just be completely transparent in my writing.

    3. @Anon: Your Bourdain comparison doesn't hold up. Here's the thing. Bourdain doesn't lump himself in with the Jonathan Golds or the Jeffrey Steingartens of the world, he does his own thing which is identifiably different. Bourdain has used his experience to burnish credentials as a bridge for the layman into the world of the chef, while using his notoriety as a device to gain access. Finally, he provides a broader context for what he's doing. He's decidedly not showing up a few times, ordering the menu, and then turning to the camera and saying "El Bulli! Four stars!"

      This, not coincidentally, is the line I urged Josh to take, but that was omitted here. I'll reproduce the relevant part:

      "You express a desire to participate in the industry, and that’s great. Again, more experiences, more voices, more unique insights getting set down are all more fun to read and give a broader impression of the life of the industry. We all know David Driscoll has an underlying need to sell whiskey, but he offers a wealth of insight into that business. If you’re throwing yourself into the role of a brand ambassador, etc, then why not honestly write about that experience? State your connection, but then take your readers inside the role."

      And of course, let's give the context my comment was set in once again. Right before my quoted section:

      "Your penultimate paragraph basically says, “My focus isn’t criticism but connections, and so I am not trying to do the same thing as other bloggers”. Fantastic; the last thing needed is another me-too blog that perfunctorily trudges through the same 30 or so whiskeys as most blogs. And different perspectives are great; who wants to read the same shit everywhere? It’s a big reason why I stopped reading almost all whisky blogs – so many words to say nothing new or of consequence."

      All of this is to say, if you don't want to walk the path that everyone else is walking, then bravo! You may actually have something interesting to say! Now take that more unique perspective AND SHARE IT! This is exactly what I was saying. If Josh wants to do something that isn't going to square with generally well-regarded practice in criticism, then he should find a way to turn that potential weakness into his core strength. The immersion blogging is a far more interesting prospect anyway; as I said a month ago, it's way better than just trudging by rote through the same whiskies that everyone else is, new or old. (I include myself in that problem segment, because who needs to read another review of another batch of Balvenie?)

      There's this subtext floating around that the only legitimate form of whisky content is the critical review. It's not. My entire point is that if you are struggling to make something work in the conventional matter (e.g., a blog trudging through more whisky samples), then look at your struggle and find a way to reinvent around a way that makes that work. Just start writing the brand ambassador shit. Be the bridge. Champion the hell out of the things you believe in. Don't dwell, self-flagellate, and torture yourself in a quest for ethical purity when you don't even want to play that game. And for god's sake, don't try and have it both ways... trying to please everyone is probably the cardinal sin.

    4. So Anon, if you are a blogger who thinks it's fine to review whiskey provided by a producer without disclosing it and you're not "trying to hide something", why are you posting anonymously?

    5. Tim, thanks for expanding and explaining your comments more fully. I tend to ramble, so I attempted to focus this post more narrowly on the ethics of pouring. The section I pulled from your comments supported the gist - but oversimplified your much cooler and more nuanced position. For that I'm sorry.

      Obviously I'm going to do what pleases me - and I love to write and I've been moving towards more immersive experiential posts. But I'm not ready to say "I'm going into industry and that's what I'm writing about now". It's a valid choice. Allison Patel has a hot hand right now with her creation of the Brenne brand of whisky - and she blogs about the experience of creating the brand and now rolling it out and repping it (but she is too busy to write enough for me - I'm hungry for more). But that's not me. I'm going to be doing to be tasting whisky and writing about it. I'm going to have some spin (comparing old and new versions of the same expression - something you've done very effectively in the past - and more head to head match ups). I don't know if I'll "torture myself in a quest for ethical purity" - but I will claim to be writing the truth about the whiskies I taste to the best of my ability. If that's a sin - I'll be sinning.

  3. Very coherent summary of the issue, and I really like how you've re-phrased and expanded on Oliver's six rules...kudos for recognizing where the lines are and how to take steps to avoid conflicts-of-interest. As Anonymous noted, the fact that we're having this sort of discussion is demonstrative of the integrity of the writer...if you weren't as concerned about it, you wouldn't consider this a problem.

    As for the photos, the one you describe as "nervously talking up" makes it look like you're berating them for not knowing how good the whisky is...(I'm assuming it's good, having never tried it).

    1. Dan, thanks. I'm obviously concerned about it. I don't want the fact that I like to pour at events to ruin the perception of my objectivity. I may have to make a hard choice down the line. Time will tell.

      That picture of me pouring G&M for Peter Silver & Brian Silverman does show me looking "angry" (in the words of Johanne McInnis). I assure you I would never berate Peter Silver about anything whisky. He is my mentor and a man whose knowledge of and passion for whisky is utterly astounding. That said - the cask strength Mortlach G&Ms are stellar. They are sherried, rich, and un-chill-filtered. Adding a drop makes them instantly frost milky and explode with complex estery waxy meaty goodness. They aren't cheap - but given the recent news about Diageo's intention to cut off IBs and take Mortlach to the "luxury" sphere - I'll probably seek to put some away. Dr. Silver clearly felt that was the dram of the table (and there were some very good drams on the table that night - including a Glenrothes 30 yo).

  4. Josh, thanks for writing this very thoughtful piece. I echo Tim's statement that there is no single way to blog. What's most important is to do what you've done in this very engaging piece and disclose any potential conflicts. That way, your readers can make up their own minds. Some may care and some may not, but they will be able to make an informed decision.

    1. Indeed, sku. And so I will. Thanks so much for your feedback and engagement her and on Twitter. It means a lot to me. I'm going to to stray into conflicted terrain - but I'm going to be completely transparent at all times. People out there are smart and they'll catch what's real and what's BS. I have no intention in becoming a BS artist so I'll be doing my best to be honest and clear.

  5. Very Nice Post Josh! I do think it's important to be honest and open about it. I agree with Stu here. In the end however it's one's own integrity that matters most. And that integrity will shine through in your reviews. If you would just start echoing the industry people will notice! So go ahead and have fun! It's not your job to write about whisky! That's where we differ from the industry!

    1. Thanks, Jan. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. I'm going to have whisky geeky fun. Let me know if you ever get to town.

  6. Great post, JGF, I was looking forward to what you had to say on all this. I agree with what Tim and Sku said, and they probably expressed their thoughts better than I could, but yeah: what the fuck, go for it. I also agree with MyAnnoyingOpinions to some extant and think you have some tricky waters to navigate, but I think by acknowledging it all and being as transparent as possible, you're on the right track. It's definitely an opportunity to shove some new life into this whole whisky blogger thing, which has definitely become tedious, overdone, and overblown (sorry anonymous blog-starter-upper-guy, but it's the truth...and I'm guiltier of being tedious and overdone than Tim thinks he is).

    A question for you, and not a rhetorical or sarcastic one. Have you considered giving your "employers" a copy of your ethical manifesto as well? You're letting readers know upfront, should you do the same for the companies you occasionally work for? Not for their sake, but for yours. Just curious what the reaction might be. When someone asks if they can send me a sample, the first thing I do is send them my media policy which basically says, "I don't owe you anything and am not for sale, but yeah, if you want, send me your booze." No one's ever not sent me something because of that, but yours is a different situation. It's not a suggestion by any means, just a tepid thought-provoker...

    1. Peter, tricky waters indeed. About sharing the manifesto with PR folks and employers: I certainly do when someone offers to send a sample - and they, of course, expect it. I will definitely do so when offered pouring gigs too - but there it's not about what I'm going to write. Or maybe I'm wrong about that? It's a great idea. I wonder what will happen. I know Raj from Purple Valley Imports is all about the whisky and freedom. It might be quite different with some of the bigger middle layer companies that run distribution, however. I suspect they'll have less of a sense of humor about it. In the end I may have to choose after all.

  7. Perhaps you won't have to chose, others might do that for you. By solidifying your reputation and being upfront it all, you might weed out those that are just looking for another PR whore in a tight dress. I'm not saying that you don't look great in a tight dress (I can only imagine), but those that will accept your "rules" might be the ones you really want to work for/with anyway.

    1. No doubt true. Although the main factor is that I have a poor track record of writing about samples given or events attended. It's that I'm busy and have little time to write. But, you're right. If you're up front with a statement of independence - then that tends to frame the whole conversation. I certainly need to be better about this. And I believe I will. Thanks for emphasizing this aspect, Daddy-O.