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If anything, Scotch whisky isn’t geeky enough

Feis Ile

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 And not just because “gosh” is a bit outdated these days.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.

Whisky Laugh

“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.

Fife Festival crowd

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.

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Adam Wells
Adam Wells

Lover of all things whisk(e)y, with or without the “e”. Uses up all his holiday visiting distilleries. Gets shouted at at events for using the spittoon. Also scribbles for the British Bourbon Society, and spends his actual working hours writing about wine.

  1. The Captain says:

    Good article, I’d like to raise a couple of points without having to write my own piece.

    I’m really disappointed in Scotchwhisky.com. I think they had a real thing which could have been great but they’ve written far to many click bait articles, which is exactly what this latest effort is, and I don’t recall them ever saying where all the whisky they review comes from, so much for transparency.

    Geek is clearly mean’t as an insult, we can get that out of the way so a paid whisky writer on one the biggest whisky sites out there writing about geeks is fucking shameful, I will never click on their website again, ever, not once more, fuck them.

    Next up, no wait, fuck them, did I make that clear?

    Right, with regards to the industry we do need to remember that pretty much every drop of whisky produced even by those distilleries we all fawn over ends up in blends and those blends need to be consistent in every aspect. I remember reading an excellent article with the top guy (I forget the title) at Moet and he said that it’s far more difficult to produce the NV (non vintage) bottle that the vintage or limited editions because people expect every bottle to look and taste the same. This is why I don’t mind a bit of colouring added to my whisky, especially a blend or core range bottle and keep in mind none of us have to buy them.

    This point is important because 99% of people who buy Scotch give not one single fuck about e150 colour or chill filtration or Scotch Mist or any of that shit, so why would companies pour money into sticking all that on their labels and in their marketing when there is almost zero demand for it? So I’m okay with that.

    As for distillery managers or other distillery staff, and I’ll include those working at festivals and brand ambassadors, well, I have never once, in my twenty five years of drinking whisky ever seen anyone shy away from a question, so that’s just silly, isn’t it? Staff are almost always dedicated to the cause and again, it’s a cheap dig to suggest otherwise, but hey, click bait.

    It’s also bizarre that a website aimed at whisky fans would slag them off, oh wait, click bait, it’s click bait, I keep forgetting.

    We as whisky nerds, see what I did there, need to remember our audience, sometimes I can get chatting whisky and can see eyes start to glaze over and other times people wanting to hear more about all the little quirks of my hobby and passion, it’s all about balance.

    This comment comes from my own personal collection of gripes and complaints.

    The Captain.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Cheers for the read – and for posting such a thorough response!

      I think scotchwhisky.com do a lot of good, and on the whole they’re an excellent resource. Naturally I don’t agree with all of the opinion polls – can’t win ’em all – but in the instance of this article I disagreed particularly strongly, as I thought that the tone (and much of the content) had stepped over a line. And especially thought it was odd that a specialist site was questioning their most dedicated readers.

      I completely take your point regarding people not caring at all about colouring/chill-filtration, but much of the reason for that is because they’re unaware. Loads of people buy whisky based on its colour, and the use of colouring is a deliberate manipulation to make more money through misconception. Your Moet point is an excellent one though – I spoke to a Bollinger bloke at work a couple of years ago who said the same thing.

      I think staff are great at answering questions, and brilliant at interacting with fans, but there’s only so far they can go. Obviously I’m at the extreme end of the enthusiast spectrum, but I’d love for more distilleries to be able to go into the same detail as Waterford/Box/Chichibu/Westland etc. Wishful thinking for the time being, of course, but I suspect times will gradually be a’changing.

      Thanks once again for taking the time to engage so fully. Really appreciate the feedback; always so in-depth and thought provoking. You always come up with a good few points I’d missed!

      Cheers

      Adam

  2. Barry says:

    Well said. The beauty of whisky is it can be as geeky or ungeeky as you want it to be. I’m sorry for TB-D that he feels he has had to publicly throw his toys out of the pram just because someone else might know a bit more than he does. Also the misogynistic rebuttals belongs in 1918 not 2018. The less said about the original article the better. Perhaps this time Sukhinders click bait shows just how in the industry’s pocket his website is?

  3. Anon says:

    Not sure how useful more transparency is without extensive comparative data.

    E.g. Why is 1960s Laphroaig so much better than current Laphroaig?
    1) You’ll never have transparency about the older bottling (barley, fermentation times etc)
    2) isolating which of the many factors made the old bottling better is almost impossible even if you had complete transparency about both old and new
    3) even if you knew, the distillery isnt likely to return to the old methods of production (costly and they dont need to in order to sell whisky nowadays)

    1. Adam
      Adam says:

      I think the point of transparency isn’t so much to compare things to how they were ‘back in the say’ (though that’s always a fun exercise). It’s more so that people can see where corners are being cut – shorter fermentations, filtrations, colouring, number of times barrels are used.

      Whilst you might not get everyone doing it, it’s not unreasonable to think that if there was enough widespread transparency then companies could stand to lose more by keeping their cards too close.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Brad says:

    Nice to see a millennial standing up for something. I now have hope for the generation, and for malt whisky. All true craft products have a natural focus on quality of inputs and authenticity. Malt whisky remains in its infancy as a craft product. Future generations will marvel that coloring was every acceptable.

    1. Adam
      Adam says:

      Cheers Brad! Some of us aren’t too bad. Yes, nice to think that colouring might sneak out eventually. Can’t see it happening any time soon mind you.

  5. Newckie says:

    I enjoy a damned good quiz at my local boozer like the next bloke, but I also enjoy watching and trying to answer the questions put by J.Paxman to those nerdy university types. Imagine the joy when I get one correct whereas Miss Double Barrelled Surname does not.
    It’s the same with whisky, i can savour a £20 bottle as well as one costing a few hundred pounds, but my underlying enjoyment of the dram is not diminished because some “expert” says one bottle is more refined than the other. To me it’s whisky, I take it in all it’s forms, good or bad, that’s why I love it, as I do your writings !

  6. James says:

    Who is Elliot Wilson and why does he have such breathtakingly misinformed views on women, wine and indeed whisky?

    As with anything you read, anywhere, and about anything, always ask whether the opinion expressed has a credible person spouting it. SW.com is usually pretty good with pundits but I guess Bruce-Gardyne’s Rolodex is getting rather threadbare.

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