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?