Whisky Advocate

Who will be Michael Jackson’s successor?

June 2nd, 2009

I’m back from a long weekend of R & R. (Sorry for the delay in posting.) I had time to think about a lot of things. One of them was Michael, his impact on the whisky and beer worlds, and the void he left behind.

For many years, Michael blazed a trail with his writing and public appearances. Even in his latter years, when he wrote less about the drink itself and more about his perspective on drinking, he was still very influential to all of us.

Now that he’s gone, who is out there to pick up where he left off? Let’s just focus on whisky for the time being. Obviously there will never be another Michael Jackson, but is there a clear, emerging leader who whisky enthusiasts can gravitate towards and respect?

By the way, it’s not going to be me. I don’t have the talent of a Michael Jackson to accomplish what he did, and I am not willing to make the personal sacrifice that must be made to be a leader in this field. [Drinks writers are often divorced, have health issues, don't have children, and have little free time to enjoy life outside of the drinks world.]

So, who do you see emerging as the industry leader? And why?

61 Responses to “Who will be Michael Jackson’s successor?”

  1. Sku says:

    As you note, no one can replace MJ, both because of who he was and because of what the whisky world is now because of his work, a large world with far more adherents and fans than when he started.

    As with beer, I would argue that MJ’s main accomplishment was bringing new people into the whisky world. His books and writings were far more interesting to me when I was new to whisky than they were as I became more involved and advanced in my tastings.

    In terms of books, it would seem as though Jim Murray would be the writer most clearly in-line for the title of MJ II. His Whisky Bible has surpassed Jackson’s book in its thoroughness and no one can question his tasting experience (though we can question his ratings), but Jim has a prickly side and his book comes out but once per year in a 24 hour whisky news world.

    Rather, I would argue that in the world of post-MJ whisky, there will be no one filling his shoes, but rather, what we have now, a multitude of sources and authorities who are all Michael’s children: Brooms and Gillespies and Hansells and countless bloggers who all bring people into the world of whisky and guide them through its halls. That is truly the Michael Jackson legacy.

    Now brandy, there’s a spirit that could use its own Michael Jackson.

  2. [...] John Hansell asks a question that I know is probably on the minds on many scotch whisky fanatics – who will replace the late, consummate beer/malt/whisky writer Michael Jackson? In my opinion, no one will, nor should anyone aspire to, replace Jackson.  Instead, the hole left [...]

  3. Whisky Party says:

    All due respect, I think that this is the wrong question to be asking. No one individual will replace Michael Jackson. Rather, he will be replaced by an online ecosystem of information about scotch consisting of blogs, wikis, twitter streams, culinary websites, databases and more. And this is a good thing.

    I took the time to write this out as an op-ed/essay responding to your comment. I hope you will check it out.

    http://whiskyparty.net/?p=384

    Cheers.

  4. John Hansell says:

    Sku, Whisky Party: I agree with both of you. Like I mentioned early in this post, there will never be another Michael Jackson. And I do think you are both correct in that the source for information these days isn’t from just one key person, but rather a multitude of sources from around the globe. They key is to find the sources you feel comfortable with.

  5. MrTH says:

    MJ was the right person at the right time. That time has passed, and the whisky world is a completely different place. qv the Beatles.

  6. Red_Arremer says:

    These are some on point answers, guys. As you imply, MrTH, it is only usually when a field of endeavor is just beginning to come into the public consciousness that lone individuals take on the kind of iconic stature that Jackson did. He was *the* ambassador of whisky to the nonwhisky world.

  7. Interesting question, John, and interesting responses, too, folks. I’ve enjoyed reading Michael Jackson’s works, but, John, you hit the right chord in your last post: “…find the sources you feel comfortable with.”

    I find that my taste agreement with Michael Jackson runs a low average. I’m comfortable and in agreement with John Hansell’s take on most single malt Scotch whiskies. I truly enjoy tasting posts by others on this forum, too (I know, I know, John, it’s not a forum, yet).

    With all the print and electronic information available to us, do we need another iconic guru? I intend no disrespect to Michael Jackson in my question; I still refer to his book often. Not having future editions of it, though, might make betters researchers of the rest of us.

  8. Neil Fusillo says:

    A difficult question. I don’t see anyone taking such a prominent role in the world of whisky as MJ did. He was not only an experienced and respected taster, he was a lover of the culture, and an explorer of the world surrounding whisky. He seemed to love to get to know the people working on it and the history surrounding it just as much as he enjoyed the drink itself.

    In this way, I feel as though Jim Murray falls flat when it comes to replacing Michael Jackson as a whisky ambassador. He is certainly experienced in the tasting arena, but he seems very focused on the drink itself, and less concerned about bringing people into the spirit and culture of its surroundings.

    Many people I’ve read seem to attack this similarly — all drink, no spirit, as it were. One of the reasons I’m so fond of this blog is that it’s not just about how good a whisky is (and let’s be honest; many of the whiskies you taste are either unavailable to me or far too expensive for me to justify), it’s about the whisky culture. As we all share our little tales of how we discovered whisky, or how we prefer to enjoy it, it’s interspersed with stories of the distilleries and the distillers and the lands from whence they come. That’s what makes it something more than a choice of alcohols on the barman’s shelf. That’s what makes it so alive.

    The question I ask myself, though, as the costs of whisky go up and up from a massive surge of popularity, how long will it be before it implodes and we need yet another strong voice in the crowd to bring the everyman back into the fold? When whisky becomes too rich for one to truly enjoy, how will that affect its popularity as a drink? How will that influence those who are just getting into the experience? And, ultimately, how will that affect the distilleries and their overall longevity?

