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OPINION • 7 No Half Measures JIM MURRAY

A conversation with an independent bottler underlines what I have long feared – that standards in whisky writing are slipping

not be doing the public – or industry – any great favours. The square root of this problem is that there just isn’t enough money out there in newspapers, magazines, the internet and even books for so many writers to earn a living. It is not uncommon for them to play on somebody’s desperate need to see their name in lights – a prospect that is all too alluring for those who don’t come from a journalistic background, and off er peanuts for the honour. However, next year marks my 40th year as

a freelance journalist and I have always taken a tougher commercial line with publishers. But it also means I fully understand why so many take the proffered shilling from a distiller to do in-house work. That is fair game for a freelance and, over the last 22 years, I have done some myself. That, though, has never remotely shaped my view of a whisky. I may have written a booklet, for instance,

for a duty free Chivas, but that doesn’t stop me from showing public exasperation with their standard 12 year old. For I will never, ever, compromise my independence of thought and dance to a company’s tune by writing what they tell me: no payday is worth a cauterization of the quill. And I hope that is the case with all other


rom now on, I suppose I should call it the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. You remember: back in the ’70s, a bunch of captives felt empathy for

the bank robbers holding them hostage. So they spoke up on their behalf to defend the indefensible. Well, this was a kind of whisky version of it... and in Stockholm. I was recently there attending the Whisky

and Beer Festival and bumped into a certain independent bottler. Let’s call him ‘Ib’. I asked Ib why he hadn’t sent me samples to review in the latest Whisky Bible. And he told me that it was because I once marked a malt of his lower than he thought it deserved. I pointed out to him that, in the past, another whisky of his had won Bible awards. But he told me that because I gave a later Speysider a low mark he had problems selling it. “You should do what the other writers do,”

he suggested. “Which is...?” “If you don’t like it, don’t write about it.

That’s what (and here he blurted out a name) ------ does.” Now, it goes without saying that I am

grateful for every single sample that is sent to me. But his suggestion not only went against every atom of my journalistic being, but the

very integrity and purpose of the Whisky Bible. Not only that, but if I did this, then any whisky missing from the Bible might be regarded as not worthy of buying. Worryingly, Ib’s underlying message seemed to highlight what I had long feared: that tame whisky writers, entering the industry from various walks of life, were making things diffi cult for myself and others who had spent entire careers in journalism, or at least embraced our standards, by playing by entirely diff erent rules. It should, perhaps, be pointed out here that

I don’t enjoy a comfortable relationship with a number of mainstream whisky writers. I was there, with only Michael Jackson for company, at the moment of the latest whisky big bang. Which means I know exactly from what kind of dust the present stars of the whisky literary universe were formed. My memory must be slipping badly,

though, for the broadcasted recollections of some don’t quite tally with mine. The way one or two write you’d think they always had an affi nity with bourbon or Irish or blends. Interesting. To borrow from Thomas Hardy’s tragic Miss Bridehead, to me these particular writers are “new whisky in old bottles”. But far worse is any cosying up, which will

writers, though sadly, I have long sensed Ib may be right. That was why I declined an off er to become a Keeper of the Quaich: I really didn’t want anybody to have the opportunity to mistake me for one of the more self-satisfi ed scribblers already onboard. Yet Ib’s worrying conversation strangely

allowed me to complete a full circle as it took me back to when I was a 15 year old working for the local paper. The editor said he wanted me to give the players from the local football team marks out of ten for their performance. After one match a midfi elder, squared up

to me in the press box. “What the f*** is the big idea about giving me a fi ve for last week? People like you could get me dropped and cost me my wages. What the f*** do you know about football?” I stood with my nose just inches from his and said: “Well, enough so that when I gave you ‘man of the match’ the week before, you thought I deserved a pint.” The blaze in his eyes guttered. “Fair enough.

Good point.” And with that he marched away to join his team-mates at the bar. That was an invaluable lesson learned at an

early age. It is one indelibly stamped into my journalistic DNA and which has stood me in good stead as a writer ever since: honesty without fear or favour. Or nothing.

Jim Murray became the world’s fi rst full- time whisky writer in 1992. Since then, sales of his books, including the ‘Whisky Bible’, have reached over half-a-million copies. Now the doyen of whisky writers, time has not blunted his fi ercely independent stance














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