Bill Murray gamely tries to be enthusiastic with that line take after take in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation.” His character, Bob Harris, has fame and has money – including a cool $2 million for doing a series of Suntory ads in Japan. What he’s missing is the ability to understand exactly what Suntory wants him to convey in their new whisky ads. He doesn’t speak the language of the director and the photographer; he doesn’t trust what his interpreter is telling him; in other words, his role in telling the story of this whisky is lost in translation.
Lines between whisky makers and those who communicate their stories are frequently blurred. Let’s face it. If you want to add funds to build that dream island home, writing about whisky is likely a futile effort – though I do have one whisky writing friend who has successfully done just that. I’m one of the fortunate few to get paid for writing about whisky when I was a columnist for a couple of magazines and also did reviews. A handful of people make a bit of money with ads on their website from distilleries. But, for most whisky writers, there’s not much cash from the cask.
Instead the writing is driven by passion. Drinks companies tap into that passion by offering their products to some writers in exchange for reviews or stories. But, as with Bill Murray sitting there with a Suntory in his hand, what exactly does the drinks company expect you to say about their product? IS there an expectation? Bill Murray was getting $2 million, so he’d best get the message down correctly. There’s a contract at stake. For those reviewing whiskies for free at the behest of distilleries, there may not be a contract, but the entire legitimacy of the reviewer’s website can be made or broken by the access the writer has to new and interesting whiskies. Does that cause a writer’s nose and palate to tip favorably in the direction of a whisky company? Or, for the sake of unassailable objectivity regarding reviews, should a writer spend anywhere from $20 to $500 per bottle to remain independent of distillery expectations? Or should they rely upon sample exchanges with other whisky enthusiasts?
Reviewing whiskies is something I’ve done in the past and still do on occasion. I’ve been trained; I’ve been tested; I’ve been published. As much as I enjoy whisky and writing about the individual characteristics of unique malts, I’ve made it clear that the focus of this site, in the words of whisky blogger Josh Feldman, is to “write beyond the liquid.” My interest in whisky is in the metaphors and connections it has with the larger world and with life.
But, I still enjoy a damn good dram.
Recently, I was one of several bloggers asked by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America to review a few whiskies of theirs each month. I was hesitant about this proposition, as I cede there are ample whisky reviewers in this world, many of whom do an exemplary and engaging job of explaining their impressions of what they are tasting. Does the universe really need another regular whisky reviewer? How many more “smells like wet leather on a sunny mid-morning while standing behind my grandmother’s rose garden shed on the third day after the first day of spring lathered in Old Spice and butter” descriptions does the whisky world need? And, what does an entity that provides samples expect of my reviews?
In fact, the answer to the challenge that faces bloggers who rely upon free samples for their reviews is found within the whisky community. The easy flow of communication throughout the community serves as a kind of translator of truth. Opinions and understandings of the flavor and aroma profiles of whiskies will vary from person to person, sometimes considerably. But, if a reviewer consistently goes against the impressions of his or her peers to the favor of the sample provider – if they keep evoking Sean Connery instead of a Roger Moore, to continue the “Lost in Translation” metaphor – they will be revealed as not speaking the lingua franca of the general community. They may have won over the distillery marketing department, but they will have lost the audience the distillery needs to reach.
What does all this mean to me in my consideration of expanding my role among the legions of reviewers? Hello. I’m being sent some incredible whisky. Of course I’ll do it! As much as I love the deeper layers of thought that the whisky universe sparks in my mind, you can never drift too far from the liquid, or what’s the point? Plus, regular reviews will help me keep my nose and palate sharp – if I ever get over this seemingly endless allergy attack suffocating my sinuses the past week.
So, look forward to more frequent reviews from Whisky Guy Rob. I will do my best to translate the complex tale of a liquid, to tell the story my nose knows and to speak the language my mouth feels.
And if that fails, I’ll just fall in love with Scarlett Johansson. Again.