    Today, I feel no one is poised to replace Michael Jackson and the impact he had on the culture as a whole. And today, I feel that there are enough Internet ‘support groups’ to help people along with the transition. But in the future?

    I just hope, if the time comes when it’s needed again, someone is able to step up and do what MJ did for so many — to bring a little golden joy into our lives.

  9. sam k says:

    Beautifully said and thoughtfully considered, Neil. Thanks for that perspective.

  10. Serge says:

    Hi, I’d like to propose a different perspective, and please forgive me if I sound a tad ‘old skool’… ;-). First, John asked for successors, not people who will ‘replace’ Emjay. Remember, a successor is not a copy. A successor is someone who takes over a legacy and lets it fructify. Second, I don’t believe in function over content, which is often what happens with social or new web ‘things’. People are first amazed because the function is cool, but if the content remains poor it’ll fail on the middle run. For instance, that 3,258 drinkers write about what they think of Johnnie Walker Red or Macallan 12yo is fine but at the end of the day, ‘who is talking’ will be more important than ‘the message’, just like in politics. Whether bloggers, journalists, self-styled connoisseurs, individuals, industry people in disguise, Youtubesters, communities/clubs or plain beginners and whatever they write/say/shout, I believe the global audience will always wonder about their:
    – Credibility, records and experience
    – Actual goal (independent or not? Business or not?)
    That’s why I think that either Broom or Hansell or both together could (and probably should) be MJ’s successors – and not replacements indeed.
    My tuppence…

  11. Tim F says:

    Fascinating debate with some great responses. As far as direct replacements go, and with John having ruled himself out of the running, I agree with Serge that Dave Broom is the most obvious choice as a go-to authority.

    Serge is perhaps being too modest, though, as I know for a fact that an awful lot of people take his opinion as gospel too :).

    Ultimately, it’s more important to take a balanced view than to slavishly follow the recommendations of just one person – but newcomers also need an easily-accessible way to help them get started in the category, and that’s where JM comes in, although independent connoisseurs like Serge will always carry more weight with the aficionados. ]

    As Whisky Party rightly points out, whisky writing is fragmenting and everyone will find their own niche.

    There will not be an iconic figure like MJ again. For better or worse, people will naturally find all of the relevant whisky blogs and aggregate sites from Google.

  12. John Hansell says:

    Serge (and Tim F), I appreciate your vote of confidence. (You two guys do a pretty damned good job yourselves, btw.)

    Dave and I almost co-authored the next Malt Whisky Companion (aka Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch), but differences with the publisher over content ended that. He and I have casually discussed a joint venture in the future. We’ll see how that plays out.

    One thing that Michael and I have (had) in common is our coverage of both beer and whisky. I wrote about beer full-time before writing about whisky. In fact, Malt Advocate, in its infancy, was a beer publication. I still review beer for America’s largest beer publication, All About Beer magazine, and enjoy doing it.

    When I look at my relationship with whisky, it’s a little different than a typical whisky writer. Most full-time whisky writers spend most of their time tasting, writing, and talking about whisky.

    I started out that way, but then progressed into a more entrepreneurial role, with the creation of Malt Advocate in 1992 and then WhiskyFest in 1998. I have to spend a portion of my time playing publisher/editor and event manager. But what I still enjoy most is tasting, writing, and talking about whisky.

    Which is why I enjoy hosting this blog. It’s a great way to keep in touch with all of you. Thanks everyone for tuning in. I really feel that I’m no different (or better) than most of you reading this. I just happen to be in a position of having a good relationship with the industry and getting samples to review.

    Too bad Michael didn’t stick around long enough to blog. Now THAT’s one blog I would have really enjoyed reading. The stories he could have shared with us…

  13. As has been pointed out, Michael was the right man at the right time. What’s missing, however, is the kind of man he was, not just a passionate advocate of good whisky and beer, but also one helluva writer. If anyone is to succeed him as whisky ambassador to the world — leaving aside for a moment whether such a person is even necessary today — then he or she must combine passion with skillful communication, both in print and in person.

    On the larger subject of Michael’s Companion, it is my position that the Internet has rendered the field of beverage guides obsolete. The need for a book when so much information is but a click away seems so small as to be almost immeasurable. I know that I, for one, have penned my last beer guide.

  14. Pat says:

    The Malt Maniacs seem to be doing and excellent job at filling the expert void and do so from a layman perspective too boot.

  15. John Hansell says:

    Steve, you are so right on that point. Any successor needs to know their whisky–and be a great writer. Michael was both.

    Back when Jim Murray wrote features for us, he wrote some pretty amazing stuff for us too!

  16. Whisky Party says:

    Serge,

    Very interesting point regarding credibility and content.

    There may be 3,000 whisky blogs out there, but how many of them are linked to by anyone? Sure, some of them may be useful for friends, but most won’t accumulate anything close to a critical mass audience even at a hyper-local level. This will be for a variety of reasons – lack of steady content, bad writing, off-point reviews, etc.

    But if content is regular, writing is good, and recommendations aren’t wildly inaccurate, and the writer engages the rest of hte online community, then linkage begins to occur and the community validates/polices itself, and not all of those people will be full-time “experts” or industry insiders.

  17. This is how I answered WhiskyParty on Twitter.

    The question isn’t “Will” someone replace MJ. The question is “Does someone need to”. The answer is “No”. @WhiskyParty

    Stephen hits it on the head. The idea of a print guide (and someone to write it) it obsolete. On the other hand there are too many sites with tasting notes for anyone to care.

