shay waterworth

Defending 'nice' whisky writers

12 January, 2023

A response to the notion that 'without criticism there is only marketing', by DI editor Shay Waterworth.

It isn’t often that us writers are the subject of our own conversation, but a recent opinion piece by ex-Diageo supremo Nicholas Morgan has ruffled some feathers. The argument he laid out in a Master of Malt article is that drinks writers, particularly in the whisky world, are too nice. That they rarely criticise brands because they receive free samples and all-expense paid press trips to distilleries around the world. He surmised that ‘without criticism there is only marketing’.

Morgan makes some good points, striking a nerve among many, but fails to address the elephant in the room. Morgan worked for Diageo for 20 years and was complicit in, if not instrumental to, the very structure he deplores. While Morgan has been a helpful and insightful source to Drinks International over the years, he was also someone who liked to keep a close control over the narrative, in one instance, attempting to censor a Drinks International article. This double standard undermines his argument.

But this is not only a case of ‘right article, wrong writer’. There is another flaw in Morgan’s position. It is that all knowledge in the spirits industry is passed down from spirits producers.  It is upon this flow of information and the relationship between brands and media that good communication hinges. If trips to distilleries were paid for by journalists, bottles were bought not given freely by brands and information was hard to come by, would spirits writing be better or worse? Regardless, it’d be virtually non-existent.

There has been a strong response to Morgan’s words from the industry. Writers across the spectrum have hit back, defending their publication or personal reputation to great effect, but there’s one particular mitigation proffered by some that doesn’t sit well. The argument that the drinks media doesn’t criticise brands because everyone in the industry is ‘really nice’. If we’re just writing positive things for that reason, then we aren’t doing our jobs.

At Drinks International we are to some extent distanced from this. We don’t do tasting notes and we don’t endorse brands. Instead, we are commentators of market trends, we cover innovations and try to gauge the future direction of the industry. We aren’t averse to being critical where it is necessary. For instance in my coverage of The Macallan’s special release event last year. So special, the whisky hadn’t been released.

For me, the overriding takeaway from this debate has been the sheer range of independent writers offering different points of defence, emphasising the nuances of coverage with which the industry is blessed. While we all have our take on Nic Morgan’s critique, one thing that’s for certain is that he’s achieved what we all seek with our spirits writing – he’s got people talking.

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