Whisky Advocate

What does John know, really?

December 26th, 2010

Well, to be honest, I know that I’m not a great whisky writer. I read stuff by Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace), Jim Murray, Dave Broom, and more like them in Malt Advocate magazine and they just amaze me. They, are great whisky writers.

I also know that I can’t describe whiskies as eloquently and colorfully as the best ones. (I refer you to the names above once again. They are all brilliant at what they do.)

I’m not crazy about this blog’s name, “What Does John Know?” because it comes across as sounding egotistical–to the point where I am becoming increasingly embarrassed by it. Don’t be surprised if you see it changed sometime soon. It’s really just the Malt Advocate magazine blog, and I am only one part of a great team of people. (But most of you knew that already.)

I feel that I am just a passionate whisky enthusiast, like many of you. The only difference is that I started this great journey thirty years ago, so maybe I just got a head start? That forced me to blaze some trails (and I have the scars to prove it). If I have made your whisky journey more pleasant and easier to navigate, then this is much more than I have ever envisioned and I am a better person for it.

I know that I try to be honest and fair, walking a very thin line promoting this great whisky industry while at the same time being a voice for you, the whisky enthusiast. 

Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win. I am accused by some whisky consumers of being biased because Malt Advocate accepts advertising, while at the same time I get chided by some people in the whisky industry for (occasionally, and only when I feel it is warranted) being critical about their whiskies or their practices.

To be completely honest, putting myself in this position is sometimes very stressful and emotionally draining (because I really do care about what people think and say). I have no intention of compromising my principles, but I am also aware of the price I am paying for it personally.

As much as I love whisky, it isn’t the most important thing in my life. Family, friendship, and health (both physical and spiritual) always come first. Maybe that’s why I know I will never be known as the world’s leading whisky expert. To be that person, I would have to sacrifice the other things I feel are more important. I’m just not willing to do that, and I’m okay with that.

Speaking of those more important things, that’s what I’ll be focusing on the rest of this year. I want to thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedule to join me here, and I wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2011.

I’ll see you right here again next week.

56 Responses to “What does John know, really?”

  1. lawschooldrunk says:

    John, you’ve definitely gotten a big head start on me, whisky-wise!

    I appreciate your groundwork because, indeed, you made and make my whisky journey easier and far more enjoyable than if you weren’t around. The magazine is a pleasure to read and I can’t wait to read each edition.

    Thank you.

    A healthy and prosperous 2011 to you too, John.

    (and WDJK is not egotistical because by default, the inverse follows! And I assume you don’t know a lot ;) )

  2. Well, You know enough to that I wish for a catalogue or a library of your reviews, so I could easily trace back earlier reviews :-)

    Steffen

  3. Jason Pyle says:

    John, I think you are being too critical perhaps or thinking about things a little too much. While Malt Advocate is a whole lot more than just you, YOU are the guiding force behind it (and in front). And thus, the title of this blog is a hell of a lot better than, “The Malt Advocate Blog”.

    And while this may very well be the Malt Advocate blog, I am here because I want to hear what you know and what’s going on in the world of whiskey. I also think you can champion the cause (for readers and fans) and still balance the necessary honesty required of you in your position w/out losing what is important. In your 30 plus years you’ve earned that. It’s the benefit of being one of the first to do what you have done.

    There was only one Michael Jackson. Okay, well, maybe two but you know what I mean. But otherwise it’s not a race to be “THE WHISKEY EXPERT”. There’s room for a number of people and each bring their unique take. At least I hope there’s room.

    Keep on plugging along and doing what you do John. I certainly appreciate it, and clearly I’m not alone.

  4. Jon W. says:

    You’re going to take heat from all sides no matter where you are in any industry if you’re in a position of responsibility and you’re doing your job effectively. Or reverse the logic: you can’t please everyone all the time. Therefore at any given time, someone will not be pleased. Winds change. Principles don’t.

    In your case, consumers who complain about you being biased because you accept advertising money and samples seem to be a little ignorant of how the real world works (i.e. you need money to survive, etc.). Would you be willing to share with us the subscription cost if there were no advertising revenue? Understandable if that’s confidential. Just curious. Also, I view your reviews as a supplement to my own experience. I use them as a loose guide to help me chose where to place my own money. You’ve rarely steered me wrong which is why I keep coming back for advice. When I hear this particular complaint I imagine a scenario where someone has recently read your favorable review of Glensomething 15, goes to party where people are talking about scotch, mentions that they think Glensomething 15 was really good (without having tried it, only reading your review), gets ridiculed by the other party-goes who did not like Glensomething 15, later returns to the magazine and notices an advertisement for Glensomething and then makes the conclusion that you gave the GS15 a good rating because their company bought some advertising space. I’m not suggesting you should dismiss all criticisms from consumers (you shouldn’t, you don’t walk on water) but simply being criticized shouldn’t be discouraging.