    And as hard as it is for us to admit, if you mention Michael Jackson in “mixed” company the average person will have no idea who you are talking about anymore than any of US know the world’s current top expert on Eastern European Vintage motorcycles. That only matters to people REALLY into the subject.

    I’ll go further. No one CAN replace MJ. but no one needs to succeed him – because it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Let the hate mail begin.

  18. Serge says:

    Very interesting comments!

    @Tim regarding what you kindly wrote about yours truly: typical British exaggerations! ;-).

    @Stephen regarding ‘beverage guides’ vs. the Internet. Agreed but the professional writers have to pull money from their jobs and it seems that some people still buy books, whereas nobody’s willing to pay for Internet writings. Plus, we ‘Web people’ always tend to think that everybody’s on the Internet. Believe me, for instance, of the top ten REAL whisky collectors in the world, only one really masters the Internet – more or less (rather less). No he isn’t on Twitter.

    @Pat, thanks on behalf of the Malt Maniacs. 12 years old this year, not too bad for a Web community (but not only Web!)

    @Whisky Party: agreed, more fools, more fun. But like John said, I’d add ‘and they should know their whisky’.

    @Kevin. I don’t know if there are too many sites with tasting notes for anyone to care. That’s possible… As they say, ‘only the stats know’. Now, you say you know a genuine expert in CZ, Jawa and other Urals??? That could come handy!…

  19. Serge says:

    … Okay, let’s say 3 out of the top 10 collectors master ‘the internet’ more or less… (rather than only one – typical French exaggeration).

  20. The “new people” who we (or some of us) want to get into whisky ARE on the Internet. Anyone under the age of 35 uses it (and texting/twittering) as their primary means of communication information.

    And while people still buy books. they do their pre-sales investigation (i.e., looking for ratings) on the internet before reading a book; reading a magazine or even asking friends.

    So YES a reliable site with usable (read that easy to understand) tasting notes could make a mark for itself – but it won’t matter if it is a real name OR a pseudonym.

    We are entering the Twitter Age my friends. And that means attention spans are dwindling even more.

    Time’s they are ‘a changing.

  21. davindek says:

    How many have read Dave Broom’s chapter in the Michael Jackson tribute? Now as long as there’s that kind of writingin them books will never become obsolete. And how many have also read his biography in same book? No bragging or trolling for consulting jobs, just a writer from Glasgow. (Generally they write their own biographies) Here’s a writer who can actaully write, who happens to write about whisky, with enough whisky knowledge to write authoritatively and enough humility to be as authentic as the whisky of which he writes.
    No one will replace Jackson, but no matter what he writes about Broom will always find an audience.

  22. Whisky Party says:

    Serge, you said:

    “Believe me, for instance, of the top ten REAL whisky collectors in the world, only one really masters the Internet – more or less (rather less). No he isn’t on Twitter.”

    But I would argue that the top ten collectors are the last people we should be basing any sort of industry standard around wrt scotch journalism. That’s a pretty narrow market.

    I agree with Kevin – under 35’s are the emerging market and distilleries, whisky writers, and enthusiastic amatuers need to go where they are, speak their language, and help bring them into the world of whisky.

  23. Todd says:

    We all agree that MJ was unique. But to address John’s question of who can step into those big shoes, I immediately think of Jim Murray (and Mr. Murray should duck to avoid the plagues of the profession, divorce, etc especially if he has managed to do so thus far). I base this opinion on his widely distributed book and the simple fact that he reviews so many whiskies, malt, blends, Irish, bourbons, Japanese and other world whiskies. I can’t think of anyone else with his range or authority on the subject.

  24. “Books” will definitely become obsolete.

    Skilled story-telling will never be obsolete. But the medium is shifting.

    People want information NOW and they want it free.

    Books take time to write, print, distribute. Magazines used to be the way to get information quickly.

    Now Information is Up on the internet within seconds and disseminated far and wide withing seconds after that.

    There’s your NOW

    In today’s world, less and less people want to PAY for information. And they certainly will pay less and less for guides filled with tasting notes.

    And that’s the FREE.

    That’s the point.

    Dave is a great writer. John is a great writer. And 2 more passionate people about the subject you are not likely to find. But neither makes their primary living from writing about whisky.

    It’s impossible to do so.

  25. [...] The discussion has been great and is not likely to slow down. Join the discussion [...]

  26. First off, Sku…thank you for considering me in the same posting as guys like John and Dave. I would never dare to presume myself to be in that league.

    Neil & Stephen, I think your comments were also very eloquent. I would agree with everyone who says Michael could never be replaced. In my mind, those who write about whisky and beer in the future can only hope to take inspiration from his work and do their best to live up to the standards he set as a writer.

    Mark

  27. John M says:

    The guys I’d most respect at the moment are John Hansel, Dave Broom and Paul Pacault. All very different, but all very good. I believe, like MJ, they are not at all snobbish about whisky. They judge every whisk(e)y on its merits. I think this is a rare quality.

    I also like Jim Murray, although he confuses me sometimes.

    John

  28. Serge says:

    @Whisky Party and Kevin: you’re thinking ‘marketing’, that is to say where is the ‘new’ market for whisky information, how it’ll evolve and how to get there. I’m perfectly fine with that and I pretty much agree with all you say. On the other hand, I’m doing this kind of thinking all day long for our clients (who are not whisky people!) and whisky is only my hobby. That’s why I would still prefer to have the top ten whisky collectors (not the tiny yet voracious speculators), the best industry people and the most dedicated whisky lovers read my unlikely website from time to time rather than 1,000,000 newbies and that’s why I’m not trying to adapt the content and functions to ‘an ever-changing market’ or to ‘the way young beginners are seeking information’. I have nothing to market and I’m not a native English speaker, I’m just trying to have a little fun with putting my own shaky tasting diary online (oh why oh why, what a stupid idea it was in the first place!) and I don’t even allow the readers to comment. How rude. Sure I’m happy when there’re a lot of visits but it’s pretty much out of vainglory, it won’t change anything to my life as I do not monetize these figures and as I systematically turn down any business propositions that would be related to whisky. My goodness, it just occurred to me that talking about my own stuff here was probably very uncivilised. John, I ‘m sorry…

  29. butephoto says:

    This is an excellent discussion and it’s good to see so many of the people I consider to be at the forefront of whisky opinion, writing and tasting taking the time to add their thoughts to this.

