Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Ethics - The Freebie Game

Imagine the fuss and the flames that we would see if it came out that a prominent restaurant critic was getting comped meals. Receiving free meals would violate the code of journalistic ethics of every major US newspaper, and the critic would almost certainly be fired and relegated to a life of shame. But in the whiskey world, nearly all professional journalists get boat loads of free whiskey. Some even go on sponsored trips to distilleries. Mind you, I'm not talking about lowly bloggers here, though the biggest of them get regular samples as well. I'm talking about the biggest names in whiskey journalism. Yet while there are discussions of side issues around whiskey ethics, I've rarely seen anyone question the practice of receiving free samples, and I don't know of any professional reviewers (or even any bloggers) who refuse them.

Is this a problem? Well, the reviewers will tell you that it is most definitively not. They say that these freebies have absolutely no impact on their reviews. For the most part, I believe them. The big name reviewers in the industry strive for honesty. I can't imagine most of them purposefully bending scores so as not to offend those who provide their whiskey, but is there a subconscious tug on them when they review free whiskey? Most politicians will tell you, with just as much righteous indignation, that campaign contributions have no impact on their votes, but we don't seem so quick to give them the benefit of the doubt.

There are a number of arguments in favor of free whiskey for reviewers, many of which make some sense. First, the most prominent whiskey reviewers have a symbiotic relationship to the whiskey companies. The companies need them to review their whiskey as much as the reviewers need samples. This produces a balance of power that allows reviewers to review honestly without fearing that the companies will turn off the spigot of free whiskey. While this may be true for the biggest names in whiskey journalism, it certainly is not for the smaller players and bloggers, many of whom get the freebies as well. And even if this theory is true, does that make it ethical? Again, I analogize to food critics, the best of whom enjoy a similar symbiosis. A Manhattan restaurant could not afford to spurn the New York Times, but it would still raise enormous ethical questions if the Times critic accepted free meals.

Second, one could argue that whiskey samples are no different than the pre-publication editions of books or pre-release films that are sent to critics for review. Unlike a restaurant meal, those things can't be changed to suit the critics; it is what it is. But it seems as though whiskey may lie somewhere in between the restaurant meal and the pre-release novel. In a recent blog posting, John Hansell raised the issue of critics reviewing samples before they were completed for bottling, and there was at least one example of a company making changes to a whiskey after John tasted it (to John's great dismay). Along those lines, I've often wondered if reviewers sometimes get special, choice samples for review, particularly of single barrel offerings that can vary quite a bit from batch to batch. In the comments section of Hansell's post, Serge Valentin of WhiskyFun notes that he has received samples at higher abvs than the standard bottling, which is pretty scandalous. If critics aren't basing their reviews on the same whiskey available to consumers, that presents a huge issue not just of ethics but of the value of the reviews in general.

The third argument in favor of freebies is that it benefits us as whiskey consumers. It helps us to have professionals reviewing a wide range of whiskey, and most of them just couldn't do it if they had to pay for it all themselves. This very practical explanation is probably the strongest argument for freebies. I want to hear reviews of a wide range of whiskeys including those so expensive I would never even be able to dream of owning them. But does that negate any potential ethical issues around industry freebies?

Many bloggers disclose when they review free samples (which is legally required in the US), but is this enough? I appreciate knowing when someone reviews a free sample, but the practice is so widespread that I assume that nearly all major reviewers receive everything they sample for free.

I'm a minor blogger, so I don't bathe in the bath of free whiskey. I have received a small number of free whiskeys in the past (really small, like two or three), but I haven't reviewed them on the blog.

So what say you dear readers? Is it appropriate that the gears of whiskey journalism are greased with free samples? Is this a massive industry-wide ethical lapse, a necessary evil or simply the way business is done and not something that we should worry about? Would any major reviewer dare to say that they would no longer accept free samples? Should they?


Greg said...

Sku - take a guess at what I think! :) I too poked a little at industry reviewers and while you were more diplomatic in your approach to the question, I think it's still a very valid observation. You know the blind tasting that's going on right now so my impression is that someone who put's up their hard earned money to purchase a whiskey, sample it and write about it has not loyalty to anything but their own palate. I would argue as hard as a industry reviewer might argue that there's no influence, I question that going to the point you made at the top of your post. As you've seen, 12 guys blind tasting a bourbon produces a much more realistic impression of the whiskey than a single reviewer tasting a free sample.

sku said...

Thanks for your comments Greg. I definitely had your EWSB tasting in mind as I was writing this (and it may have been your theory that some reviewers get the honey of the honey single barrels). I'll probably do a more detailed write up of the tasting in a few weeks as well.

Steffen said...

Paid trips to release events and paid trips to distilleries makes me very suspicious about reviews and opinions from whiskyjournalists

Especially when they praise products like it's the new god of the whiskyworld


Chuck Cowdery said...

All a critic has is his or her credibility. Anyone who risks that for two free nights at the Frankfort Hampton Inn is an idiot and will be found out soon enough. Writing about whiskey, especially American whiskey, is just not a viable activity without the industry-provided samples and trips. The restaurant critic example is a poor one or, more to the point, a loaded one because it's the exception, not the rule. Paying for a few meals is pretty cheap integrity. The enthusiast magazines themselves are no different as they depend on the industry for advertising revenue. It comes down to the personal integrity of the individual and that is a very valid question. but it's not healthy for hobbyists to take cheap shots at professionals, smearing them with innuendo. In the hands of a credible commentator, samples and trips, and the access they represent, are good for the reader.

sku said...

Thanks for your comments Chuck. I'm certainly not above the occasional cheap shot, but I'm not sure what you're referring to here. I thought the issue was worth raising so I raised it. The arguments I made defending free samples were not intended as straw man arguments. Indeed, I find several of them fairly convincing, but I still think the discussion is worthwhile, and it's not a bad thing to raise questions about these practices, even if they have benefits. And keep in mind, it's not only professional journalists who receive free samples, but lowly hobbyist bloggers as well.

Jason Pyle said...

Sku, I think this is a great topic. Greg wrote a nice post also recently as he's noted. My response resulted in a 4900 character diatribe that exceeded Greg's posting limit. : ) I ended up emailing it to him directly so we could discuss, which we did. I'm rarely brief, but I'll try to be as brief as possible. I'm a "little guy" in the whiskey blogging world as you very well know, but I do a lot of reviewing and rating. So I thought I might just share my thoughts.

I buy 90+% of my review subjects with my own money. And I do it primarily because I love whiskey and I think I have a pretty darn good palate (pardon horn tooting). I couldn't even tell you how many reviews I've actually posted, much less the additional ones I do, but it's a reasonably high number. I'd venture to say 3-4 are from samples supplied by a distiller. Most recently I did a review that came from a sample. I rated it highly, it was fantastic, but not because it was a sample, but because it was just really great stuff.

But how do you know that I didn't rate it well because it was simply a sample? As I told Greg, I don't think you can know for sure. That's the million dollar question right there. However, what someone can do is check out what a reviewer does on a consistent basis. Have you tried something they reviewed highly and were rewarded with a good whiskey? Has this happened consistently? Are the "offs" few and far between? Did you agree with their assessment of whiskey you had tried before? Did you learn something about a whiskey or a distillery or a category? By watching a review did a noted aroma or flavor, that previously eluded you, resonate once it was mentioned. This is stuff that happens over time and builds trust.

I view these kinds of things as the only link I have to any sort of credibility with a visitor. Sure, perhaps here and there a visitor and I don't agree on a whiskey. It happens, it's a subjective topic (which is why Greg is correct - you know what you like better than anyone). The only way to really get a feel for a reviewer is through time and assessing them. I can't speak for the "big boys", but I just can't see how it's worth ruining credibility of the people that keep you in existence for a sample bottle of whiskey that's here this fall and next days news tomorrow. That isn't to say it's not happening.

And I also fail at "brief". Cheers!

sku said...

Thanks for your always thoughtful comments Jason. I really don't think people intentionally alter reviews based on freebies. I worry more about a subtle, subconscious impact that goes not just into the content of a review but into the choice of whether or not to review.

It's probably even more relevant for us bloggers (damn hobbyists!) than for the professionals who get tons of samples and upon whom the industry depends for reviews.

sam k said...

I can see both sides of the issue. If the reviewer doesn't accept samples, much less whiskey will be reviewed and less information will be available to the public. If they allow their review to be swayed by the influence, no matter how unintentionally, no one comes out ahead.

I think the restaurant reviewer analogy holds up...a couple of meals a week in a large city can add up quickly, much like a couple of bottles of whiskey could.

Trips are a different story. They are essentially paid vacations that have more power to influence the reviewer while in the jaws of the distillery's PR department. Again, not necessarily bad, but with more potential to affect the outcome.

John Hansell, in a contentious blog post last year, announced that he'd no longer accept paid trips on behalf of distilleries. Still the only one I'm aware of who is this sensitive to the issue.

Me, I'd LOVE some free whiskey!

Chuck Cowdery said...

You, Sku, and many others here are painting with a very broad brush and making an unhealthy distinction between 'big guys' and 'little guys' which is not really valid in the sense that there is very little actual difference. There is a difference between people who do it casually, as a hobby, and who therefore don't have very much at stake, and people who are trying to do it for a living.

I can assure you that everyone who tries to make a living at it struggles to do so. Whiskey writing is not a cushy job despite certain definite perks.

You also should concede that the 'problem,' such as it is, is entirely theoretical. There have been no allegations of actual conflicts of interests. I have never heard of the credibility or integrity of any significant whiskey writer being questioned.

Rather than discussing a potential problem where none actually exists, I'd rather discuss whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Camper English has some interesting takes on this. The comments following are also interesting.


Chuck Cowdery said...

And I regularly get accused of bias and unfairness from all sides, so I must be doing something right.

sku said...

Chuck, I fully admit that the line between journalists and hobbyists, which you alluded to in your first post, gets blurry, but there are lines. There are people who are professional journalists and who write entirely in a commercial context (Jim Murray, John Hansell) and others who have no financial interest whatsoever in their whiskey writing (your truly). That being said, there are many people in between and there are high profile bloggers who have great influence without any financial or commercial interest.

I hope you're not taking this personally. I absolutely understand that whiskey writing is a thankless task, and I'm grateful for people like you who do it anyway. I wouldn't know squat about whiskey if I hadn't been tutored by you and people like you who take the time to write intelligently about whiskey.

As a blogger, this is an issue I think a lot about. Can we maintain our inegrity if we accept samples? Clearly, as Sam indicates above, others have thought about it as well, since John Hansell instituted a policy of no longer accepting distillery sponsored trips.

You're absolutely right that no one is being accused of any conflict. I had no intention of accusing anyone of anything. There is no one I'm secretly thinking of or trying to allude to who I think takes samples and alters his or her scores accordingly. That wasn't the point of the post.

I do think that this is an interesting question of journalistic ethics, and I think the intriguing comments by you and others show that it's something that whiskey writers are actively thinking about. And hey, if you can't engage in some philosophizing and navel gazing on a blog, then where can you?

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve et al., I think any kind of bias shows sooner or later. Also that there are many different kinds of bloggers and journalists (some being both) with different kinds of motivations that, in turn, translate into several kinds of codes of ethics. To each his own.
You can do a lot of things with a blog. Have fun, show off, try to find a job, do some PR, seek pocket money, advertise, drink for free... or just nothing.
In the end of the day, it all shows and it's all very fine.
Santé to all!

Steffen said...

If a whisky is great, I reckon you will have to review it as great if you got it free :-)

I get suspicious when I see reviews or remarks about a whisky that are very positive and the reviewer are on paid trips and visits. Combined with trusted reviews from friends who says the products are crap. It doesnt take long to find out who are sources to trust and who are not. This will always be a personal thing who I like, but I actually think most bloggers and online reviewers are doing a great job


Chuck Cowdery said...

"Can we maintain our inegrity if we accept samples?"

The question is not whether or not samples actually corrupt. A person whose integrity can be bought for the price of a bottle of whiskey has no integrity to begin with. The issue is whether or not accepting samples and other gratuities creates the appearance of a conflict and thus harms the perception of the writer by readers.

Having integrity is a matter of the individual's values, not of the temptations to which he or she is exposed. If you have integrity, the freebies are irrelevant. If you don't, you don't. The freebies have little to do with it either way. That's why I consider this a non-issue.

I accept samples, trips, and just about anything else anyone wants to give me, for which I promise absolutely nothing.

Most of the people who do this have the same policy I do. Let's exclude, without prejudice, people who aren't offered freebies. I know of very few people who refuse them and very few publications or other outlets that require their writers to refuse them, because I know of very few publications that will buy your whiskey and pay for your trips for you.

The Wall Street Journal is one that does. I can't name another.

As for John Hansell, he made the point that his decision was a personal one. The magazine he publishes has no policy regarding its writers accepting stuff. It doesn't pay travel or other expenses for its freelance contributors. He still accepts advance release samples.

I have never had a marketer or producer propose or even imply a quid pro quo. I've never had a marketer or producer cut me off or threaten to do so because I wasn't friendly enough. That's not how it works. They hope the freebies will get your attention. They hope that if you invest a couple days on a trip you'll try to get some value from it by writing something publishable. That's how it works.

On this subject I'm always reminded of what House Speaker Sam Rayburn said to Lyndon Johnson on the occasion of Johnson's election to the United States Senate. "Son, if you can't take their money, drink their whiskey, fuck their women, and still vote against them, then you have no business in the United States Senate."

sku said...

Chuck, I thought I recalled you writing that you once were sent a several hundred dollar gift card from a distillery, and that you didn't keep the money (I think you said you gave it to charity). Clearly, if I'm remembering correctly, you are drawing lines here to. What was it about that gift that you thought went too far to the extent that you didn't feel like you could just pocket it?

Greg said...

Steve, I'll be provocative yet again. What makes any industry reviewers palate any better than say yours, mine or Jasons? I would argue, it doesn't. Let me pick on John since he's very visible in the whiskey world. I've argued, as Jason pointed out, my palate tells me more than any reviewer will. Does John enjoy the same flavor components in a whiskey that I do? Maybe, maybe not. I'm posting on my own blog reviews done by a bunch of whiskey nerbs tasting in the blind. No other input expect the whiskey itself. It's not free, they had to pay for it and they have no idea what it is, not the distillery, age, mashbill or proof. I would say that a review done by John is less compelling than a review done by a group of folks tasting in the blind. By removing all external influence (freebie and label), the only thing you have left of what your palate tells you.
I'll add one final note and I hesitated adding it since I can't reveal the details. An industry reviewer was sent two samples to try and they were blind. The reviewer gave one sample high marks and the other low marks. This was done privately between the reviewer and the whiskey provider. Problem was, the two samples contained the same whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Cowdery said...

Yes, I gave the $200 Visa gift card to charity and told the distillery not to do that again. They apologized and said it was done by mistake. The difference? The samples and trips help me do my job. The cash was a straight-up gift. Even though there was no quid pro quo you know there will be eventually. It's a problem that can be solved with common sense. No one needs to get on a high horse about it.

Reid said...

I love the smell of whiskey in the morning!!

I really don't take issue with folks getting free whiskey, trips or bourbon balls but I do struggle with why the top 2-3 whiskey reviewers don't do double blind tastings (as far as I know)?? This has always baffled me as double blind tastings would remove any question of bias in my mind. So what is the downside of double blind reviews?? I hear a lot of hemming and hawing when I ask the question of folks but have yet to get an answer that holds water..IMO

While I don't think any reviewer feels they are biased I sense they are, just like the rest of us. I tend to question the quality of a non - blind review when a financial interest exists between the whiskey producer and the reviewer. How many bad reviews can a reviewer toss out before the information stream from the producers begins to dry up? How many bad reviews have we actually seen from reviewers...? I sense most of them just don't get published...JMO however.

Taking a quick look at one of the major reviewer’s ratings for American Whiskey one would find the following...

180 Reviews

13% rated 95+ Classic
36% rated 90+ Outstanding
25% rated 85+ Very Good
17% rated 80+ Good
8% rated 70+ Average
1% rated 60+ Below Average

One American whiskey out of 180 reviewed was rated below average. From my perspective I find it hard to believe that 49%, 89 whiskeys rated outstanding or better and 74% rated very good or better. Please note that this was just a quick observation, not a scientific study.

As a quick comparison a group of "hobbyists" I know of have tasted 38 whiskies, many of which appeared on the above professional reviewers list, and came to the following ratings-

95+ Classic 0%
90+ Outstanding 2%
85+ Very Good 39%
80+ Average 42%
70+ Fair - Poor 17%

So what is up here... the hobbyists don't know classic and outstanding whiskey when it hits them in the face?? Do the professionals skew the scores higher, cherry pick whiskey and just flat out toss out poor reviews?

I feel the real "professionals" provide tremendous value to those of us who are passionate about whiskey by providing information and education. On the other hand I have little faith in their ratings. All this talk about integrity and lack of bias is just talk....they know how to take the bias out... the question is why the reluctance to do it?


fussychicken said...

When you buy a new car, do you read consumer reports or the hundreds of other magazines that are supplied by the manufactures?

Anonymous said...

Recently came upon the issue yet again myself.

You've established your voice and your conviction. All the free whiskey can't change that. And any coverage of gratis booze will be done with your tried and true opinion. So I say: why not? Also I say: after 2 servings, offer freebies as give-aways to those more needy of free EtOH.

fussychicken: when I buy a new car, I test drive said car by myself. No one's letting me "test drive" Buffalo Trace single cask.