Human beings in general seem to love order (or maybe it's just an American thing). I don't mean "order" as in law and order, or a system of checks and balances, but rather as in succinct, reliable, rules-of-thumb that are the end-all, be-all answers to things. Eat this and you'll be healthy. Eat that and you'll be overweight. Follow these rules and you'll get into heaven. Break these rules and you're going to hell. The idea that there may not be one clear-cut way of doing things in life is enough to send most people into convulsions. Most of the time when I listen to people argue, or read antagonistic comments online, it stems from a disagreement as to the way things work. People cling to what they know--their experiences and beliefs acquired through living--like security blankets, and if you take that blankee away from them, forcing them to consider another point of view, it can be scary.
Every day it seems that someone has a new theory about how our bodies react to carbs, fat, and processed sugar. Or a new theory about the best forms of exercise. Or a new idea about how to raise your kids. Or a new concept about keeping your relationship exciting. Some of these people seem to write as if their answer is the one correct choice. They publish guide books to help the general public understand why their answers are correct. I get a bit nervous, however, when people look to someone else's rules for their own well-being. Not everyone interprets these theories as a guideline or advice, but rather as answers. A final truth. Some followers internalize these concepts and proselytize with blind fury, mainly because (I think) the idea that these answers may not be definite scares the hell out of them (that or they just like to pick fights, but that's an entirely different conversation). The more we repeat these theories and argue in their favor, the more comfortable we feel about their validity.
The wine and spirits world, because so much of it is based on opinion and personal taste, is constantly searching for new ways to objectify things and organize it all into one tidy little package. We want to simplify whisky into categories and geographical regions that make sense. In the Highlands they do it this way. On Islay, they do it that way. Many wine regions in the world have laws that force producers to keep things traditional, but even within these confines there can be a gigantic variance between the final products. I have been asked repeatedly over the last few years if I would be interested in writing a book--both by publishers and friends who have experience in the industry. My answer has always been "no," simply because I don't believe that there's anything else to add to the genre. We know where whisky is being made. We know where grapes are being grown. To try and summarize what I know about wine and spirits into a book is pointless because it would be outdated from the moment I was finished writing it.
There are five whisky regions in Scotland: the Highlands, Speyside, the Islands (and Islay), the Lowlands, and Campbeltown. You would be doing yourself a great disservice, however, by trying to understand Scottish whisky in these terms. None of these regions has any system of order. Producers are free to make whatever type of whisky they want and many of them do. While there are historical precedents and traditional practices associated with each region, the industry is not centered around these constraints. Peated whisky comes from the Islands? That's true. But it also comes from Ardmore, Benriach, Braeval, Edradour, Bladnoch, and Springbank--none of which are Island producers. That's not to say there's no reason to learn about the geography of Scotland and the history behind each region, it's just to say that you're never going to be able to summarize single malt whisky in that manner. Even within the workings of a single distillery there can be a large variety of different flavors, so the only way to understand a whisky is to taste each one and evaluate it on its own specific character.
But who has time to do that? Who has time to taste every wine from Bordeaux in 2010, then go back and taste each wine again in 2011, 2012, and 2013? No one, except for wine professionals, of course, and that's why these professionals write their summaries and guides: to save you time, money, and trouble. However, all three of those nuisances you're being relieved of are what build an understanding of wine and whisky. Tasting repeatedly creates experience, which allows for context, which results in wisdom. If there's one thing I've learned from tasting wine, it's that "good vintages" and "bad vintages" don't exist. Competent producers, however, do exist--those who are able to make good wine under a variety of conditions. Show me a "bad" vintage and I'll give you a great wine from it. You just have to know where to look. Avoiding a vintage all together because it's "not good" is some of the worst advise you can follow, yet it's something guide books will print to help quickly summarize and contrast vintages from one another. That's just one example of how a synopsis can be misleading.
There are great books out there about wine and spirits, but I personally find the best ones focus on history and tradition, rather than education and evaluation. I'm not a historian, however, and I'm not an expert on the cultures of other countries, so I've got no place publishing anything about those subjects. All I can do is offer my own personal thoughts about individual producers and explain how what they do affects flavor. We're living in a world with fewer and fewer boundries. You can buy Bourbon from Massachussetts. You can buy peated single malt from Oregon. You can drink gin from Barcelona, or Bordeaux-style blends from New Zealand. As culture continues to permeate the far reaches of the globe, traditions continue to change, expand, or morph into something new. Although it may be comforting to attempt an understanding based on clear concepts of evaluation, it's less and less the case that these evaluations hold true.
I find that a blog is a great way to stay current, up-to-speed, and in touch with the public. It's also free for anyone to read. There's so much to know and so much that I don't. I can't imagine ever being in a position where I'll be able to break spirits down into a simple and easy-to-understand lesson. If anything, I like constantly reminding people to forget the confines of what they think is true and open their minds to new ideas. It might be scary and daunting, but it's also exhilarating.