Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Get It Right.
I guess I was always looking for trouble.
Twenty years ago, I started to research and write about American whiskey because most of what I could find on the subject was riddled with inaccuracy. Part of the problem was scotch writers who thought they understood bourbon but didn't. Another was general assignment reporters who only knew what their interview subjects told them and since those interview subjects were selling some brand or another, the articles were loaded with not-always-accurate marketing spin.
General assignment reporters also tend to possess misinformation gathered during misspent youths, which they regard as gospel.
It has gotten better. Some credit goes to the companies, who are training their people better, and separating the product information function from the sales function. Beam, Inc.'s whiskey professors, for example, are terrific. The internet has helped and so has the rise of publications such as WHISKY Magazine and Whisky Advocate.
But as I was reminded today, writers who should know better can still get a lot wrong. While it gives me no pleasure to call them out, what else can I do? When we were both learning how to drive, my brother used to criticize me for not blowing my horn vigorously enough at drivers who committed various automotive sins. "How else are they going to learn?" he argued.
Case in point: Robert Moss, who writes about food and drink for the City Paper in Charleston, South Carolina. His lengthy article about bourbon, published two weeks ago, had a very promising beginning, an anecdote about Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon being effective celebrity bait in the South. His discussion of the cult phenomenon Pappy has become was accurate but without providing much insight as he described a Charleston bar where Pappy 20 sells for $65 a glass, and Pappy 23 sells for $85.
Although the bar-restaurant he describes sounds terribly pretentious, it's a great advance that, today, pretentious bars can be bourbon-themed.
The phrase "slow-aged corn whiskey" bothered me because aging can be long, but slow? And corn whiskey is not bourbon; although bourbon is made mostly from corn, corn whiskey is its own type and not the same thing. A nit? Possibly.
Then he states that "Congress declared (bourbon) to be 'America's Native Spirit' in 1964," which is often said but simply not true, and always sets me off.
The sad thing is that Moss clearly did a lot of research to find so much inaccurate information.
His capsule history of the American whiskey industry is about half right. The claim of Scots-Irish dominance in frontier distilling has been largely discredited, for example. Moss accumulates and reports facts without seeming to understand them. His modern history ignores the impact of the export market and of Maker's Mark.
What's worse, he seems to believe there is an actual Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery and calls the Van Winkle whiskeys 'artisan,' when they are no more nor less so than any other major distillery products. Call it what it is. Van Winkle is a small and elite brand from a big producer, but Moss seems to have no idea how or where the Van Winkle whiskeys are actually made or, if he does, he chooses to not share that information with his readers.
Even though he interviewed Julian Van Winkle, Moss makes ignorant statements such as, "Van Winkle started buying up old inventory from struggling distilleries, particularly those selling his family's old brands." Julian didn't tell him that. In fact, Van Winkle bought whiskey from his family's former distillery, Stitzel-Weller, which was not struggling, and supplemented it with whiskey from defunct distilleries whose struggles were behind them.
Or perhaps he refers to Buffalo Trace, Van Winkle's present home, which sells W. L. Weller bourbon, one of the "(Van Winkle) family's old brands." Again, Moss has the facts, he just doesn't understand them.
Then he shifts the story to a Charleston-based flavored bourbon, something anathema to any Pappy drinker. To talk about the enthusiasm for premium bourbon and the recent rash of flavored bourbon in the same breath, without mentioning how much premium bourbon enthusiasts despise flavored bourbon, is journalistic malpractice.
I'm piling on Mr. Moss, who I do not know, because I thought we were finished with this sort of thing. In 2009, Kate Hopkins published 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink. She started out knowing nothing about whiskey, wrote a whole book about it, and got almost everything right. It can be done.