Monday, February 20, 2012

The Reading Spirit: Whisky Periodicals

Last year was a big year for whiskey periodicals in which change was afoot for many of the major whisky publications. The role of "old media" is shifting in every sector and that includes whisky magazines. Reviews and industry news used to be the focus of spirits publications, and while they are still a big part of the whisky periodicals, more is needed. With a quarterly or bi-quarterly publication competing with hundreds of bloggers, news is inevitably stale by the time an issue is published. With the limited edition whiskies so popular these days, even a review can easily be stale, the bottles impossible to find, once the magazine containing the review lands in your mailbox. To be relevant today, an old-school whisky magazine needs to offer more than can be found on the thousand and one blogs: in-depth articles, real reporting and insider information.

While these magazines give out their own awards, no one takes the time to evaluate and recognize the periodicals that specialize in our favorite spirit. To that end, here is a quick summary of the best of the whisky publications. (Prices, listed below each entry, are for a one year subscription for US subscribers. Be aware that lower prices are sometimes available for multiple year subscriptions and that the periodicals sometimes offer promotions).

Whisky Advocate

The last few years has seen a major transformation in the publication formerly known as Malt Advocate. In 2010, John Hansell's magazine was purchased by Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado. In September of 2011, the magazine changed its name to Whisky Advocate and launched a redesign. For years, John Hansell has put out the best publication in whiskey and his blog has been the go-to place for news about new releases and the whisky business. Like many, I was concerned that the changes might sacrifice quality or put style over substance, but the issues that have come out since then have more than reassured me, with longer, more in depth articles on the whisky world. In addition, WA's new team, including Dave Broom, Lew Bryson, Dominic Roskrow, and Gavin Smith is like a whisky journalist dream team.

It will be interesting to see where Whisky Advocate goes from here. There are synergies with other Shanken publications that cover wine and the spirits business world that could probably be taken advantage of by the publication. It seems as though John Hansell is always thinking about how to make his publication better, and he usually succeeds. I look forward to what's in store for the future.

Whisky Advocate publishes quarterly; $18 per year.

Whisky Magazine

UK based Whisky Magazine has always been a bit behind Whisky Advocate in terms of news and quality articles, but they made a big leap last year by embracing new media writers. They picked up blogger Davin de Kergommeaux and WhiskyCast host Mark Gillespie, two prominent internet personalities who ensure a knowledgable and insightful look at their areas of expertise. This is smart thinking by the Whisky Mag folks. There is a vibrant whisky journalism scene on-line, and it makes sense for old media publications to tap into it.

Whisky Magazine publishes 8 issues per year; $44.95 per year.


Unfiltered is the magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, available to members only, and free with Society membership. This relatively recent addition to the scene has a more innovative layout and page design than either of the standard magazines. Despite a fair amount of marketing fluff (it is a company publication after all), Unfiltered has some surprisingly interesting articles, though they hew more to human interest than news. The always wacky Jim Murray column alone may be worth the annual membership fee (see his latest column defending critics who take consulting gigs - on page 7).

Unfiltered publishes quarterly; free to members of the SMWS (membership in the US is $229 with an annual renewal fee of $60, though the main reason to join is to buy whisky; the magazine is just an added benefit).

The Bourbon Country Reader

Comparing Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon Country Reader to the magazines above is sort of like comparing a deli to a Michelin starred restaurant, but as you know if you read my food postings, a really good deli can be just as good if not better than any white tablecloth joint. Cowdery's scrappy newsletter is four pages long with only three to four articles. What it gives you, though, is extensive bourbon history, industry news, articles on craft distilleries and reviews directly from the foremost authority on American whiskey. The Reader's slogan sums it up: Always Independent & Idiosyncratic - No distillery affiliation.

Lately, Chuck has been experimenting with e-reader material, so I wouldn't be surprised to soon see more along these lines.

The Bourbon Country Reader publishes whenever Chuck gets around to it; $20 for six issues.


The state of whisky journalism is strong. For a small community, we are lucky to have this diversity of publications for relatively affordable prices (in most cases, much cheaper than the actual whisky). That being said, I have to give my own two cents, so I have a few tips for these whisky publications:

1. Distillery profiles are boring. They just are. I don't know how many people care about the height of the still or the size of the malting floor, but it can't be too many. I can't remember the last time I read one of these things.

2. Business news is interesting. Business reporting in these publications tends to be along the lines of new products or acquisitions by whisky companies, but I would like to see more of the type of information that appears in some of the trade publications, such as information about the industry trends and economics in the whisky world.

3. The biggest short coming for all of these publications is that they really need is a bitingly sarcastic humor columnist...

So, dear readers, what's your favorite whisky publication and why?


Jason Beatty said...

They don't talk about the business side because they do not feel the audience is ready for it. Being that I live an hour and a half away from bourbon country, I know all about this info but others do not. Maybe in a couple years they will have more info, but first you bloggers have to prove there is a following for this info.

Anonymous said...

2012 Sku Awards: Whisky Understatement of the Year - "Distillery profiles are boring."

Lazer said...

my favorite is its free and full of information and personality. I appreciate his commitment to independence from commercial influence. it keeps the opinions "uncut and unfiltered" and his links are helpful, that's how i found sku.

sku said...

Jason, that's a good point. The problem is that the magazines have much better contacts than most of us do, though Chuck Cowdery reports about a lot of spirits industry news both on his blog and his newsletter.

Lazer, Ralfy is great. I didn't include him here because I was concentrating on old-school paid journalism. Ralfy, and Mark Gillespie at WhiskyCast and others are an example of the new media that the magazines have to compete with.

sam k said...

Great topic Sku, and I'm sure all of them appreciate your thoughts. For what it is, the Bourbon Country Reader is well worth the price of admission.

And since I have a bit of allegiance to Whisky Advocate, doesn't Terry Sullivan count in the sarcasm department? I tend to laugh my ass off!