    And so I’m not sure what to make of industry folk who can’t take criticism. If they disagree with your logic and feel you were holding them to an unfair / irrelevant standard than they can offer a defense or a different spin on the product. Otherwise they should be grateful for the free advice.

    But you know all that, which is why you’re still here doing what you’re doing.

    In any event, I hope you have a great 2011!! Please keep up the blog and call it whatever you want. I’d love to offer up a creative suggestion, but I do think that “The Malt Advocate” would work very well. Maybe “John Hansell: Whisk(e)y Advocate”? You have certainly earned the name recognition.

    (And I will take this opportunity once again to insert another plea for you to return to Monks! Philly needs some juice!!!)

  5. Joshie says:

    John, you’re a fine whiskey writer. You just have a different style from MJ, Murray and Broom. Sometimes poetic notes are great, but sometimes it can get a little silly as the fine people at http://www.maltimpostor.com/ remind us.

    Part of what makes you such a fine whiskey writer and editor is the fact that you are “just a passionate whisky enthusiast” like the rest of us. That’s why I read this blog, to get a view of what lies ahead of me in the journey.

  6. Ethan Smith says:

    Mom and dad always told me “You can’t live life trying to please everyone.” And the older I get, the more I understand what they were talking about. You hit the nail on the head when you say that you would have to sacrifice too much that you feel is of greater importance. It’s a delicate balance of learning when to “Hold ‘em or fold ‘em.” I think your magazine is great and I enjoy reading the posts on here. I’ve learned many things and look forward to learning more. As for the name of the blog, why not just “Malt Advocate Online” or “The Malt Advocate’s Corner” or something like that.

  7. B.J. Reed says:

    With influence and impact comes criticism and pressure… and responsibility. You have moved the Malt Advocate to a position of importance and every review, every comment and every element of praise or criticism that emanates from its pages will draw a reaction.

    It is a complement to you John that you have reached this point. If you were not making a difference people would pay little attention. The pressure is an artifact of the success. The key is to pay attention to what others say but not internalize it and to not take in personally. If you begin to do that then its better to walk away because as you noted, whisky is not the most important thing in your life.

  8. Paul Lynch says:

    Happy Holidays John!
    Lot of great sentiments already stated here so I do not want to retread those waters. I just wanted to echo them and thank you for all that you (and those around you) do for us and for putting yourself in the unwanted position of not being able to please everyone – however, we are all the better for it. Thanks again and Happy New Year!

  9. John Hansell says:

    Ironically, one of the most difficult parts of my job is what I don’t do: censor your comments.

    What I love about living in the United States is our right to free speech. I may not always agree with your comments but, as long as you aren’t attacking an indivudual’s character, I will strongly defend your right to express yourselves.

    Unfortunately, more than you will ever know, I take a lot of heat from the undustry I have devoted my life supporting, by sticking up for your right to speak your mind.

    I have endured phone calls, emails, and the public rants by industry reps like this one. I have even had to deal with threats of legal action being taken against me–not for what I have said, but rather the comments I have allowed to be posted here.

    You have the right to say how you feel–whether it’s positive or negative in tone. I have always felt that, if you don’t tell someone how you feel, how can you expect the relatonship to ever change and improve?

    Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to say that you don’t like something. That’s one big thing I learned from my mentor, Michael Jackson. Perhaps that something we can all try to improve on in the New Year as a New Year’s resolution? To not just think about what we are saying, but also about how we are saying it?

    Anyway, I just felt the need to let you know what I was thinking with this post, even if it it is somewhat emotional and rambles a bit.

    • kallaskander says:

      Hi John,

      but your blog is aptly named. You do know things ahead of the rest of us because you are the edititor of a whisky magazine. You have the connections you have the standing – and a big one – because of what you do you are important to your readers and to the industry. Being an interface is no fun, though. The heat comes from the pan and from the fire. There is no comfortable place if you do what you do. And I do think there is no way out for you but quitting one or the other. One thing you can do is to chose between pan or fire.
      That posters here do not like advertising is the other side of the coin of the industry not liking you for critical reviews or you letting us post critical remarks.