    I have to agree with pretty much everything that’s been said so far. As someone in their 30s and pretty web savvy I have to agree that I’m getting most, if not all, of my whisky information from online sources (mostly from some of those who have posted above). But I still buy whisky books and I don’t see that changing for some time. There are also many, many whisky drinkers that are older than myself who will also continue to buy books and I don’t think that will change for some time. I’m also a little surprised at no mention of Charlie MacLean (who, incidentally, has a new book coming out that sounds like it would fill the void in the whisky bookshelf left by MJ). I’m not saying that he would be a ‘successor’, just that there’s been no mention.

    I also bought the MJ book and agree with davindek that Dave Broom’s tale was superb (I grew up near the factory he mentions so it is particularly poignant for me). I also thoroughly enjoyed John’s explanation of how Malt Advocate came into being. What’s evident from reading all those essays and stories in that book is that we are in capable hands with regards to the future of whisky (and beer) writing.

  30. Serge says:

    @butephoto I believe you’re absolutely right about Charlie. Maybe we did not mention Charlie because he was already a leading light when MJ was one. Not that Dave and John weren’t but Dave and John are younger ;-).
    Also, Charlie doesn’t do much tasting notes/scores ‘for the general public’. Maybe that’s why we didn’t put him in the same ‘category’ as MJ.
    And while we’re mentioning some malt maniacs, I’d add Martine Nouet who was very close to MJ as well and who’s doing a tremendous job throwing bridges between whisky and cooking.

  31. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    so many illustrious names and massive whisky knowledge.

    I never had the honour nor the pleasure to meet MJ. I read his tasting notes and books with pleasure and I liked his humour.

    I dabble a bit in the beer sector but whisky is the field where I know a thing or two.

    Afaik MJ was – like all of us – a multi-faceted person.

    I would like to point the discussion towards the question where exactly a successor is needed. If at all. With a huge contribution by MJ beer and whisky but more so is the latest thing. Look at the figures published for Scotch for the year 2008.

    Is there a need for somebody to push whisky further? Where to? There are developments in the industry that make one sceptical if more pushing is disirable. That shines through the writings and postings of all distinguished publishers and contributers here in your blogs forums or other media.

    Do we need a successor as a warning voice not to over-do what could be overdone? MJ did that between the lines as far as my knowledge goes and during his public apearances.

    Do we need a succssesor as a profound and entertaining writer about whisky and beer? Surely, there can not be enough of ´em!

    Do we need a successor for his dedication and professionalism? Of course we do and I would be more than happy if I had just 50% of what he had.

    Do we need a succsessor as leading figure or as a guiding light? That is not an easy one.

    What it boils down to is the question if the question about the succession is a meaningful question.

    I think what MJ did in his space and time can not be repeated and there is probably not need nor opportunity for repetition.

    What we need is to create new uniqueness and the aspiration to build on what MJ laid the foundations for.

    The call is probably more for successors and not for just a single person to stand in his shoes.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  32. David Stirk says:

    When I first met Michael, I was introduced by someone quite well known in the whisky world (but shall remain nameless) as ‘The next Michael Jackson’. I was, of course speachless with embarrassment (as was Michael). What I have learned, in my limited time and capacity, is that Michael was unique and cannot be replaced but what is happening is an effort to create a Robert Parker style publication/persona/otherwise to take over from Michael’s Malt Whisky Companion. I hope this never happens. Robert Parker was the worst thing to happen to the wine industry since the phylloxerra aphis and someone like him is the last thing the whisky world needs. I enjoy reading personal tasting notes from anyone but to think that one person is better qualified to write notes and, worse, to give scores is misguided.
    To put this into context, I had a long discussion a few years back with a producer who spied a copy of Michael’s Malt Whisky Companion.
    ‘I really like Michael Jackson but his book is a disaster for us’
    ‘Why?’ I asked.
    ‘Because he has only given [a low score] for our whisky and customers in the Far East have stopped buying our products.’

    Granted, the flip side to that argument is that if the whisky was poor it deserved to lose sales. In my humble opinion the whisky was superb and many drinkers were missing out. There lies the rub, subjective tastings (and there is no such a thing as an objective tasting with a score) are just that, subjective – allowing one person to write THE definitive scoring guide to whisky is not good for the industry. Michael admitted to me that he was against the idea of scoring (for the similar reasons as I’ve outlined above) the whiskies but the publisher was keen, and publishers usually win those battles.
    This is a long ramble but what I would like to say in conclusion is that there are many new Michael Jacksons – people who are continually telling the world about the merits of whisky, spreading the gospel of malt and oak and doing it in a way that is fun, not too serious, engaging and productive. Which, more or less, sums up what Michael spent his life doing.

  33. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    and a good thing, too Mr Stirk.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  34. Serge says:

    David, on one guidebook, the publisher, or was it the writer, claimed that the latter was sort of the Robert Parker of Whisky, whilst dear MJ was described as being the Robert Parker of beer.

