Here’s something I learned yesterday. In the 1970s, a “geek” was defined as being a person who bit the heads off chickens or snakes in a circus.
I learned that after an article had made me angry. This article. It’s one of scotchwhisky.com’s “The Debate” pieces, which are their tilt at offering two completely opposing perspectives to a perceived whisky question, mediated by someone whose conclusion is generally “there’s merit to both sides”. More compère than judge. In theory.
In case you didn’t click the link, the title of this piece is “Has Scotch Whisky Become Too Geeky?” You might ask whether this is an issue that really needs debating. You might even ask whether the title is a euphemism for “Does Tom Bruce-Gardyne Have Too Much Free Time?” And both questions would be fair.
But the manner of the piece got to me. So much so that, rather than tutting and moving on, I posted an angry tweet like a good little millennial. And quite a lot of people seemed to agree. Which doesn’t happen often. I’d scribble a rant on Malt for far less. So here goes:
Let’s start with the very use of the word “geek”. Perhaps this is just personal touchiness, but it doesn’t sit easy with me. The first time anyone ever hears the word “geek,” is in the school playground, and as an insult. “Gosh I’d love to be like them – they’re such geeks” said no child ever. And not just because “gosh” is a bit outdated these days.
It is used as a comment on someone’s perceived social ‘aptitude’; as a derogatory skewering of their personality. It is used to strongly imply that they care about something too much. That they ought to join the more chilled-out, apathetic, anodyne herd. It is, quite simply, a way of labelling people for being different. It happens at a brutally early stage of a child’s life, and is a near-impossible label to shrug off for the remainder of their school years thereafter.
“Ah”, say the geek-labellers, “but the implications have shifted as we have grown in age and in nuance. Now we say it beneficently, as a term of endearment. And anyway, geeks are billionaires now. Because Facebook.”
If that’s you, then please know that you’re talking absolute guff. I don’t care whether you’re a two-bit schoolyard bully or a tweed-smothered, chortling whisky writer. Call someone a geek and you’re labelling them. Making that statement. Creating that division. You could have said “enthusiast”. “Devotee”. “Fan”. “Buff”. But you didn’t. You said “geek”.
You were taking a dig just like the grotty little toe-rag by the classroom lockers. You are the reason they feel obliged to label themselves a geek too, with an embarrassed, almost apologetic smile. Sure, they’ll say it in a jokey, self-deprecating way, but trust me on this: you only turn to self-deprecation to stop someone else making the joke first.
None of that’s anything to do with whisky, mind you, so let’s move on. One last thing though, on a comment in the first paragraph of the ‘yes’ argument: “to be geeky has positive attributes, though they’re probably not ones that many women find attractive”. I cannot begin to comprehend how Elliot Wilson thought that was an appropriate thing to write. It is utterly, utterly inexcusable and unnecessary on every conceivable level.
But back to booze, and my biggest problem with the article.
The whisky industry is in the middle of a battle for transparency. You’ll know this if you’ve got further than a paragraph into any of our articles on Malt. As Mark has previously pointed out on twitter, Tesco’s salt and vinegar crisps carry more information on provenance than the average whisky bottle label.
Large companies such as Diageo, Edrington and Pernod Ricard do the absolute minimum to give their customers full disclosure on bottle contents, and on how ingredients and processes have driven flavour. Glenlivet, appallingly, have turned this insidious cloaking into a virtue, charging stupid sums in the process and treating total lack of consumer respect as a cause for celebration. Three times.
Imagine if those standards were applied to the food industry. “Maybe this product is 95% sugar. Maybe there’s so much saturated fat that one sniff will make your heart go clunk. Maybe this beef burger’s riddled with horse meat. Who knows? That’s half the fun.” Obviously those examples are on the extreme side, but I shall say only this: when I talk to – sorry, geekily bore – my friends about whisky, and mention the use of e150-A, they’re genuinely shocked. And these are near-total non-whisky-drinkers. The fact that caramel colouring doesn’t need to be admitted on the label is a joke.
Amidst all this cloak-and-daggery, authoritative independent writing is vital. People who can drill down into the facts; who can really communicate how a whisky goes from grain to glass – warts and all. People not afraid to point out issues, to question brands, to dig into the nitty gritty.
Scotchwhisky.com describes itself as the internet’s most authoritative resource for whisky. It has assembled a formidable legion of the industry’s brightest and best communicators. It has direct lines to every distillery, and to everyone who makes, markets and sells whisky. And it is the second most read whisky website in the world. Tom Bruce-Gardyne himself is a Master of the Quaich with several published whisky books to his name.
So what on Earth are they playing at in writing a piece which suggests people ought to take less interest in whisky? That people should ask fewer questions? Should care less about processes? Should accept lacklustre information more passively? Should generally give less of a shit?
It’s as if they’ve produced an encyclopaedia and then written “don’t over-read this – you’ll lose cool points” on the cover.
I don’t even think that the article sits on the fence all that much. Look at the language TBG uses when he talks about the “geeks”: “the minibus or group of bikers who suddenly turned up, spreading fear and trepidation … the manager is hauled out and tortured with arcane questions.” Look at his closing implication that whisky geeks conform to some unflattering physical stereotype. Look – and look most closely – at the sneers he reserves for “wine geeks” before the debate even opened.
Sure, it’s rotten when you get laughed at for not knowing something, or called out for making a tit of yourself in public. It’s perhaps surprising that Mr Bruce-Gardyne was doing paid work writing about wine without knowing what “brett” was, but that doesn’t excuse the mockery from the other judges. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s wine, whisky, computers, sports teams, cars or cottage cheese – if someone isn’t interested in something, maybe rein in the obsessive when you talk to them. (Admittedly I don’t always follow my own advice there).
But to tell people to rein in the interest full stop; to imply that passion for whatever blows one’s hair back necessarily breeds exclusivism, snobbery and “smirking derision” is just plain wrong. Those are problems with attitude, not with enthusiasm, and the one does not beget the other. Deal with them separately or not at all.
Furthermore, I object to the writing-off of wine enthusiasts as being “the pits”. And not just because I am one myself. I’ve been to as many wine fairs as I have whisky festivals, and at both of them you get a vast majority of cheery, friendly bon bibeurs, and a small minority of poe-faced, miserable, elitist, sneery execrables. The suggestion that being a whisky-person naturally involves being nicer than a wine-person is mind-boggling daftness of Premier League standard.
Oh – and wine folk have one major advantage on whisky folk when it comes to “geeking out”. Those Masters of Wine, so disparagingly brushed over in the article. Any idea what they’ve done to gain that title? Becoming an MW takes 4 years of exhaustive, PhD-level study. It involves gaining encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. The fail rate for the exam is something in the region of 80%. To get anywhere near passing you need to know so much more about wine than even the most devoted of whisky devotees knows about whisky.
In fact the only reason that the Institute of Masters of Wine is possible is that the wine industry is so much more transparent than its whisky equivalent. It isn’t perfect – indeed it is beset by many of the same problems. Wine fakes have been knocking about since before whisky even made it to auction, and even now there’s all sorts of murky business going on in France and elsewhere.
But on the whole, winemakers are only too happy to tell you about their product. To boast about the ingredients, the provenance, the processes, and to tell you the labours of love they have gone through in its creation. We touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the Longrow Red. Just imagine being a whisky enthusiast and knowing that you could go to any distillery, any festival, and have every single one of your questions answered. Imagine knowing every single thing about every single bottle. Imagine if for every single whisky there was a fact-file like this one.
Of course not everyone wants that level of detail. Of course you shouldn’t waffle on and on when you’re chatting to someone who doesn’t really care. Of course whisky makers should be aiming at the wider market, not just at the iceberg-pinnacle enthusiasts.
But that doesn’t for a moment mean that information should be less available. That we should love something less; be less curious, less interested. And it certainly doesn’t mean that sites with scotchwhisky.com’s clout should imply to big companies that the facts can be dialled down.
Never mind “the geek shall inherit the Earth”, or any similar Zuckerbergian twaddle. The thought I want to leave the industry with is this: does it want to treat “geeks” the way that they are treated in the repugnant Big Bang Theory – awkward objects of scorn and social ostracism? Or the way they are treated in the superb Spaced and Detectorists – as enthusiasts whose passion for their hobby is celebrated, not singled out as their defining human characteristic.
It’s not a matter for debate, or for sitting on the fence. Whisky lovers should be as passionate and as loud in their search for knowledge as they can. That’s how the battle for transparency will be won.
And we shouldn’t be afraid to bite a few heads off in the process.
Lead image by Malt at Bunnahabhain distillery, Feis Ile 2016. Other photographs thanks to Dan Mosley Photography and the Fife Whisky Festival.