      But we posters or customers and the undustry (I like that typo, because they are on the way to become an un-do-stry, but that is another story) are interdependent as one does not make much sense without the other.

      What is your blog? The prolonged arm of your magazine and the feedback channel for your readers? A source of information for the industry to catch trends?

      What ever, John if you want to change something here I am afraid it would take you to change something in your very personality. Or to quit and shut up.

      I do not think that is what we want. Neither will it be what you want. I do not envy you your position and I can imagine the stress it puts you under. But because of that I hugely appreciate what you do.

      A Happy New Year, John to you and your familiy.

      Greetings
      kallaskander

  10. two-bit cowboy says:

    First — today’s Sunday. I’m surprised to see your post (thought you took weekends off!). And, yes, I always check just in case.

    Rename your blog if you must; I’ll still come by, but there’s nothing wrong with WDJK.

    I’ve read some of these same sentiments in other posts you’ve written. That some of these things bother you tells me one thing: you care what folks think. Nothing wrong with that.

    A great leader makes decisions based on knowledge and experience, as you do. Everyone won’t agree with you, but you won’t comprimise your integrity, reputation, or commitment. That’s strength. “Do the right thing, even when no one’s looking,” was the favorite phrase of Bill Lake, the last guy I worked for — a decade ago. He lived those words, and seems to me you do too.

    And from a different vantage: “DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF… and it’s all small stuff” is the title of Richard Carlson’s best selling book. Sage counsel.

  11. Yello to Mello says:

    So when are you changing the site to ‘What Does John Think?’…hahahahaha!!!!

    I dont know if I ever took WDJK as an egotistical thing, maybe sometimes John knows Jack (Daniel?)

    The industry will always be on your case. They see your blog as a phenomenon that (I am assuming) you never intended for it to be. They see it as an extension of the magazine.

    I have a non-whisky released site and professionals are always on my case about not censoring poster’s opinions. If I did that, the posters will also be crying foul.

    There are always conflicts when professionals are exposed to, or post publicly on the internet. I always encouraged them to stay off totally and stick to e-mail and twitter. I am actually quite surprised that you can maintain this blog the way you are doing and can imagine some issues that are brought up that you told us about. I believe you 100% that you are ‘walking a thin line’.

  12. Keith Sexton says:

    I hope you don’t change the name. It’s unique, and it does not sound egotistical. If this blog was egotistical, there would be less followers. The proof is in the pudding! Happy holidays to you and my fellow followers.

  13. JWC says:

    You are way too modest John. As for your principles, your willingness to stand up for them are valued and appreciated by us.

    As we go through life, we try to balance our interests, family, friends and work – some are more successful than others.

    Thank you for all your efforts this past year. Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

  14. Doc says:

    So you catch heat from Whisk(e)y consumers for accepting ads? I read them and find them informative, though I take them with a grain of salt since they ARE biased.

    You catch heat from the industry for your opinions? Frankly, John, that is the industry’s problem. I’m sure they would rather have you and Malt Advocate out there than not.

    P.S. My son-in-law bought me vip tickets for WhiskyFest in Chicago for Christmas! See ya there!

  15. Pat B says:

    WDJK is one of the best whisk(e)y sites on the web. Your name in the title is in no way egotistical. You, Sir do an outstanding job of being honest and fair. I totally agree that there are more important things than whisk(e)y in life. The fact that you take heat is the curse of a principled man, you will do what you think is the right thing and take the consequences. This is why I check this site often. I read all of the other authors that you have mentioned and find that you are the equal of them. Your style is different but that is good. Please keep up the good work. What John knows is valuable to the enthusiast community. Thank you for your work and honesty.

  16. Louis says:

    John,

    You are doing a great job. Maybe if Michael Jackson had run a magazine and spent time blogging, he wouldn’t have been the Michael Jackson as we knew him. The fact is you have published a magazine AND given whisky enthusiast a place to hang out and speak candidly, and that is noteworthy in its own right.

    As for the criticism, remember that a presidential election that ends up 60/40 is considered a landslide, but up to 40% on the country just might be mad as heck. You are never going to please everybody, and some people will always complain about something. Those in the industry that don’t like what WE are saying should think more about what their customers are asking for, and not blame you.