  35. David Stirk says:

    Hi Serge,
    to be the Robert Parker of anything sends shivers down my spine.

    I also read somewhere that because Michael wrote about Beer AND Whisky, he was somehow less qualified than someone who solely wrote about whisky (or beer). I didn’t realise there were degrees of qualification to write about either subject. I really don’t get this idea that one writer is better than another. He or She is different and we, as the buying publis, will choose according to our own preference. It just so happened that (literally) millions of people preferred Michael’s style.

  36. Serge says:

    Well David, I think the main problem with Parker is/was his influence on winemakers, that is to say the fact that many changed their wines to fit Parker’s taste. Most happily, I can’t imagine Macallan or Bowmore changing their new make or even their wood policies just to please any whisky writer, let alone a blogger or a bunch of bloggers! ;-)

  37. David Stirk says:

    Good point Serge! It is still a worry though that there are people out there who want (or feel they are right) to have that sort of power. I know that certain threads and murmurings from drinkers have changed the way some whiskies are ‘put together’ (for want of a better expression); Edradour, Bowmore & Auchentoshan (to name a few) but this was because of a consensus of opinion not the ego of one person.

  38. Peter Currie says:

    My vote goes to this guy http://www.youtube.com/user/ralfystuff

    I think he sums up everything that has been mentioned before, fun, not too serious, definitely engaging, computer savvy and just a little bit nuts. A Michael Jackson for the internet age, in a flat cap instead of a crazy tie!

    cheers

    Pete

  39. John M says:

    As much as I like all the writers, how anyone can score a whisky down to one point in 100 is beyond me. To distinguish between the qualities of a whisky scoring 91 and one scoring 92 is impossible.

    And as much as I like Jim Murray, he claims to be able to distinguish down to one point in 200.

    I haven’t read your books yet, David, but hope to soon. I was at a tasting you presented when you were with Cadenhead, and it’s probably the most interesting and best I have yet attended.

    John

  40. Serge says:

    David, if Bowmore changed ‘something’ because of some drinkers (I remember well the episode and what happened on Malts-L, Usenet/newsgroups and so on), I say kudos to us drinkers and kudos to the distillery because I absolutely adore the recent young Bowmores and I’m certainly not the only one.
    I’ve chatted about ‘the consumer’s new powers’ with many industry people since ten years or so. I saw many frown indeed but clever brands now know how to deal with that, whilst others are still in the XXth century (some maybe in the XIXth ;-)). Tricky issues are now discussed more and more openly by some (and some not), such as fake bottles, pricing, whisky making/maturing processes, packaging, history… and even, yes, marketing. This may create a new category of consumers: the ‘collaborators-consumers’. Actually, that’s already happening, and it’s got nothing to do with consumer clubs/loyalty programs (which often consist in selling items for the double of their actual values to your most loyal consumers – the more loyal you are, the more they try to s***w you – bad idea on the middle run!)
    But I’m wandering off again, sorry. What would dear MJ think of all this?

  41. Serge says:

    Hi Peter – Fully agreed on Ralfy, I’m a fan and I deeply hope he’ll go on and on and on.

  42. Red_Arremer says:

    As everybody keeps saying, this is a great discussion. Excellent comments, everyone.

    Picture this:
    -On the one side is the Macallan PR guy who recently wrote in to the Scotch Blog to protest its awarding the Worst Advertising Campaign Drammy to the Rankin Polaroid Fine Oak 30 thing. Basically, what he has to say is this: “Anyone can put good whisky in a bottle, but it takes a great marketing team like Macallan’s to come up with a ‘luxury product’ like this Rankin Polaroid thing.”

    -On the other side is Michael Jackson. He’s got a book on scotch in his hand, but it’s filled with a lot more than just tasting notes. Like the Macallan marketing people, he’s trying to define the value of scotch itself, but from a completely different perspective. Basically, what he has to say is this: “The more people you share your interest in scotch with and the more you know about it the more valuable any dram you take will be.”

    -In the middle are the newbies, who Serge doesn’t have the time of day for.

    That’s the picture and that’s my best explanation both of what was so great about Michael Jackson and of what his many successors need to carry on.

  43. John Hansell says:

    Wow, what a great thread (and a great list of participants)! Let me throw in my thoughts to the posts that evolved overnight while I was sleeping.

    Todd, regarding “Mr. Murray ducking to avoid the plagues of the profession, divorce, etc especially if he has managed to do so thus far.” It’s too late for that. In fact, I believe that most, but not all, of the leading fringe of whisky writers (that includes Jim Murray) are/were divorced. Many have also struggled with health issues. I don’t know if it is the stresses of the profession that causes the divorce, or the personality type of someone who is destined to be a leader in their field that causes it. All I know is that my parents were divorced and it was no fun growing up with that and I don’t want that to happen to me. I am happy to be just part of the fabric of the whisky world (not a leader of it) and also be happily married with a “normal” lifestyle (hobbies and passions outside of whisky).

    Kevin, (and Steve) you are correct. Story telling will never be obsolete, but the medium is shifting. Whisky reviews are fast and free on line these days. By the time a book is published, it is already out of date. And there’s no way one book with one reviewer can ever review all the whiskies out there. Jim Murray makes a great and noble attempt, and I am sure that the sacrifice he makes to do this has a big (i.e. negative) impact on the quality of his life. I could never make that sacrifice and have told him so.

    Regarding the medium shift, I am a bit concerned for drinks publications in general. Take a look at some recent drinks magazines and count the number of paying full page ads in there. You can count them on one hand. Yes, Malt Advocate has more ads, but for how long? I’ll be honest with you. A leading whisky company who has run ads for several different brands over the years just recently told us that they are discontinuing all print media advertising for those brands. These days its more about sponsoring rock stars or movie stars or race car drivers or sailing ship or professional bass fisherman, etc. etc. You get my drift.

    Kevin, you are correct. It is impossible to make a living being just a whisky writer (or wine writer or beer writer for that matter). You either need to have a spouse with a real job, or you need to find another way to make money.

    I was a scientist by trade and had a good job. When I quit to become a full-time drinks writer I knew very quickly that writing wasn’t going to pay the bills. That’s one of the reasons why I started Malt Advocate–to get into the publishing side of the business. But then I quickly realized that I just couldn’t be dependent on that, which is how WhiskyFest evolved. I realized that whisky companies were a lot more willing to pay to let people taste their whisky than they were to just let people read about their whisky.

    How will drinks magazines survive in a medium where no one is willing to pay anything for free and immediate access to whisky information? I think all drinks magazines (and magazines and newspapers in general) are struggling with this question right now. The next decade will be an interesting one for sure.

    David Stirk, I think for anyone to take a whisky review legitimately, there needs to be a rating of some sort assigned to it. There are whiskies I like, whiskies I don’t like, and also a lot of “average” whiskies and I need to communicate that to my audience. The old saying that “There aren’t any bad whiskies. Some are just better than others.” is just a load of BS. Does it need to be on a 100 point scale? No. Something much simpler would suffice. Does it need to have tasting notes and explanations why I like or don’t like a whisky? Yes. Because I might love a given Ardbeg whisky and rate it highly, but if someone doesn’t like smoky whiskies (or even scotch for that matter), they’re not going to like the Ardbeg.

    It would be a lot easier for me in my profession as a magazine publisher to not rate whiskies, because I will tell you that I have lost tens of thousands of dollars in advertising because I give bad ratings to whiskies. I violated the sacred “below 80″ rule of drinks magazine ratings. Take a look at other drinks magazines. Many won’t publish ratings in the magazines below 80 because it pisses off the advertisers. A rating below 80 is the kiss of death to a product. One prominent importer told me a couple weeks back that they (and another unmentioned importer) will no longer send me samples out of fear that I will give their whiskies a bad review. They don’t want to take that risk.

    Okay, that get’s me caught up with the discussions (and openly, honestly, candidly, and actively involved in them too.)

  44. John Hansell says:

    Oh, I just realize that I need to make one more comment.

    Serge, regarding your statement: “Most happily, I can’t imagine Macallan or Bowmore changing their new make or even their wood policies just to please any whisky writer, let alone a blogger or a bunch of bloggers!”

    You would be surprised, my friend. I can’t speak for other writers (but I am pretty sure that Dave Broom, Jim Murray and the late MJ fall in this category), but part of what I do for a living is getting paid to tell whisky companies what I think about their whiskies BEFORE they are released. Do they base their decisions solely on my opinion of the whisky? I sure hope not! But I can say for certain that whiskies have been “tweaked” before they were officially released based on my recommendations (i.e., more to my liking). Naturally, when I consult in this capacity, I won’t review the product on my blog or in Malt Advocate–and I tell them that beforehand, so they are aware of the ground rules. (Although, I can’t speak for other writers.)

  45. butephoto says:

    @ Peter Currie – I totally agree with the comment about Ralfy. How could I forgot my distillery-visiting buddy? And I’m not biased, even if I manage to sneak into a couple of the videos, but he’s making whisky fun and accessible and that’s what it’s all about.

  46. David Stirk says:

    Hi John, thanks for the feedback. Re the scoring system, I agree that there needs to be a review system that allows the reader to quickly identify the authors preferred drinks etc. Where my fear lies is that one writer actually believes He/She is somehow superior (a la Robert Parker) in their ability to taste and score whiskies. I really like the fact that there are many bloggers now who are scoring whiskies as this will give me a much better representation of the whisky than one dema-gogue demanding that his/her review is THE definitive review. Take for instance the Malt Maniacs where a team of experienced (and seriously knowledgable) people taste the whisky independently and then average the scores out. If they give a whisky an award chances are very high that I will like it. Personally I would buy a tasting guide from the maniacs if these guys had the time to print one yearly. I really believe that Michael had the chance to become a Robert Parker of either the whisky or beer world (and let’s face it he was and is the most famous and revered writer on both subjects) but his modesty and humbleness forbade him to take that kind of step. Look how beautifully simple and enjoyable his beer chaser pages were. No rants & raves; no aggression; no slamming of the industry etc. Just revelling in what he enjoyed and wanted to share.

    On another note, my absolute dream would be a company (let’s say Morrison Bowmore) coming to me and saying ‘we want you to tell us how to put together a Glen Garioch that would really sell!’ Ok, it completely goes against my argument about one person having the right to tell others what is best, but, damn it, I’d get Glen Garioch great again!!

  47. Lucas says:

    It’s grand to see such an important subject unite the great and the wee of the whisky scene in discussion. The old and the new, that is.

    Firstly, regarding the scoring systems, I’ll just say that when Chris Hoban and I were setting up Edinburgh Whisky Blog early this year we had a big discussion about this. We had our own internal scoring systems in place but we have decided not to implement them on the website. Reason? We are not in place to attach numbers to whiskies. We are currently considering a 0/1 system where we would simply mark whether we would or wouldn’t buy a bottle.

    Whether full-scale scoring systems are good for others or not is not for me to judge. But I will probably criticise it openly as soon as we develop a better system… (wishful thinking?)

    Secondly, the word “obsolete” has been used in regard to the printed guide books, first by Stephen Beaumont and then Kevin Erskine. I hope you are both wrong. What’s more, I am pretty sure you are.
    I love books as items and reading one (not only about whisky) gives me so much more than just the information I need. I know for sure that there are enough folk out there who share this passion for the good old paper.

    And what makes a good book? A good author of course. I genuinely think that Dave Broom has what it takes, but this is not the point right now. What really matters is to answer the question asked by Kevin: “Does someone need to replace MJ?”. Well, my answer is “yes”. Just as the world of vintage Eastern European motorcycles has its guru and prophet (I’m sure), so must the world of whisky. And no internet community, no blog or other website will be able to fill the gap.

    MJ wasn’t just an author or just an ambassador. He was an institution, an all-reliable source of constant inspiration to go out there and keep exploring. That, I daresay, we can’t quite do without in the long run.

  48. In talking about a “replacement”, people have mentioned MJ’s role as an ambassador, and his interest in sharing the history and inner workings of the whisky industry as much or more than just reviews of whisky expressions.

    As a relative newbie, having just gotten the whisky bug within the last year, I’m all for an ambassador replacement – Somebody who has tons of respect in the industry, [and because of that] an ability to gain insights that outsiders like me could not, a passion for discovery, and a talent for expressing/sharing that passion and information.

    I really enjoy sitting down to read my copy of “Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide”. I’d love to see another person with the same passion and knowledge provide such a book with updated content. From the Magazine articles and blog posts I’ve read so far, I could certainly see either Dave Broom or John Hansell filling that role. Not to discount Jim Murray…I just haven’t read much of his yet except for Whisky Mag. tasting notes. I plan to acquire his Whisky Bible soon, though.

    As for a review/scoring replacement, I’m quite impressed with a few of the available [online] alternatives today. Most notably, Whisky Fun (Serge), this Blog (John H.), and Whisky Magazine (Dave Broom). Between these three sources, I’ve had pretty good luck figuring out which expressions I want to try next, and the likelihood of them fitting my tastes. Much more luck, in fact, than I ever had trying to interpret MJ’s notes and scores.

    In addition to these “reliable” sources, I do find plenty of value in the many other whisky-related professional and amateur blogs, YouTube videos, forum posts, and social networking outlets out there. I’d like to think there’s a place for us amateur hacks to learn together, and share our passion and discoveries using various online communication formats.

    I’m all over these alternative sources of information, and they will continue to evolve, but there’s still room for one or two whisky ambassadors (or as Lucas just posted, “sources of inspiration”) to step up. I hope they will.

    Jeff

  49. [...] John Hansell posed the question “Who will be the successor to Michael Jackson?” and the discussion has raged on for days. All the major whisky bloggers are participating and there are 45 comments as of this writing. You [...]

  50. Serge says:

    I’m glad that a ‘relative newbie'(his own words – but we’re all perpetual newbies anyway), Jeff, used one of the most important words in whisky: sharing. Without sharing, whisky is just some cheap grain brewed and distilled in some small, gloomy old plants plants and then filled into second hand casks.

  51. davindek says:

    Why I like books and think they will continue to be relevant (not including self-published vanity books of course):

    Books take time and thought to write. Some of what we read on the web is VERY useful, but most is undigested or just repeats others’ half-digested thoughts.

    Books are reviewed by editors who beef up the English, the logic, and the relevance. Most blogs are unedited and of these many barely make sense.

    Books have a semi-permanence. They won’t be over-written taken down or simply unfindable next time you want to refer to them. As well, since they are out there forever for all to see, greater care is often taken in their creation.

    In other words, quality control on books, questionable quality or simple regurgitation on most whisky blogs.

    However:

    There are currently too many whisky books of questionable quality out there. Most of these are self-published, but so much mediocrity does bring the whole genre down. If books die, print on demand may well be the killer, not lack of immediacy.

    We don’t go to books looking for the latest news. No, for this blogs rule.

    And John, I must say your chapter of Beer Hunter Whisky Chaser, the book, also touched me. I am glad you previewed the subject here on your blog some months back. I enjoyed it just that much more. I’m just back from the road but had thought when things settle I’d send a note to let you know my favourite whisky bottle is an empty Famous Grouse inscribed “____ _______’s” last bottle of whisky. I bought it for my father-in-law and we shared it in his last few weeks. Not that I’d forgotten, but your piece reminded me. Sharing, like Serge says, is what makes whisky more than just whisky. Of course blogs are about sharing information.

    So yes, I’ll keep checking the blogs for the latest tasting notes, but when I want to read something that grabs me for both form and content, I’ll pick a book and curl up on the couch.

    Charlie MacLean is a great chronicler and continues to make unique and readable contributions, I agree. The market speaks and Murray sells enough Bibles to be worth his while to keep going. And whether he makes his money by it or not Broom is a writers’ writer. But no one will replace Jackson or be the next MJ.

    Davin

  52. Whisky Party says:

    I feel like I have to stick up for the blogs a little more here. Not necessarily because I disagree with what others are saying, but I think that blogs are getting a bit of a bad rap as a medium that is inferior to books. I don’t think that’s the case and see it as a matter of comparing apples to oranges. Both have different things to offer and the question for me personally is less “which is better” so much as “which way is the balance tipping in terms of the format that is likely to introduce more people to whisky in the next decade or so.”

    While I don’t think, as Kevin suggests, that books will disappear, I do think that their relative value to those attempting to learn about scotch will decline significantly as blogs and online communities become more robust and as the whisky market is taken over by now-younger customers.

    As I’ve written before, and others have here, blogs offer certain advantages that books cannot offer. Books will always have large holes in them – even Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, for all 3,000+ tastings, is not all inclusive (for peat’s sake it doesn’t even review Laphroaig 15!).

