Sunday, August 15, 2010

Yellow Whisky Journalism = "Canadian whisky: It's called 'brown vodka' for a reason"

What is "yellow journalism?"  Turn to Wikipedia for a definition and you will read:

Yellow journalism or the yellow press is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers.

I read the following eye-catching headline on the Washington Post site: 

"Canadian whisky: It's called 'brown vodka' for a reason"

Canadian Whisky is brown vodka?  When I saw that headline, I thought, I must read on.  The author of such a provocative headline is a "Mr. Jason Wilson."  Is his article well-researched?  Well reasonsed?  In the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Wilson's article are the following comments:

"Most Canadian whisky (which like Scotch is spelled without the "e") is just awful.  I confirmed that last week, when I did a tasting of the usual Canadian whisky suspects, several purchased in cheap pint-size flasks. I sipped through VO, Canadian Club 6-year-old, Canadian Club 12-year-old, Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, Windsor and the standard Crown Royal (which of course comes in the  nifty purple velvet bag)."

I think Jason Wilson's sample of Canadian whiskies is flawed and of course leads to the inaccurate conclusion.  If I only sample the most mediocre of bourbons like Old Crow and other nasty American whiskies like say Sunnybrook Kentucky Whiskey, it would be quite easy to make the erroneous conclusion that American whisky is revolting. 

With the exception of the standard bottling of Crown Royal, Wilson's whisky sample failed to include middle of the road and great Canadian whiskies like:  Forty Creek Barrel Select, Gibson's Finest Rare 18 years,  Crown Royal XR, Crown Royal Cask No. 16, Glen Breton, Wiser's Small  Batch, Wiser's Very Old 18 years and Wiser's Red Letter.  If he did, he would not have equated the whiskies with brown vodka.

A paragraph later Wilson contradicts himself and admits there are great Canadian whiskies.

"Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on Crown Royal. If I ran out of every bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey in my cabinet, I'd be willing to drink standard Crown Royal, which still feels a little pricey at $25. Crown Royal Black, at around $40, is admirable but also pricey for what you get. Even better, I tasted the special Crown Royal Cask No. 16, aged in cognac barrels.  It's an excellent whisky."

In the very next paragraph, he writes that the old standards like Seagram's VO are, nevertheless, "brown vodka."

"As for the other old standards, including my mom's VO, they tasted thin, dull and out of balance, and with a nose that's too marshmallow-sweet. These whiskies clearly are going for the adjective "smooth" at the expense of everything else: complexity, flavor, richness. They showed why Canadian whisky is referred to as "brown vodka," which I might add is somewhat insulting to vodka."  (emphasis added)

So, on the one hand he is saying bottom shelf Canadian whisky is pretty bad, but the high end stuff is great.  Well, that is not a revelation.  Isn't that pretty much a true statement of any merchandise?  I can buy a subcompact Toyota or a Mercedes S class, which one do you think has the superior ride?

Jason Wilson has little credibility as a writer of spirits in my eyes.  Consider what sparked his interest in Canadian whiskies.  He writes in the 11th paragraph of his article:

"I revisited the category because I attended an interesting panel called "The Many Faces of Canadian Whisky" at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago. It was sponsored by Buffalo Trace Distillerywhich makes some of the finest American whiskeys, including bourbons such as Eagle Rare, Pappy Van Winkle and Blanton's." (emphasis added)

He revisited the Canadian whisky category because he attended a seminar on Canadian whisky that was sponsored by the American bourbon distillery Buffalo Trace Distillery!  A distiller of American whiskey!  Mr. Wilson you really should check your sources before you rely upon them!  Ever heard of bias or lack of objectivity?  Are you new to journalism?

In light of the above, I respectfully submit that Jason Wilson's article fits the definition of yellow journalism:

". . . a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers." 


Jason Debly

Cartoon Credit: Puck US magazine 1888; Nasty little printer's devils spew forth from the Hoe press in this Puck cartoon of Nov. 21, 1888.  Cartoon copyright expired.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012.  All rights reserved.


  1. I just have to agree with you Jason. As I said elsewhere the article says more about the author's sadly uneducated palate than it does about Canadian whisky. Imagine if we were to judge American cuisine solely by eating in America's very most popular restaurants.

  2. Davin, your astute post on another site is worth reprinting here:

    "Now suppose someone who was about to publish a book about fine dining (someone who was seeking lots of publicity) was to visit a handful of the most popular restaurants in the USA – I don’t know what they are, but let’s say IHOP, MacDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Chuck E. Cheese and so on – then write an article panning American cuisine as a category. He’d get his sound bites, people would twitter, blogger would re-post and comment, and some readers would follow the link to his book’s website. But would it demonstrate anything other than his woeful ignorance of American cooking?
    Would it matter to non-Americans that these restaurants, popular as they are, do not represent American cuisine? Heck no, who cares, because now they’d have something else to deride and feel superior about.
    But that is exactly what Jason Wilson has done with Canadian whisky. This article speaks more to Wilson’s sadly incomplete connoisseurship, and his questionable credibility as a drinks authority than it does to the quality of Canadian whisky.
    If his palate has not already been destroyed by a childhood spent drinking Coke, perhaps Wilson may wish to try Crown Royal Limited Edition, Canadian Club 10 year old, Canadian Club 20 year old, Alberta Premium 25 year old, WhistlePig, Forty Creek Double Barrel, Forty Creek Barrel Reserve, Danfield Limited Edition, Wiser’s Legacy, Wisers 18 year old and the like, then re-read his own article and wonder what on earth he, a drinks writer, was thinking putting his name to it."

    By the way readers, Davin has started a great new website devoted to Canadian Whisky. Visit it at the following wed address:

  3. I'm a noob to scotch and I'm looking forward to your posts. Nice work.

  4. Great post Jason, I was thinking the same thing when I read this article. I haven't tried much Canadian and this joker just made me want to go taste a bunch of good ones to prove him wrong.

    (Thanks for the link to the unholy Sunnybrook, too!)


  5. I think Canadian whisky gets a bad name partly because the brands readily available in the US in grocery stores and the like do suck. The regular Crown Royal does not make a good ambassador to this spirit among spirit geeks, as it is bland and boring, like vodka.

    The other problem with Canadian whisky is that there are not strict definitions on how it should be distilled, aged, etc. This creates some uncertainty in the mind of the buyer in whether he really wants to take the chance on buying something that has no AOC type of constraints on taking shortcuts.

    Lastly, we are just finally recovering from all the bad drinking habits that resulted from prohibition. Anything associated with that boondoggle is going to have hard time gaining the trust of American booze hounds again.

    That all said, the article does have a certain air of pretentiousness, and Lord knows, the last thing the world needs is more pretentiousness.

  6. Jason,
    I found this post quite entertaining. Obviously an American distillery is going to want to eliminate a foreign product for competitive reasons. Why doesn't a Canadian whisky brand come in and sponsor a Bourbon convention?... Bottom shelf whisky is typically used for mixing, not sipping anyway...

    1. In fairness, there is a lot of good bottom shelf Bourbon, because Bourbon has strict requirements. Evan Williams Black Label and Old Grandad are examples very cheap but quality bourbon. In fact there is absolutely no Canadian Whisky at the price range of Evan Williams that comes anywhere close to the same quality.

  7. Jason, relax! Your response comes off as a bit of a defensive over reaction to one journalist. By the way, the parent company of Buffalo Trace, Sazerac, imports the Canadian product Rich and Rare into the US so it would make sense that they would host a tasting about Canadian whisky. Other multinational drinks companies like Gallo import much foreign product into the United States. Diageo owns the Dickel brand, that hardly makes Americans upset about their colonial overlords owning their precious whisky makers. Beam owns Alberta, should Canadians not drink that? I don't think so.

    Sadly though the typical Canadian whiskies available in the US are not great in my humble opinion so for a newspaper article geared for the US market I can understand the writer's point of view. I have tried CR Reserve, Wiser's Legacy and Alberta Premium and they are obviously fantastic. Oddly, the most mass produced products are the ones to make out of their own market, think the poor American restaurants you mention, the Jim Beam White Label widely sold overseas, etc. The more refined products unfortunately rarely make it out of their home market, which is why I occasionally plan some whisky buying trips to Canada.

    1. Have you tried Forty Creek Barrel Select? Widely available in California and Texas and elsewhere. Retails around $24 and is excellent.

  8. And here is another article from the New York Times that also mentions negative associations in the U.S. market with Canadian whiskies (the dreaded BV term) as well as the intertwined foreign ownership of many Canadian brands but rightly focuses on positive developments that competition may have caused.

  9. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your opinion. I have received a lot of email on this post of mine and most of it has been supportive. In any case, I welcome opposing ideas like yours to be shown and let the reader judge for themselves. But, I am remain unchanged in my dim view of Jason Wilson's writing.

  10. Canadian Club is good for the price