The Business of Moral Panics in the Drinks Industry
The problem with injustice in the world is that there is usually very little we individuals can do about it. We can digitally pound our fists on social media. But honesty…… We can try to reach out to someone who has suffered injustice and offer our sympathy. But again, nice gesture but little impact. So I find comfort and satisfaction in being able to actually do something tangible when injustice has been visited upon a person.
I pre-ordered Jim Murray’s 2022 Whiskey Bible from Amazon. $19.95 and set to arrive on February 1, 2022.
If you know whiskey well, then you already know Jim Murray, the pre-eminent whiskey writer and critic in the world. He has sold more than a million copies of his Whiskey Bible as well as published numerous other books on the subject. However, this new edition is a little different. It comes on the heels of a not unsuccessful attempt by a competing whiskey and drinks writer to besmirch Murray’s reputation by accusing him of sexism and insinuating that it’s the kind of sexism found in his written reviews that help diminish women’s standing in the whiskey industry as well as inspire sexist action toward women on the part of others. The accusation against Murray then went on to attempt to shame any whiskey brand that approved of Murray’s coverage of their whiskey in his book.
This all occurred last year, in an Instagram post by Becky Paskin, another competing whiskey and drinks writer who hasn’t had nearly the success as Mr. Murray. As you might imagine, in the intellectual and cultural maelstrom that was 2020, Paskin’s accusations went viral not merely on Instagram, but in the media where Murray was vilified.
He has compared whiskey to having sex with a woman: “If this was a woman, I’d want to make love to it every night. And in the morning. And afternoon, if I could find the time… and energy…”
He has compared whiskey to enjoyable sex with a particular women: “Have I had this much fun with a sexy 41-year-old Canadian before? Well, yes I have. But it was a few years back now and it wasn’t a whisky. Was the fun we had better? Probably not.”
He has used feminine stereotypes to describe whiskey: “If whisky could be sexed, this would be a woman. Every time I encounter Morangie Artisan, it pops up with a new look, a different perfume. And mood. It appears not to be able to make up its mind. But does it know how to pout, seduce and win your heart…? Oh yes.”
In her Instagram post on the subject, Paskin boils down her discontent to this: “34 references to whisky being ‘sexy’ and many more crudely comparing drinking whisky to having sex with women.”
Ms. Paskin did not expand too far concerning her outrage. For example, she did not declare whether her concern would extend to Mr. Murray comparing a whiskey to having sex with a man. Presumably, this too would be a phrase too far. Nor does she offer any explanation for why describing something as “sexy” and bringing a sensual vocabulary to bear in his reviews is problematic. Nor does she back up her insinuation that Murray’s very occasional lapse in bawdy metaphors has the effect of impacting women in distilling in any tangible way. I suspect these kinds of explanations were not offered up because it would risk demonstrating that her attack on Mr. Murray was more rhetorical and intermural rather than substantive.
For Murray’s part, he has offered a perfectly reasonable explanation for his sensual language that appears in a scant few of the thousands of whiskey reviews. In a recent article by Jane Fryer published by the Daily Mail that went into the impact the viral accusations has had on him and his livelihood, Murray cogently explains:
“The reason that the occasional reference to sex crept in was not because he is a sexist monster, he says, but due to the very nature of his very strict approach to tasting — aka the ‘Murray Method’.
‘It’s about sensuality — the smell, taste and touch of the whisky in your mouth,’ he says. ‘And that sometimes trips into sexuality.’
Which means that, occasionally, a particularly sexy whisky will unlock a memory of a special time in his life and prompt a shout out to old lovers — such as the much-loved Canadian lady — who he says were always happy to feature.”
Murray is not the only person in the drinks business who understands the importance that personal experience and sensory experience can and does have in expressing themselves. For example, in a Club Enologique article that Paskin herself wrote about a year ago on the question of “cultural terroir”, she approvingly quotes Lesley Gracie, master distiller of Hendrick’s Gin, this way:
“It’s about creating a feeling, an emotion, capturing a memory in liquid form, a sensory experience, and, yes, most of these start from a personal experience or memory of mine. The best creative work is always personal. It’s said that writers should write about what they know, and I guess the same is true for gin makers – they distil what they know and bottle it.”
In the end, however, Ms. Paskin is only a middling drinks writer who went after a competitor on social media with vague accusations of culpability that come off as performative and not a little priggish. And the hundreds of comments, both supporting and condemning her actions, are just that….social media comments.
The real problem is with the drinks companies and stockists that took her admonition to destroy Murray’s career to heart. Again, quoting from Fryer’s article in the Daily Mail:
“The result was catastrophic. Within hours of Becky’s post on Instagram, the distilleries — including Glenfiddich, the biggest malt whisky brand, and Beam Suntory, one of the world’s biggest premium spirits companies — started distancing themselves, and whisky shops sent back his bibles and cancelled future orders….’As all those statements rolled in, one after another, I watched my whole world collapse around me, and nobody — not one senior exec — called. Everyone jumped off the ship,’ he says. ‘They were like sheep. Very frightened sheep.'”
It’s difficult to determine the reasons for the kind of cowardly behavior of the drinks companies that decided to pile on Murray. It’s entirely possible that it was an opportunity for them to flex their inclination toward Victorian sensibility. Maybe they evaluated Murray’s florid language and concluded, like Paskin, that it is a monumental cause of discrimination against women in the drinks industry. Maybe it reflects their willingness to throw under the bus one of the premier supporters of the whiskey industry in the hopes they might score points with those that segment of whiskey drinkers who scrupulously shield themselves from the fact that sex happens and can inspire. Maybe it’s just the reaction of a group of folks who are under the spell of a moral panic untethered from reason.
Whatever the reasons these drinks companies and stockists had for kicking a person upon learning he likes women, likes sex, and likes comparing whiskey to the feeling that comes with liking these things, in the end, it may not matter. Quoting once more from the Daily Mail article:
“His latest bible — sporting a picture of a very bullish Jim aloft a whisky barrel on the cover — was released last month. It was a massive gamble but it looks as if it might just pay off. Because, despite all the hoo-ha and trolling, his Whisky Bible has sold quicker than ever this year, and now he needs to order a second print run.”
Moreover, the North American version of the 2022 Wine Bible, which as I mentioned above won’t be released until February 1, currently sits at #1 on Amazon’s list of New Release Whiskey books. In Amazon’s Buying Guide category, his 2021 Whiskey Bible sits at #10 a year after its release. And his 2022 Whiskey Bible sits at #11 on the same list…before it has ever been released. His 2020 Whisky Bible sits at #35 on the list.
I didn’t see Ms. Paskin on any of these lists. However, she does have 6,000 followers on Twitter and 9,000 followers on Instagram.
There is any number of good reasons to work oneself up into a moral panic these days. The wine, beer and spirits industry isn’t immune from facing some very serious issues that deserve our attention, our action, and even a good old-fashioned moral panic. However, virtually mugging a whiskey writer for the sin of fondly comparing a drink to a sexy woman he recalls from his past isn’t one of them.
Based on the reports of sales of the most recent and the latest versions of the Whiskey Bible, it may be the case that Murray reputation, dedication to his subject matter, and the utility of his writing for Whiskey fans all over the world will overcome cowardliness of some in the drinks business. I happily await my version of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible 2022.