More From the Mailbag

Here are some more repeat questions from the Spirits Department inbox:

David - Do you think there's a conflict of interest being both a retailer and a blogger?

Good question! Let me say this: those who feel that retailers are automatically free from criticism or are less responsible than independent blogs or publications are absolutely crazy. Retail is a neverending onslaught of people giving you feedback about your service--day and night--either in the store, via the telephone, or in an email.  We are the people dealing directly with the consumer every single day! As a blogger and a retailer, I do double-duty. Hell, I spend 15% of my day answering questions from people who have no intention of ever shopping at K&L. If a blogger says he likes a whisky and someone buys a bottle based on that opinion, the worst thing that could happen to that particular blogger is an unhappy email or disagreeable comment from the person who feels the information was inaccurate. If I say I like a particular whisky and a customer buys the bottle based on my opinion, that person will bring that bottle right back to the store and demand a refund if the selection doesn't work out. If our reviews and opinions are not accurate, we lose customers, which means we lose money and possibly our jobs. If we mislead people, we deal with the resulting wrath face-to-face, not anonymously via some made-up handle on a message board.

Ultimately, we are the people who deal with unhappy drinkers when a bottle doesn't work out, even if they bought the bottle based on Robert Parker's review. If you think unhappy shoppers are writing the Wine Spectator asking for a direct refund on the bottle they purchased, they're not; they're going back to the store where they bought the bottle, no matter whose opinion influenced the decision. That means we're apologizing for a "bad" bottle even when we didn't recommend it. You can imagine what happens when we're directly responsible. It's the same argument with the comments on the blog. I laugh myself silly every time someone says the lack of a comment field shields me from criticism. You think people don't call, email, or walk into the store where I work? You think people don't complain directly to us about mistakes or misinformation when we get it wrong? It's tough to say there's a conflict of interest in whisky reviewing when the person recommending you the bottle is 100% liable for your overall satisfaction.

David - Why do you think Jim Beam gets left out of serious discussions about Bourbon by collectors and enthusiasts?

That's a great question. I don't think it's solely a matter of quality because most of their higher-end expressions (Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden) are tasty, reasonably-priced, and sell very well. People like Jim Beam whiskey. I think the reason they don't get more love from the insiders is due to their size. When you're the biggest producer of anything it's difficult to tap into the niche market. Big, commercial rock bands don't get much love from insider music fans. Big, commercial movies don't get much love from independent film geeks. There's no way to be cool with the discerning crowd that prides itself on its eclectic and out-of-the-ordinary taste when you're the ubiquitous brand.

I'd say it has something to do with that, but I definitely know a few people who feel like Beam's whiskies are a bit lackluster when compared to other brands. Personally, I'd say any gap in quality has shrunk significantly over the last year, however. I've noticed a decline of quality in a number of noteworthy brands, while tasting a few over-achieving Beam whiskies. The Knob Creek Single Barrel, for example, I thought was much better than I ever expected it to be.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll