Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Whisky Blogs - Unbiased or Spirits Industry Influenced?

Before I started this blog, I would conduct a little online research regarding single malts or blends that I was considering buying.  I am sure you, as I have, purchased a scotch or other whisky, took it home, poured a dram, had a sip, and quickly realized the purchase was a huge mistake. 

During my research, I quickly discovered that all single malts and blends are glorious.  None were bad, poor, weak, etc.  They were all just a great ray of sunshine.  How can that be?  Well, it can't be.  I can appreciate that I might dislike intensely a whisky that you like a great deal.  I have no problem with that.  We all have our respective likes and dislikes.  What I have a problem with are reviewers or sites with whisky reviews that praise all whiskies, finding no fault in any.  That, I say is impossible.  So, how do I explain this peculiar phenomenon?

Here's my theory.

Free Samples
A lot of the whisky bloggers are posting reviews of the latest releases from distilleries.  Some of these whisky releases are very expensive.  How do they do it?  Simple, they don't.  I mean they do not purchase the whisky.  They are supplied free samples by the distiller or more properly by the multinational company that owns them, and asked to do a review.  That's like Pablo Escobar handing a kilo of cocaine to Keith Richards and asking him for his thoughts! 

In my view, the trouble with free whisky samples is that it will taint the ability of the reviewer to provide an impartial opinion.  You can't be a little bit pregnant.  If I take a free bottle or whatever, there is a pressure on me to write a positive review or at least take a bad whisky and put a positive spin on it as much as possible or downplay what I dislike.  If a reviewer writes too many negative reviews, he or she jeopardizes access to freebies in the future, as well as invites to exclusive tastings, etc.

So, I asked a couple of these reviewers what their thoughts were and they said I was wrong.  They said that they could give unbiased reviews.  Hmmm.  I don't buy it.  When I posted comments on this subject on other blogs, the bloggers often deleted my comments.  If I posted a comment that I didn't agree with their review of a whisky, my comment got deleted.  There were some exceptions but not many.  All of this makes me wonder if some apparently amateur whisky blogs are not actually owned or heavily subsidized by industry players.  I wonder.  I also find it very interesting where one blogger seems to have multiple websites and presence on Youtube with respect to his/her reviews.  Why so many sites.  How about just one?  Are you in this for the money or for the whisky?

The Multinationals
Whisky is big business.  A multi-billion dollar business.  Marketing is extremely important to maintaining and/or expanding market share.  These multinational drinks companies have no problem supplying free samples to reviewers, inviting them to dinner, maybe paying their expenses to travel to a tasting or even be a consultant for one of their distilleries (it has happened to one reviewer).  It is perfectly legal for these companies to do that.  There is nothing wrong with marketing by whatever means.  I think they are trying to encourage "organic" marketing on the internet, create a "buzz" that causes people to buy their product.  Hey, that's fair for them.  I am a capitalist too.  Go for it! 

The trouble for you and I though is that we don't get the straight goods on the merits and flaws of a whisky if the reviews we read are by reviewers who lack impartiality.  So, when reading another blog or website, how can we tell the reviews or idiotic ramblings (especially true in the case of myself) are of a total outsider of the industry or a person who is very much a part of the industry or essentially "in bed" with the whisky industry?

Here are some tell-tale signs:
  • Reviews of very expensive scotch or other whiskies that are beyond the wallet of the average consumer.  One blog reviewer was reviewing a bottle that cost nearly $1,000.00.;
  • The reviewer is travelling all over the world to whisky tastings in the trendiest places and have the professional photos to back it up.
  • The reviewer seems to review a different whisky for each day of the week.  Something the average joe cannot afford.
  • The website is so slick that you think you are in the embrace of a used car salesman.
  • There are no negative whisky reviews!!!!!!!!!!!! 
So where am I in all this?

Do I make money off this blog?  Ahh no.  To date, nearly a year online, Google owes me a grand total of $9.42.  I am not in this for the money.  Money is generated when a visitor clicks on the advertising.  For example, Amazon has an ad for whisky books on this blog.  If you click on that ad, I will earn around one cent.  Yup, you read that correctly.

Anyway, that is my rant for this evening.  I hope I do not sound to holier-than-thou or sanctimonious because that is not the intent.

Readers, if you read any review on this blog that you do not agree with, fill your boots and give me an earful.  I will not delete your comment.  The only exception is for libelous or profane comments.

Ok that is the rant for tonight.  Comments?  Please, I welcome them. 

Now, I need a drink!



P.S. I guess the bottom line is that you have to consider the perspective of the person writing the review.  What is their association with the whisky industry?

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2010. All rights reserved.


  1. Jason,

    as the owner of the Whisky Israel blog ( which is also my own, i think you have a point there but not all is true. I myself do not get samples from distilleries (i wish i had, but i live in israel, and it's a tiny market dominated by huge customs so they dont count us). I also write only good reviews. whiskies i dont like and i think are shite, i dont bother to blog about. i do know a few other very honest bloggers who do the same. we just dont share bad experiences... maybe we should...

    if u go into my blog you will find only under 100 GBP whiskies i bought or traded with others (ok, one sample i got for free) , and only positive reviews...

    so, you might want to re-consider your theory.


  2. Jason,

    I admire your humility, honesty and your penchant for malt whisky. I share your enthusiasm for both "sticking it to the man," and "keeping it real." The world is full of too many sell-outs these days...everyone wants a free ride, drink, handout, bailout... I'll take your kind of approach over some butt-smoocher any day. I like your blog and respect your opinions. I would also like to hear your take on the Glendronach 12 when you get a chance, before I drop $50-some dollars on that bad boy.

    Cheers to you and others that you may inspire.


  3. I actually agree with your theory having worked with PR people in other ventures not related to whisky. It is very difficult not to be persuaded or blinkered when on a press trip or receiving samples or little extras. Anyone that tells you otherwise is really a fool. Why do companies spend so much on PR, marketing and enticing reviewers if it didn't have some tangible benefit?

  4. Great Post. As a new whisky blogger, I've wondered about some of these same things. For myself, I figured my friends would prefer me to write about whisky rather than having to listen to me ramble on about it all the time. Any perks I'll get are wholly unexpected...hell, at this point, wholly unanticipated. I think whisky companies are doing a good job using all whisky blogs, scrupulous or not, to generate buzz these days. Ardbeg is a perfect example. They do great, fresh marketing and have a consistently great product, they've made good use of all us bloggers getting frenzied over their every release, and obviously have become the darling of the single malt crowd (that is, until their website gets overloaded on release day).

    Great blog, look forward to more.


  5. Hi Peter! As a new whisky blogger, trust me, it will only be a matter of time before the marketing reps of the major distillers start contacting you with "news" items about their latest releases. Some if they get to know you will mail you a memory stick with their promotional info and yet others will offer to send samples.

    It's all very flattering when you are on the receiving end, but the trouble is that once you accept the whisky, you are no longer truly an independent scotch/whisky reviewer. Some bloggers may think "So what? I blog for fun and if I get a few freebies, what's the big deal?" For me, the big deal is your readers are fed corporate sponsored propaganda, not the truth.

    Take for example, Johnnie Walker Blue, ever read a negative review of it? I haven't. It's all positive and mostly a repitition of the tasting notes found on the Johnnie Walker site. Fact is it's a nice blended scotch whisky but it is a total rip-off in terms of price. The high price has more to do with rare whiskies of now defunct distilleries that go into the blend than the flavor profile. This is not just my opinion. I know a lot of people who feel the same way. Some of those people operate liquor stores, bars or work in the scotch industry itself. For me or anyone to say Johnnie Walker Blue is good value is really iresponsible. As I mentioned in the post, I used the internet to research various brands before buying but it didn't seem to prevent purchase mistakes because every review was so damn positive.

    Gal, nice to hear from you. You do make a valid point that had not occured to me. A lot of bloggers only review whiskies that they have enjoyed. One's they dislike never get mentioned. That's a shame. I am sure people who read your blog would appreciate hearing your views of disappointing whiskies. Don't hold back buddy, let it all hang out.

    As for my theory that freebies fuels a lot of bloggers reviews and influences the reviews, let's consider some analogies in other industries. For example, consider the pharmaceutical salesman with a major multinational drug company. What is his function? To enhance sales of his particular drug he represents. How does he do that? He takes doctors golfing, fishing, sailing, even drinking and fits in a light weight seminar down in the Caribbean that they can enjoy, with all expenses picked up by the pharma company. This is done to influence the prescribing habits of the physicians.

    Similarly, the multinational drinks company that calls up a reviewer and says they have a 25 or 40 yr old single malt release coming out and would like to send a sample, along with promotional material to be used in the blog post are attempting to influence the reviewer. Can the reviewer call a spade a spade and say he doesn't like it. Yeah. Maybe, but if he does it too much the friendly company may cut him off from future freebie drams. . . . that is why I suspect you do not read hardly any negative reviews of scotch and whisky.

    Oh yeah, and in reply to the anonymous poster who referenced Glendronach 12, I will try and do a review of it shortly. I have had it at a couple of whisky tastings and found it to be very similar in tasting to a good blended scotch. What I mean is that with single malts there is often a "crispness" or "clarity" of flavors. This particular single malt has smooth, sherried flavors without bite or clarity. It was enjoyable but not great. It is also one of the principal ingredients in Teacher's Highland Cream. The other core single malt is Ardmore. Anyway, I'll have to do a proper review sometime.


  6. Hi Jason,

    Unfortunately, as you pointed out, this is an issue with not just whisky, but with things of far more impact: drugs, food, politics...

    Thanks for giving us your own opinion.

  7. Hey Jason,

    It's an interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to write it (and obviously, think through it so well). I'm also a fan of your reviews, so thanks for taking the time to write those.

    I'm one of those amateur bloggers - a few friends and I write at We also have received and reviewed a few samples - some we positively reviewed, some that we reviewed more negatively.

    I only speak for myself in this comment, but we've had many, many internal discussions about accepting samples and posting reviews of those things. We obviously have decided to do it, but only if we review it just as we review every other dram or whisky.

    For me what it amounts to is the chance to try something before I buy it (if I buy it) and the ability to try more whiskies on the cheap. Even with the very few samples we have received, I posted some less than glowing thoughts on a whisky, but I did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. When it comes down to it, there are very few whiskies that are released that won't be "decent." Even fewer released which could qualify as "bad."

    As for your Johnnie Blue question, the only thing you'll probably read negatively about it is its price (which is just not anywhere near where it should be considering what you can get for that money in single malt). However, I don't think the reason for all the positive reviews of the taste have to deal with people being aligned with the whisky industry, rather, the whisky itself is a decent and tasty whisky. It's just very overpriced, and unless I got a screaming deal on it, I would never buy it.

    Also - one thing that all bloggers should do in every post about something that they have received for free is acknowledge that. It's actually the law now, and something that we have done the very few times we received some samples.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts. And your reviews. I have found that my tastes tend to align very well with yours and I love reading your notes.

  8. Jason,
    A friend of mine turned me on to your blog and I've since enjoyed it greatly. We apparently have similar palates since I've never been disappointed with a bottle I bought after having one of your reviews "seal the deal" (JW Gold and Glenfiddich 15 being the most recent examples).

    You probably get this a lot since there's already a similar comment above, but I'd like to hear your take on Glenrothes Select Reserve. It's like no other scotch I've tasted, and not having a very advanced vocabulary of tasting notes, would like to know what makes it taste so "weird." I see one of their other offerings is described as having a lanolin note so maybe it's that. It tastes like funky barnyard to me, and not in a good way.


  9. Hi RS! I have not tried the Glenrothes Select Reserve. Something that tastes "weird" and has "funky barnyard" notes could mean you have obtained a bad bottle or worse, the stuff tastes like that all the time. Unfortunately, where I live, I cannot purchase it. Maybe try it from another bottle like in a bar and if you are still getting the same impressions, trust your judgment and drop it like a hot potatoe. There are too many great scotches to explore that you don't need to waste your time on any weird tasting drams.

    I do get lots of requests usually via email as to what I think of this or that scotch and am happy to reply.

    Glad you like the Glenfiddich 15yrs.



  10. Hi, Jason,

    I came across your site not too long back looking for a review of the Balvenie Double Wood. I've greatly enjoyed your writing.

    This post is very interesting to me. I write for a music blog, and we get tons and tons of free CDs. We can review something we got on our own, but almost everything that gets a review is something that came to the magazine for free.

    Gal's comment is basically the one I came here to make: We are very serious when it comes to the value of our opinions, but we don't publish negative reviews. We don't have space or time to write up everything we actually *love*, much less the ones we dislike. (And most of the sites I've seen that review everything do very low-quality work overall.)

    Obviously there's a lot more music out there than Whiskies (I mean, there aren't 70 new bottlings of whiskey to pick from every week, right?), and whisky is a heck of a lot more expensive than a CD. But even so, if there's only so much time and space in the world, why use it on things you dislike?

    So although your first several tell-tale signs are most likely dead-on, the last is more of a reason to just be a little wary.

    As for the free samples, we had the benefit of descending from a long-standing print magazine with a good industry reputation (which also did not print negative reviews), so I couldn't say whether we would have been doing all positive reviews in the beginning to buffer our rep.

    -Jon Patton

  11. Hi Jon!

    For me, I buy all the scotch I review, and so, when I pay hard earned money and get an inferior product, I want people to know. Why? So that they are informed a bit.

    This blog can be thought of as my personal diary of my whisky purchases and reflections. I receive a lot of email from readers, I mean a lot, who are delighted to read a review that is negative. They too have tried terrible whiskies and would like to be given a heads-up before encountering anymore, because they like me, pay for it out of their own pocket.

    There are a lot of great whiskies and some bad ones. I usually buy a couple bottles a month. They all get reviewed in the same manner. If they are nice, you will know, and if they are not, you will know too.

    Some sites choose to publish only positive reviews. That's their choice. This site post both positive and negative. I think in part because the aim of this site is not so much to sell you something, increase ratings, traffic or whatever webmasters stay up at night worrying about.

    In any case, thanks for taking the time post your message. Much appreciated.


  12. It's interesting to hear that some people don't write about bad whisk(e)y. I for one, am more interested in what NOT to buy. Of course I want to hear about what is good, and there may be some that people don't care for that I love, but when something is genuine crap, I really want to know so that I can save the dough and avoid it. Unless your an art critic, your role at the end of the day, at least in part, is to be a trustworthy consumer advocate.

    P.S, it's great to see that you made the connection of spirits multi-nationals to big pharma etc...It's really important to always keep that in mind.

    1. I liken the value of negative scotch reviews to assistance in crossing a mine field in the battle between your hard earned dollars and the corporate multinational trying to get you to part with it. A bad whisky is a real disappointment.

      Some of the big companies have misbehaved. In May of this year (2012), Diageo, a competition had decided to award a small beer producer with a trophy, but Diageo (multinational drinks company that owns Red Stripe and many other beer brands) found out, it threatened to pull all future sponsorship of the event. The event organizer buckled even though the trophy had already been engraved with the tiny brewery name on it, and gave the award to a Diageo rep. Next day he apologized and the brewer went public and Diageo eventually apologized. You can read about it here: