No Authority

If you think there's no authority in the world of wine critics, think again.  When Robert Parker releases his Bordeaux ratings every May, the wine world sits in anticipation, waiting with baited breath to see just exactly what they can effectively charge for their bottles.  A higher Parker score equals a higher price tag, so each point can mean the difference between hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars .  If K&L sends out an email to customers and the review of the product reads, "96 points Wine Spectator," you can expect that wine to sell out within the hour.  Thousands of people read the Wine Spectator and a 90+ review can equal big sales for the recipient of such an award.  The world of wine is such a large, complicated, and ever-expanding one, that people like me get paid to interpret it for those without the time to do it themselves.  People defer to authority because wine can be so confusing, so snooty, so high-browed that they don't dare misspeak or misstep for fear of revealing a weakness.  Most people also don't want to waste time or money on a bad bottle, nor do they want to show up at a party with a bottle that needs to be explained.  The bottle needs to speak for itself. 

The authority of these powerful critics extends far beyond points and scores.  Robert Parker's book of Bordeaux is still one of the best reference books on the region.  Clive Coates has an expansive, and all-encompassing tome on Burgundy.  James Laube wrote a great manual on California.  These guys are all-around experts whose opinions are respected as much as their knowledge.  What's interesting to me is that the whisk(e)y world has yet to produce someone as powerful or influencial.  There are and have been some profound figures, no doubt, (Jim Murray, Michael Jackson, John Hansell, Dave Broom, Chuck Cowdery, etc.) but none of them wield the same might with whisk(e)y as someone like Parker does with wine.  If I send an email out about a new whisk(e)y and I put "92 points Malt Advocate" it just doesn't have the same effect.

Part of the reason I think this crossover has not occured is because whisk(e)y has no real vintage.  No one is waiting for the next seasonal release that is based upon growing conditions or weather.  Whisk(e)y bottles don't need to be kept in a cellar to mature either, therefore customers don't need to inquire about the drinking window or ask, "How long should I keep this before opening it?"  Whisk(e)y also has limited producers, distilleries, and production methods, which therefore limits the amount of information available about it.  For example, there are always new wineries or new producers making new wines from different grapes, which results in an ever-expanding universe of information that needs to be processed and deciphered.  You could write about new wines everyday and just scratch the surface of a single region, let alone the entire planet.  The whisk(e)y world is large, but it doesn't grow at the same speed.  It's methods are not constantly in flux and there is not nearly as much interest in how it is produced or the source of its materials.  Because of this, I think that whisky writers and critics have to really dig to continually find something interesting to say.

What do people want to read about when it relates to whisk(e)y?  Wine has its many facets: farming, production, cellaring, and tasting - four distinctly different subjects, each with their own culture of enthusiasts.  What does whisk(e)y have?  Those who like it and those who really like it, that's about it.  The people who really like it are interested in the distillery, understanding the flavors, and learning about why they taste the way they do.  However, I don't know one person (discounting professionals) who cares about the source of the barley, the farming methods of different grains, the bogs containing peat, the quality of the water, the weather surrounding the warehouse, or the wood in the cooperage.  Heck, I'm a professional and my interest in those subjects is mild at best.  That leaves flavor as the one overall interest of those who like whisky (not that it shouldn't be the most important, because it should), but how much can you continually say about flavor?  How long can you read about the taste of whisky before you begin to nod off?

Part of this phenomenon is obviously the result of the information age we live in.  Parker was established before the internet with its limitless blogs and amateur experts dilluted the pool.  We get our information from so many sources these days that it may not be possible for another grand publication to ever establish itself.  Now it just comes down to the simplest possible summary there is: points.  But if points haven't taken over whisk(e)y already, will they ever?  Will there come a day when a customer asks me to look up a review in the Whisky Bible?  That kind of occurance happens every single day concerning wine, but it's never happened once regarding a whisk(e)y - at least not to me.  The whisk(e)y world has no true, established authority.  Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll