Who am I to presume to advise others looking for pointers on writing about whisky? Well, I’ve done a bit of it, and I’ve made few mistakes along the way. Below, please find some guidelines that I have developed through trial and error:
Tell a story…
There are plenty of sites out there that offer quick hit tasting notes and scores. To justify your existence in the online whiskyverse, you’ll need to be offering something additional. You could write about yourself and your own personal perspective, but I’d gently rebut that most of us (myself included) aren’t sufficiently interesting to warrant standalone consideration. Rather, I’d suggest you spend your time ferreting out those stories that have not yet been told. Who are the local craft distillers in your area, for example? Does the brand or expression you’re reviewing have a curious backstory, or an evocative name?
… but get to the point.
There are few people who can bloviate for thousands of words and still keep their readers entertained. Again, I wouldn’t presume to put myself in this group, and a certain segment of Malt’s readership is happy to let me know when they think my preambles overwrought or needlessly long. You don’t necessarily have to channel your inner Hemingway by writing in clipped, staccato paragraphs composed of monosyllabic words, but you should have the discipline to curtail endless Joyce-ian meanderings, particular when they’re not germane to the whisky at hand.
Use your voice…
I believe the best pieces on Malt allow the reviewer’s unique personality to shine through. Though I sometimes feel self-conscious when there’s too much of “me” in a review’s voice (rather than a more authoritative, journalistic style), I’m occasionally (and pleasantly) surprised that these are the pieces that resonate most positively with our readers. I encourage all our writers to write in a way that feels naturalistic for them and leave the cleaning up to me, in my editorial capacity.
… and the voices of others.
I believe that other peoples’ stories are often told most effectively in their own words. When I interview a whisky maker or other industry participant, I try to produce a mostly faithful transcript of what they’ve said and how they’ve said it. Other than cleaning up verbal tics (“Um,” “You know,” “Kinda,” and “Just” lead the league table of expurgated expressions), I am happy to preserve all the quirky idioms and individual turns of phrase.
Make tasting notes personal…
You’re you, and you’re bringing your accumulated experiences to tasting, including all the aromas and flavors you’ve enjoyed. These should inform your tasting notes in a way that sets them apart from those of other reviewers. John does an especially good job of this, given his geographic location and the many unique delicacies on offer there. I’ve never had adzuki bean paste, but these exotic elements still add texture to what can otherwise seem like a laundry list of similar flavors.
… but not too personal.
Ludicrously specific notes like “the engine of a 1972 Pontiac GTO” should be doled out sparingly. They’re inherently ridiculous and, unless you can connect them to a particular memory that has resonance within the context of the review you’re writing, it’s best to show a bit of restraint.
Focus on flavor…
This should be obvious, but a glance at reviews (on this site and others) reveals times when a reviewer was being insufficiently attentive to the flavor attributes of a whisky they were tasting. To take bourbon, for example: vanilla and caramel are two flavors that are nearly universal, being as they are derived from the lignin and hemicellulose broken down as part of the legally mandated charring process for barrels used to mature bourbon. Even without getting into specifics, letting readers know if a bourbon is more spicy, fruity, stony, or woody goes a long way toward calibrating their expectations.
… but also on texture.
An underrated but important part of the whisky tasting experience is texture, sometimes described as “mouthfeel.” While many reviewers’ notes contain lists of fruits, vegetables, and other household products, few adequately express what the whisky feels like. Is it hot? Dry? Do the flavors coat the mouth, or do they feel watery and thin? Even the maligned descriptor “smooth” can be useful in helping a reader understand the physical sensations of tasting a whisky, beyond the aromas and flavors it conjures.
There’s no shortage of sites and social media accounts that offer blanket positivity for every whisky they try. About the closest that some of these Pollyannas come to criticism is damnation via faint praise. While our readers may be savvy enough to understand that “would be great in a cocktail” and a score of “80/100” are code for “nearly undrinkable,” I’d advise you not to leave anything to chance. I wouldn’t want to see others waste their money on a subpar whisky just because I was afraid of stepping on toes or didn’t want to come off as “negative,” and I’d suggest that writers balance their enthusiasm with a clear-eyed assessment of whatever shortcomings a whisky has (and most have at least one).
… but constructive.
By that same token, no whisky is all bad… well, almost no whisky. Bar the most unpalatable and heinous drams, there’s usually at least one thing to like about whatever is in the glass. However, some reviewers – perhaps sensing that a flamboyantly poor review is likely to be more amusing than something more even handed but less sensational – often overlook a whisky’s merits in favor of accentuating the flaws. In the same way that being excessively positive can be credibility-impairing, I’d encourage reviewers to consider the downside of being seen as incorrigibly cranky.
Be confident in your judgment…
The emperor often has no clothes. It doesn’t matter if a professional critic lavished praise on a whisky, or if the bottle in question costs hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. If the nose underwhelms you, if the palate disappoints you, if the aromas are weak or the flavors off… say so! The Malt archives are filled with whiskies crowned “world’s best” this-or-that, which ended up being poor quality on an absolute basis, never mind for the substantial sums paid by people who chase such superlatives. So long as you’re reviewing as honestly and as objectively as possible, you shouldn’t worry if your take on a dram differs meaningfully from (what appears to be) the consensus.
… but humble about that judgment’s importance.
Writing here has opened other opportunities for me in the world of whisky. I have been invited on podcasts as a guest, I have been asked to lead whisky tastings, and I have even found paid writing gigs for printed publications. Occasionally, someone will introduce me as a “whisky expert,” and I am always quick to correct them. I am just a guy with an opinion, a Macbook, and the capacity to type energetically, nothing more. Malt is an unpaid hobby for everyone who writes on this site; we generate no income from ads or paid content, and not much of a surplus from our Patreon support. Unlike the aforementioned professionals, I do not consider my verdict on the whiskies I review to be the final one. My reviews are just one man’s opinion, and all our readers may take or leave them as they wish.
For those of us without formal journalistic training, it can be some time before we develop the reflexes to independently verify and cross-check the stories spun by whisky makers. Fortunately, the internet is a fantastic resource; I often find that others have done at least some of the legwork on my behalf. Beyond that, asking specific questions of distilleries and brands is not only acceptable, but essential. Even if a whisky bottler or non-distiller producer (NDP) declines to identify the source of the whisky in their bottle, making note of this in a review provides a point of comparison with other brands who are more forthcoming, allowing a consumer to make their own educated decision about which likely represents a better value.
… but offer it in return.
I write reviews and post on social media under my own name. I’ve heard many excuses for the use of pseudonyms or noms de plume, none of which I have found especially convincing. If we’re to argue credibly that distillers owe us maximum disclosure about the “who, what, where, when, and how” of whisky making, I believe it’s only fair to let them know who is actually reviewing the whisky. It’s also a needed governor for the times when there’s a temptation to say something unfair, provocative, or over-the-top. Having our own names attached to a piece of criticism (or praise) is an effective check, preventing us from turning into “keyboard warriors” who are happy to spout anonymously that which we’d never dare say in public.
Some of the most fun I’ve had has been when I’m working in tandem with other similarly inclined folks. Even if we don’t always agree (I’m looking at you, David), the mutual respect and shared passion means that our differences of opinion merely add more spice to the relationship. A bit of friendly disagreement can also increase our self-awareness and sharpen our critical thinking skills. That’s to say nothing of the benefits of having a mentor, both in terms of shared whisky knowledge, as well as helping to develop the craft of writing. I’m fortunate to have a few of both, and I’d encourage you to find yourself a counterpart for creative teamwork as well as a more experienced guide who is willing to be generous with his or her time and feedback.
… but maintain independence.
Friendship must never be allowed to compromise a reviewer’s objectivity. Even casual acquaintances (for example: a brand rep who passes a sample along, or a distillery P.R. person who sends a bottle free of charge) can act subconsciously to blunt the sharp edges of a review, or to soften some of the aforementioned criticism. Taken to an extreme, these relationships can completely bias a reviewer’s assessment of a whisky in a way that renders the review worse than useless. I offer complete transparency regarding the sources of my subjects of review (whether they were provided by the producer of the whisky or merely gifted by a friend) and I expect the same of everyone who contributes to this site. To my knowledge, nobody with a conflict of interest has ever written a review here without the proper disclosure. You may disagree with a review, you can think a reviewer is a tasteless fool with a palate like a pig, but you’ll never be left guessing if our pockets are being lined in a way that would cause us to alter our notes or scores.
Hopefully these suggestions are helpful to those starting off on their journey of writing about whisky. If you feel the itch to write a review, Malt is always accepting new submissions. We’ll work with you through drafts and offer suggestions and edits. At the time we’re both happy with a review, we’ll set it up for publication.
All of our contributors got their start this way, and some of them have gone on to bigger and better things. Others have contributed on a one-off basis, and we’re no less grateful for their content. There’s always space for a new voice and fresh perspective and, so long as you can produce an interesting review guided by the aforementioned principles, we’ll be happy to showcase your work. Cheers!