    The value in blogs is not in perfect prose or a tasting note for the ages, as it were. It’s in the conversation and community that, as Jeff said, learns together, and in many instances in which blogs can fill holes that cannot be filled by books or any form of print media.

    Posts on a forum, or an aggregator of multiple reviewing sites can yield tasting notes that are not available in the Whisky Bible, Guide to Single Malt Scotch, or any other book. If no notes are to be found, I have no doubt that with a little leg work they can be produced within days, rather than the months or even years that go into preparing a book.

    Blogs can offer local information on bars, liquor stores, and local tastings that by definition are unsuitable for a print publishing format outside of a local cultural zine.

    I know on my blog we are working on not just posting tasting notes on our personal collections and our personal journey in discovering scotch, but also in low-cost (under $40) bottles and in local tastings, liquor store, and bar reviews – information that is locally relevant to our readers in New York and Chicago and not to be found elsewhere. Those are things you will never (or very rarely) find in a book on whisky.

  53. John M says:

    If the information within a blog is relevant, thoughtful, entertaining… it’s worthwhile. Like anything else, some blogs are better than others.

    There are no barriers to entry, like there are in the paper publishing world, so there’s likely to be even more variation in quality.

    This is a particularly good blog, because everyone respects the author. It’s written intelligently and with a bit of humility. It has charm and weight.

    That’s just my opinion, of course.

    John

  54. John Hansell says:

    First I’d like to thank everyone for taking time to contribute to this discussion. It’s been a lot of fun and very productive. I’d also like to thank Davindek and John M. for your kind words–not necessary but appreciated.

    I gave this a lot of thought overnight. I see a place for both old media and new media.

    The world of blogs, tweets, and forums are great because there is no time delay. As soon as someone discovers something–whether it be breaking news, their opinion of a new whisky release,etc.–they can post it up somewhere and it can have an immediate and global impact. (Howevery, you need to know the source of the information and know that you can trust them. This is often a world void of copy editing and fact checking.)

    This is wonderful for news related items, new releases, and other time-sensitive information. In the days of just magazines and books, this type of information was already outdated by the time the information was published. And any new print publications–whether they be magazines or books or even newspapers for that matter–will now and forever be at a disadvantage to the new paperless media.

    Having said this, I still see a place for paper media when it comes to areas that aren’t time sensitive. Magazines and books can still write stories that entertain and inform in a context that isn’t time sensitive. Focus stories on a given type of whisky, or a given whisky region, emerging trends, humor stories, stories that make you think about your preconcieved notions or ideas, etc., all can be read and enjoyed in the form of a book or magazine article.

    Indeed, the stuff Michael Jackson wrote about in his latter years (and one of the reasons he was such a great influence to us) was not time sensitive and had nothing to do with anything new. He could have written it three years ago or three years from now and we still would have enjoyed it.

    So I still think there is hope for print media (books magazines, etc.) conceptually. However, book publishers and wood-be magazine advertisers will still need to be convinced. Without their support, print media will be dead in the water.

  55. MrTH says:

    I think that ideally the best of the more immediate media gets collated in the more permanent media. You might even think of it as double distillation–the vast amount of immediately available information on the internet is distilled into something more reliable in the magazines, which in turn is distilled into something more permanent in books. That which is immediate is immediate; that which is timeless gets bound for future reference. Is not Barnard, after all, still a valuable reference?

  56. Tim F says:

    Help! I’ve been away and missed all the fun! How can I read the earlier comments?!

  57. John Hansell says:

    Tim, I’m just back from a couple of days off too! I changed the settings to allow more than 50 comments per page. Read away!

  58. Tim F says:

    Wow, what a great discussion. Really thought-provoking stuff.

    Myself, I agree that there will always be a place for books – it’s just that the variety of media formats for communication is getting broader and more diverse all the time. I love books, but you can’t ask them questions! That’s why blogs and fora like this are great as well. In their purest form these fora can become more democratic – you can get unbiased opinion from both professionals and non-industry people with decades of experience and a true dedication to their subject. That kind of instant info is invaluable.

    Going through it all again, it seems like with a few exceptions we’re all pretty much singing from the same sheet here. I really like the fact that everyone has been so polite and respectful even when discussing differences of opinion. It’s good to see a civilised adult discussion with the kind of mutual respect that’s sometimes missing from other fora – congratulations again, John, for a tremendous debate.

  59. Late coming back to the party again! (Although I did try yesterday when John still had the filter in place.)

    I want to clarify what I wrote earlier — let’s see, a full 44 posts ago. I do believe that the drinks guidebook is doomed, but not at all the drinks book, or else I wouldn’t have an agent working to sell one right now. I love books, have written six of ‘em and am surrounded by shelves of mostly drink or drink related books as I type. My favourites are, as others have noted, ones which are well written and contain more than Joe Friday’s “just the facts.”

    Literature I hope will continue to live long and healthily. Compiled lists of ratings and reviews, I think, will not, or at least not in the form they presently take.

  60. Chap says:

    This has been a fascinating thread laced with wonderful experts. I’m arriving late to the party too.

    –I can’t give a blog to someone in quite the way I can hand a book to a friend and let him page through it, take it home, and get interested. There’s room for lots of media types.

    –John, I recently finished the wonderful essay you did for the tribute book. I think you hewed closely to the best of Jackson’s work by giving of yourself in your writing. Thank you for that.

    –I miss the man, and I miss his columns. Would anyone be able to collect and publish those other writings of his for me to read in one book, or more? He’s got a sort of autobiography in there…

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