    So enjoy your time off, and I’m sure you’ll find some interesting drams to send 2010 out with.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  17. James K says:

    echoing the sentiments already posted is repetitive at this point so i won’t.

    i (like most on here) don’t have any issues with the title of the blog, but if you do feel the need to change it, how about a friendly contest? you choose the winner and the winner gets a whisky related prize? at the least, it would make for some good reading.

  18. Quentin says:

    I don’t think this was aimed at you, John, but Whisky Mag had a recent industry rant against the blogosphere (http://www.whiskymag.com/magazine/issue90/12009812.html) that seems to typify the emerging polarization of views in the industry. I work in Washington DC, so I know something about polarization and I would say, don’t let the b@$tards get you down!

  19. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    Quentin I must say that Tim amazes me. But I do not think that his rant should keep anyone from blogging about whisky. If they have something to say – and John surely does – the proof of worthyness of a blog does not lie in a bottle but in the contents that are bloged.
    Tim himself is not fully without merits if it comes to critical acclaims of what whisky brands or the industry do.
    He being a blogger himself under the name of well known internet retailer The Whisky Exchange, London surely knows what he is talking about. But whatever he means it surely does not concern WDJK.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  20. John, I don’t think you have to worry about your reputation as a whisky writer. It is probably unavoidable to upset some people in both camps (industry and consumers) when striving to be as independent as possible. And I think for a whisky writer it’s better to display scars and bruises rather than traces of slime.

  21. David G says:

    I used to work for a newsmagazine. We’d get letters that would say “Dear Editor: You’re all a bunch of liberal left-wing communists”, and we’d get letters that would say “Dear Editor: You’re all a bunch of radical right-wing extremists”. That, the Editor would say, is proof of how we know we’re doing our job well.

  22. D.Houston says:

    John, the reason i read your blog,is the great whisky reviews, the reviews from the “whiskey experts” you named are so complicated you’d have to be a whisky expert to understand them. It’s time for some toned down analysis of whiskey, i for one will never be able to taste” bubble gum”,”jasmine tea” or a”steaming damp kilt” in my whisky. They have to be making half this stuff up as they go along.

    Whisky Lover not Expert Dave

    • John Hansell says:

      Thanks Dave. I am a scientist by trade, not a poet. That one of the reasons why most of my reviews are fairly down to earth. Okay, every once in a while, I drift into the esoteric zone, but that’s usually the exception.

    • JB says:

      Come now, I’ve tasted bubble gum in Highland Park more than once…

  23. Henry H. says:

    Have just read the good Dr. Whisky’s slam of our John Hansell, this blog and the comments posted here. Surely it’s transparent, isn’t it? We shouldn’t take the political economy of spirits at all seriously. Nor should we even name names. No, if we’re a bit frustrated with this or that practice of companies we buy products from, the product itself or the misrepresentation thereof, a little vague humor should suffice. (Let me be sure to say that I much appreciate Serge’s humor, along with the rest of his excellent site.)

    That Dr. Whisky’s rant is idiotic and deserving of scornful laughter cannot make it any easier to take for you, though, John. I’m sorry he wrote it – and sorry you have to contend with such lowest-common-denominator crap on a regular basis. But does it represent the opinion of many whisk(e)y drinkers? I seriously doubt it.

    You provide such an excellent service here, and not only to us passionate drinkers, but also to the industry, whether or not its owners and reps understand it. Please proceed apace. And thanks yet again for all you do.

    • John Hansell says:

      Thanks Henry. I really appreciate it.

      Dr. Whisky is a great ambassador for all whiskies (not just the ones he represents in his day job). And I also agree with all the nice things he said about the whisky industry. But his industry bias is very obvious. (For those who missed it, see my reference to Dr. Whisky’s blog post in comment #9).

      The whisky industry is not perfect. Neither am I (or anyone else here). But to pretend that everything is perfect and just look the other way…well that’s not good either. To burying our head in the sand and hope that everything will be better when we take it back out is being very miopic and will not solve anything.

      Not everyone here has the talent to express their concerns and frustrations eloquently or with humor like you (or Serge). But, the fact that there were so many comments indicates there are issues that need to be addressed, and industry reps (like Dr. Whisky) should listen to what people here are saying rather than being upset about the how they are saying it.

      • Henry H. says:

        John, you are very welcome. Also meant to say that I’ve always taken the title of your blog to be in the spirit of sharing what you know by virtue of your position. Hope you won’t change it in response to accusations of egotism, yet we’ll all likely understand if you do. I’ll shut up now. Best wishes for the new year.

      • B.J. Reed says:

        I think folks see what they want to see. Thanks to your generosity (and your surgery) I had the chance to do 5 days of posts on our trip last March that did nothing but celebrate distilleries throughout Scotland. There have been lots and lots of posts that congratulate the whisky industry for its innovative approaches, commitment to quality and so forth. Still, when your readers see something that they believe threatens quality, or reflects more than one standard deviation beyond acceptable practice they raise the issue as do you.

        The role of this blog and the Malt Advocate in my view is to promote whisky but to maintain its integrity vis a vis the industry. I understand the stress and pressure that has to exist in a business that is increasingly competitive and where decisions today may not see results for 5, 10 or 15 years. Very few businesses have that kind of time frame in addressing ROI.

        I have grown to love the people in this business. The vast majority of distillery personnel from managers and mash men to those who run the shops are simply wonderful people. I consider many of them my friends. I enjoy and respect almost all the “brand ambassadors” out there who believe in their product and who unabashedly cheer lead for their whisky.

        Still, there are parts of the business that bother me and their are people who are short sighted, insecure and who feel threatened by any negative comments about their company or their product. I understand. Criticism can hurt and if one believes its unfounded you get upset. We have all been there. However, thin skin and an unwillingness to listen or to see every action as some type of disloyalty serves no one well.

        • John Hansell says:

          I say so many more positive things about the industry than critical. (Like you, I too have grown to love so many people in this business.) For a fellow blogger to ignore all of the positive posts here and just focus on the negative ones is, ironically, in itself, being negative.

  24. Tom Troland says:

    There are two aspects to being a whiskey writer. One is the ability to describe the industry, its history, its people, its processes, and, perhaps, its future. The other aspect is whiskey evaluation. The former requires the skill set of a reporter and a story teller. The latter (whiskey evaluation) requires a vivid imagination. I’m no whiskey expert, but I’ve been drinking whiskey for over 30 years. And I’ve been reading whiskey evaluations for nearly as long. What I’ve come to understand is that most of what you read in a whiskey evaluation is made up and of no practical use to the whiskey drinker. Not that the whiskey evaluators are dishonest. It’s just that the human sensory system is very subjective, individual and time variable. So the five to ten descriptors that a whiskey evaluator uses to describe a given sample (lemon, hints of pineapple, polished oak, etc.) provide little guidance to another individual tasting the same product.

    As an example, consider the whiskey evaluations regularly published in Whisky Magazine. To the magazine’s credit, each whiskey is evaluated by two individuals. Yet the descriptors each taster uses to describe the same whiskey are usually very different (even if the evaluation scores are often similar). Imagine taking all of these evaluations from a given issue of the magazine and scrambling them up. Now ask another individual to read each evaluation and match it with the other evaluation of the same whiskey. It would be nearly impossible, I am sure, to match up these evaluations better than by random chance. So the whiskey descriptors used by the evaluators convey little useful information other than the subjective impressions of one person at one moment in time.

    I do feel, however, that numerical ratings of whiskeys can provide useful information to the consumer. Especially if the ratings are not ridiculously precise. The 1-5 star system (e.g. Pacult’s Spirit Journal) makes sense, even though it is admittedly subjective. What does not make sense is the 100 point system. Who could possibly imagine, given the subjective nature of human senses, that scores different by one part in 100 (e.g. 93 vs. 94) convey useful information to the consumer? Jim Murry even divides things up more finely, sometimes using half points. The fact is that Jim is making these numbers up. He might as well rate women’s beauty on a 100 point scale and imagine that his scores are meaningful. So Amy Adams is a 93 and Angelina Jolie is a 94. Or maybe only a 93.5.

    There is nothing wrong with made up numbers and descriptors in whiskey evaluations. Although the words (and often the numbers) are largely fiction, they make for fun reading. After all, Herman Melville made up the story of Moby Dick. Everybody understands that Moby Dick is fiction. Fun to read, but it carries little factual information. The same applies to whiskey reviews. To both whiskey reviewers and novelists, I say, keep up the good work. A little fiction makes life so much more enjoyable!

    • JohnM says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Tom.

    • sam k says:

      Tom, it’s interesting that you mention Moby Dick, since Melville was obviously a man who knew good whiskey. In chapter 84, describing the harpooning of a whale and the resulting spout of blood, he writes:

      “That drove the spigot out of him!” cried Stubb. “‘Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! “

      • Tom Troland says:

        Sam,

        Interesting point! Only a coincidence, however, since I do not know Moby Dick very well. But, yes, Melville clearly knew something about whiskey. The Monongahela, presumably, was rye. The old Ohio or the old Orleans might have been bourbon (of its day) that passed through Maysville, Kentucky. Maysville is on the Ohio River, and the city was a node along the trade route to New Orleans. Many a barrel of whiskey, I have read, was shipped via riverboat from Maysville to New Orleans during the 1800s.

      • barryjay says:

        Sam, with John being the ardent fisherman that he is, had Moby Dick been written with Captain Hansell and not Ahab, the story would have been much shorter.. John actually has a story more in line with the :The Old Man and the Sea”. Maybe someday he will regale us all with it…I do have it on Flip video, but it is spiced with colorful metaphors….lol

    • Henry H. says:

      Literary fiction compared with whisk(e)y reviews? Fiction such as Moby Dick “carries little factual information”?! We can hope you’re writing in jest to make a point, but it must nonetheless be called out as poppycock. If literature is only for “fun,” the equivalent of spirits reviews, then novelists have perpetrated one of the most scandalous hoaxes of all time, and millions of thoughtful editors, crusading publishers and voracious readers have been made fools of.

      Let’s be very clear here: Whisk(e)y reviews are not art; literary fiction *is*. (It beggars the imagination to have to write this on a website frequented by people with some education.) But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take spirits reviews quite seriously. Let’s explore further.

      Must say, with some reservations, that I agree with you about the 100-point system. Yet committed reviewers continue to employ it — and not only ones who make a profit on their work. Which brings us to your snide dismissal of those reviewers, labeling their evaluations as “made up and of no practical use to the whiskey drinker.”

      Is it lost on you that these folks have thought long and hard about this stuff? That serious drinkers carefully evaluate the reviews, and the reviewers, they read? That scores and scores of people with greater minds (not to mention palettes) than ours have worked their asses off to theorize and present — and re-theorize and re-present — their considerable knowledge and impressions of whisk(e)y for others’ edification? That drinkers look to them to learn an immense amount about something they’re passionate about — and look to them again for advice on how not to be mistakenly, sometimes even fraudulently, separated from their money? Have you ever read any of the many published books on whisk(e)y? They don’t all command respect and reverence, but plenty of them do.

      The work you read apparently only for momentary diversion and amusement has meant something a little bit different to me: I understand single malt Scotch whisky an order of magnitude better than I would have going it alone. The same can be said for novels that pass muster as literature and a life lived in the era of late capitalism and techno-industrial society.

      In the future, I will refrain from commenting (okay, ranting) here about thoughtless nonsense such as this. You’ll just have to imagine (more likely you’ll be glad to forget) me out here cringing in wonder at what people are willing to write in a public forum. For what it’s worth, reading back through this rant makes me wonder how I’ll climb down off this high horse, yet I still think it’s worth posting. Thanks for considering it.

      • mongo says:

        yes, fiction and whisky reviews are two completely different things. however, “moby dick” works quite well as a whaling manual.

      • John Hansell says:

        Reviewing and rating whiskies is the hardest thing I do, and describing what I am tasting is only part of it. It takes a lot of guts to put a number on a whisky, knowing fully well that the producer is going to read it and consumers are depending on me to give them good advice.

        I have been criticial of many whiskies that were created by master distillers I respect and are my friends. It’s not easy telling a friend that you don’t particularly like something they created and are proud of. But, the way I see it, true friends are honest and tell you how they feel. These are integral components to a good relationship: honesty and openness.

        I also realize that no matter what I say about a whisky in a review, there will always be consumers who are very critical and disagree with me. That’s part of the job. If I dish it out, I need to be able to take it too.

        Drinking “for fun” is so much more enjoyable than when I am evaluation whiskies for publication.

        • Jason Pyle says:

          John great point. Certainly as Henry mentions, descriptive language can bring on a number of over the top references. But one tastes what they taste. Assigning a rating based on subjective taste for all the world to critic and disagree with you is not easy. I can only speak for myself and say I love it, but I agree that it sounds easier in theory than it is in reality.

          But anyone questioning if it’s of any value is entitled to their opinion, but I think comments on this blog, and comments on a site I run would indicate otherwise to me. I’m always amazed at the outpouring of support and “thank yous” that come from people that enjoy whiskey. That’s one of the great things I’ve noticed. In my experience most of the folks that enjoy whiskey are great people. Again, that’s my experience.

          John keep on putting yourself out there skeptics be damned. And thank you for it.

      • Tom Troland says:

        Henry,

        Many thanks for your commentary. (But I disagree that yours is a rant. You are merely expressing your feelings.) I certainly feel flattered if an extensive comment of mine provokes a reply of similar length. Now as far as education is concerned, I do have some. Admittedly, not much in the humanities. Hence, my confusion about the difference between whiskey reviews and literary fiction! Hence, your beggared imagination!

        I do not question the sincerity nor the dedication of whiskey reviewers. Nor do I believe that numerical ratings (within limits) are meaningless. When Paul Pacult rates a spirit one star, I’m quite sure that the stuff really sucks. So I won’t waste my money. It is the words in the whiskey reviews that I find largely meaningless and “of no practical use to the whiskey drinker”. But just because the words are of no practical use (at least to me) doesn’t mean they are not entertaining. So I read whiskey reviews all the time. Just as some folks read Moby Dick, not for practical information but for entertainment (admittedly highbrow).

        Every now and then, I’m particularly entertained by the words whiskey reviewers use. Recently, Paul Pacult described a top rated bourbon as having “succulent scents of lead pencil”. Mmmm! I’ve even seen a spirit described by a reviewer as “buxom”. Neither of these descriptions was of any practical use to me. But they were fun to read. Again, just like Moby Dick.

        And, yes, I’ve read the whiskey books. Just about all of them. I’ve learned a lot about the history of whiskey, whiskey production techniques, and the differences among different styles of whiskey. I’ve even learned about the legal aspects of whiskey. For example, I learned that in the 1960s it was illegal in Massachusetts for a bar to serve alcohol during a riot. Damn! Just when you would need a stiff drink.

        Many of the whiskey books are excellent. I particularly recommend Chuck Cowdery’s Bourbon Straight. And Malt Advocate is a great magazine. But the least useful parts of whiskey books and magazines, I have found, are the whiskey reviews. Still, I always read the reviews because they are so entertaining!

        I think we can all agree that drinking whiskey and reading about it is educational and fun. Moreover, tastes in whiskey (and in whiskey reading matter) can vary. Among male drinkers, at least, some may prefer a buxom spirit. Others might go for one with good legs (in the glass). But it’s all in fun, my original commentary included.

        Enjoy!

    • Lawrence says:

      Tom, I’ll wager if you actually had to write tasting notes you’d change your tune…

  25. barryjay says:

    Heck with “What Does John Know?” What’s even better is “What Makes John Tick?” Having had the opportunity to throw back a few with John as our paths collided, I have to say, he (as well as his wife Amy) are truly your “spirits and beer drinkers next door.”. Both with a delightful sense of humor and reality, they are all our representatives in this crazy world of libations, He found his passion and took it forward without anyone’s preconceived notion as to how it should be done; patient with those of us who marginally at best have a grip on the industry while taking on those who would have us at a disadvantage.

    There are those times when positions need to be taken, sides drawn and lines put in the sand. I would stake my life and reputation (not that there’s a lot left) on John and his opinions as they are all formed out of the common good for friends, family and his fellow bloggers.. He’s one of the few folks that I know that enjoy all the simpler things in life…especially those that can reach your lips in a glass or with a fork!

    Well done John!

  26. Texas says:

    Obviously I don’t know John, and would not be surprised if some of my posts annoyed him. All I can say is that WDJK is a very apt name for the blog. John you are a pioneer in so many ways, and if nothing else than longevity you DO know a lot. I have been in my profession for 20+ years, so I know a lot about it. There is no bragging in the name WDJK..just a statement of fact. The fact is you know plenty and have the unique ability to show all sides where some (drwhisky for example) come across as only being able to see one side..in drwhisky’s case the industry. It wasn’t that long ago the drwhisky blasted those of us who post here. In that case you let us rant and rave but also shut it down when it got over the top and you also defended drwhisky to a certain extent..if not a defense of what he said then at least his right to say it.

    This country in general (world in general) is headed in the direction of speech censorship where if you say something the powers that be don’t like (in this case the whisky industry) they want to censor that speech. This blog is a counter to that trend. Please don’t change a thing. I also figure as someone stated above that if you are occasionally getting everyone in every sector a little ruffled, then you are doing exactly what you should be.

  27. Yves Cosentino says:

    Hey John
    It is always great to read the (your) blog, and the (your, and your team’s) magazine, but you sound a bit down today. Don’t underestimate your contribution to the whisky drinkers’ cause. I hope that the many comments will cheer you up and will encourage you to keep blazing that trail, straight and true. There are very few publications that I know of (and I’m not talking about just whisky/drinks publications, but specialised magazines in general) that can pride themselves on the editorial integrity of Malt Advocate. Please John and team, keep up the good work. Looking forward to the next issue, and blogpost.
    Yves

  28. Cheryl Lins says:

    The journal article Origins of Flavour in Whiskies and a Revised Flavour Wheel: a Review pp 287-313 (Lee, Paterson and Piggott) J. Inst. Brewing, Volume 107, No 5, 2001 there are several mentions of instances of differing descriptors used by professionals for the same chemical flavoring/aroma compound. Terms employed for furfural were grainy (<10%), marzipan (54%), sweet (26%), oily (15%) (pg 296). Other examples are found. The link to the paper is here and it's available free of charge.

    http://www.scientificsocieties.org/JIB/papers/2001/2001_107_5_287.pdf

  29. Jun Nunez says:

    Well said John. Family and friends always comes first and integrity must never be compromised. One must always be true to his principles. Sometimes the cost is high but at the end it’s always worth it.
    Cheers,

  30. [...] Back in my office after a lovely, warm week in the sun, I was contemplating what to write as a year-end post when I came across this missive from my friend and publisher, John Hansell. December 26th, 2010 [...]

  31. John,
    I’ve been mulling over the post for a couple of days, and I’ve come to suspect that, whether it meets with every blogger/industry executive/customer’s approval or not, What Does John Know? will, I’m confidant, constitute a very positive facet of your legacy.
    I don’t necessarily mean for those aspects of journalism which you fear you lack (although to my mind – and those of numerous posters here – you needn’t reproach yourself in this regard) but for creating the forum in the first place and defending it so resolutely ever since. When whisky (especially single malt) was the preserve of the experts and connoisseurs, your platform helped to democratise the product. I feel it required someone inside the industry to take that initial jump and open up the floor to those who bought the stuff and were thereby entitled to air their views on what they had paid their money for. I agree, though, that people, when they decide to enter in to the attractively anonymous environment that the internet is, should realise their responsibilities and give more consideration to how they conduct themselves. But for the industry to turn on the people who pay their wages demonstrates a similar lack of respect.
    The industry, if it wishes to dive into social media as it is doing, must be prepared for some home truths from the other side. It can’t have it both ways, but must try and respond to what can be constructively taken from the exercise. After all, they surely can’t have decided to target certain blogs and other sites in the belief that their products are infallible? They are dealing with an increasingly well-informed (thanks, John) customer base, so there is more than marketing to be engaged in online.
    Whiskies – as others have commented above – are perceived by different people in different ways, but so are humans themselves. Integrity will out, I believe. You’re fighting the good fight, John, and I urge you to keep at it in your readable, informative and above all honest style.
    A very happy New Year to you and everyone on WDJK.

  32. John Hansell says:

    Thanks everyone for the encouragement. It means a lot to me. On to 2011, then.

  33. Joe M says:

    John, you have established yourself as leading voice in the field. As such, you are naturally a target for others who would like to control or dominate the discussion. This is the case for all other leading writers in the blogosphere. Why would it be different for you? You should see the negative attention as sign that you are succeeding in your mission to un-rig the review and awards game. I believe you bend over backwards to be reasonable and always address any legitimate questions that are raised.

    No one alive today has contributed more to the greater whisky community than you. Whiskyfest is an unparalled experience. I look forward to my issue of Malt Advocate every month with a good deal of excitement, knowing that I will get unbiased, high quality reviews and articles. Because of you, I purchase and enjoy more whisky than ever before.

    So, my resolution for you in 2011 is to toughen up. You do not need to take any crap. You should continue to answer your critics in a direct and repspectful way, as you always do. Carry forward your journey on the trail of excellence you blazed for yourself.

  34. I love this editorial and the sensitivity and sensibility it conveys.
    Thank you

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