Whisky Advocate

Three things that really frustrate me: Part 3

November 26th, 2007

This is something that really frustrates me. Far too many times, there are writers doing stories on whisky for big name newspapers and magazines and they keep writing things that are incorrect or very misleading. Sometimes, it seems obvious that the writer doesn’t even like whisky.

This happens fairly frequently (i.e., a few to several times a year). I’ll give an example just this past week.  It was in New York magazine. It was titled “Bourbon at its Best” and was a listing of bourbons to buy as gifts. Their favorite of the bunch? Michter’s 10 year old, which the author describes as “being made by the distillery that supplied rye to the Revolutionary army.”

Sorry, but the Michter’s Distillery has been closed for about two decades, and the last remaining stocks of Michter’s whiskey was sold on the market as Hirsch, at 16 and 20 year old expressions. A different company bought the rights to the Michter’s name and is selling whiskey as “Michter’s” but it is not from the Michter’s distillery. (They do not reveal the source of the whiskey.)

Sometimes writings on whisky (what whisky is, how each is made, how each one differs, etc.) are so generalized, that they serve no real purpose to the reader. Other times, what they write is inaccurate, perpetuating the very problem they are supposed to resolve: consumer ignorance and misunderstanding about a increasingly complicated subject.

It is so important that the consumer understands what they are drinking. An educated consumer is a satisfied consumer. Large circulation newspapers and magazines can go far to helping this cause. I can think of several really good whisky writers who would do a great job on just about any whisky topic.  It would be nice if the editors of these major publications would hire someone who actually knows the subject, rather than assign it to a staff member just to save time and money.

I have written for a newspaper for several years now, and I can tell you first-hand that freelancer pay is so pathetic, most good whisky writers would just laugh at an offer, even if the editor was wise enough to go out and attempt to hire a knowledgeable freelance writer. So, I don’t see anything changing anytime soon.

16 Responses to “Three things that really frustrate me: Part 3”

  1. Sam Komlenic says:

    John,

    Point taken on this issue. If I may add another layer to the conversation, the writer who sourced Schaefferstown as the home of current Michter’s whiskeys makes another rash assumption: that simply because the forebears of Michter’s existed prior to the revolution, they inherently provided spirits to the to that conflict’s troops.

    To my knowledge, there exists no proof that Shenk’s distillery supplied whiskey to Washington’s soldiers, outside a commemorative coin issued many years ago by the Lebanon Valley Coin Club. On its obverse is shown a scene titled “Washington Leaving Shenk’s Distillery for Valley Forge, 1776.” There were probably more than 200 distillers in Lebanon County at the time. Why would Shenk’s have been his choice, and what the hell would Washington have been doing in Lebanon County then, anyway? Plenty of stills nearer Valley Forge, I’ll bet!

    The New York writer has not only misidentified the producer, but is perpetuating an unfounded myth, much like the perennial “Bock beer is made when they clean out the tanks every spring.” Poor journalism on more than one count!

    Thanks for your efforts in maintaining journalistic integrity.

    Sam

  2. Ian Buxton says:

    You are completely and totally correct about freelance rates for writers. And then getting the money just makes it worse!

    Samuel Johnson once remarked “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But not very much, so far as whisky writing is concerned.

  3. John Hansell says:

    Sam, I sent the author of the New York magazine bourbon article a note, informing him of the error. He never responded to me.

  4. Sam Komlenic says:

    Beautiful! Sort of reinforces your faith, instead of restoring it!

  5. John Hansell says:

    The saga continues. I got an email from New York magazine yesterday. (They must have a Google search anytime someone mentions their name.). The author sent me this note:

    “Sorry, I never got an email from you. where did you send it? our note about michter’s was on the authority of ethan kelley, from the brandy library. if you re-send your note I will pass it on to the editor of our “comments” (i.e. letters) page.”

    I responded by telling him that I responded to the online posting of the article, which he then found. Ethan Responded with:

    “As any bourbon enthusiast will tell you, of course the Michter’s distillery is closed. I had simply mentioned a comment about the history of the name, in an attempt to illustrate the enormous history and tradition found in American whiskies. It was simply a side note, and I apologize if the full details were not disclosed. Thank you for pointing it out to the readers, and together you and I can better inform all interested parties one taste at a time.”

  6. James says:

    Sometimes it starts with PR people who send out crap info that newspaper people–who don’t know enough about the subject, aren’t getting paid enough to make it worth doing their own research, and/or don’t have the time to check the information–reprint. Here’s a snippet of a release I got today:

    “The Old Fashioned was first mixed in 1934 in Louisville, KY and combined Kentucky whiskey with a mixture of fruit and sugar. Twin Creek’s will serve the New Fashioned ($12). This modern version on the Old Fashioned combines 2-ounces Basil Hayden Bourbon instead of whiskey….”

    At which point my head exploded. 1934? Try at least as early as the 1880s. Bourbon instead of whiskey? Is that like driving an Chevy instead of a car? You really have to work to get so many things wrong in such a short space.

  7. John Hansell says:

    James, yes, they really had to work hard at getting that many things wrong is such a short space.

    Within the past two weeks, I have seen whisky errors or misleading whisky references in in several major publications, including the LA Times, New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New York Post. In most of these cases, the person writing the story just didn’t know the subject. In some instances, they did consult a knowledgeable whisky source, but the facts got lost in the translation.

  8. Louis says:

    John,

    The unfortunate truth is that as little as the general public knows about scotch, they know even less about bourbon. Try playing word association with any random person you know, and they will respond with ‘Jack Daniels’ when you say bourbon. Then tell them that Jack Daniels is actually Tennessee whikey, and they will look at you like you are crazy. Challenge them to find the word bourbon on the bottle, and you will get this look that implies ‘go tell this to somebody who actually cares about this, except that no one but you really does’. Don’t even waste your time explaining about charcoal filtering prior to bottling.

    Meanwhile, the New York Times also had an article about bourbon recently. So I was in a liquor store this past Thursday night, and there was some guy clutching the Times’ list, trying to pick out just one bottle. The only help the salesman could offer was to say that of any two bottles the guy was looking at, the more expensive one was smoother. It took a lot of effort for me to keep a straight face as the salesman tried to explain the various degrees of smoothness, especially between bottle with prices only a dollar or two apart.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  9. John Hansell says:

    Louis, I’m not sure if you saw it, but that very bourbon article by the New York Times said the following:

    “A whiskey can be distilled 100 percent from corn, but if it so much as kisses those charred oak containers it becomes bourbon.”

    As you know, it has to do more than ‘kiss’ oak to become bourbon. Law requires it to be aged in oak a minimum of two years to be called bourbon. (He actually made reference to this in a previous paragraph, so I don’t know why he made this comment. Regardless, it is very misleading.) I sent the author a comment but have not heard back from him yet.

  10. John Hansell says:

    Here’s another one, by the way. This was in yet another big-time newspaper, The New York Post, this past Thursday. It was titled “Scotch on the blocks” and was a story on New York’s first spirits auction since the 1920s. The author highlights a 1926 Macallan whisky which was bottled in 1986, making it 60 years old. He describes it as “an untra-rare bottling of 81 year old scotch that could fetch 30,000.”

    I emailed him too with the clarification the next day. No response yet.

    So, within the past two weeks, there have been major whisky (and whiskey) mistakes in the New York Times, New York Post, L.A. Times, and New York magazine. Sad, really.

  11. John Hansell says:

    I was just sent a note from Eric Asimov of the New York Times about his bourbon article:

    “You’re right, of course. I should have said, if it so much as kisses those charred oak containers, it’s no longer considered corn whiskey.”

    Thanks, Eric, for responding–and for the clarification.

  12. REALLY disappointed in Eric’s response as even with his back-pedaling he is still wrong.

    Corn whiskey is Corn whiskey whether it is aged or not – it simply does not REQUIRE maturation in oak casks…

    Today I did a story on Bill Dowd and his complete ignorance on the production method of Scotch (and apparently any spirit)…

  13. John Hansell says:

    Kevin, I agree about the corn whiskey response. I was happy to just get a response…

    And yes, I also noticed the Dowd statement about the scotch industry switching to “closed pot stills” preventing the whisky from becoming smoky. What he meant (I think) was that the kiln drying of the barley during the malting process is not exposed to peat smoke (i.e. “closed off” from the smoke. That is, indirect heat, not direct heat.) But only he can really explain what he meant.

  14. Lew Bryson says:

    Louis,

    I tried explaining to a bartender in Wilkes-Barre that he didn’t have two bourbons on his shelf, he had one: Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon. He said it was, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I challenged him to find the word ‘bourbon’ on the label, and he blustered. Meanwhile, his colleague picked up the bottle and checked. “He’s right,” she said, “it doesn’t say bourbon.” I told the guy I’d have the Jim Beam. “No, you won’t,” he said, and flagged me. Kicked out for the truth!

    Sam, you were there, you know it’s true!

    Lew

  15. John Hansell says:

    Flagged for speaking the truth. That’s a good one!

  16. John Hansell says:

    I think I need to make a clarification regarding Eric’s comment about corn whiskey (above) and Kevin’s response to it. In essence, both are correct in the points they were trying to make.

    Corn whiskey can be aged or unaged. However, if it is aged, it can’t be aged in new charred oak barrels. (Used or uncharred oak barrels are okay.)

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