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.

Posted In: Culture and Wine


7 Responses

  1. Helena - December 13, 2021

    #MeToo has just had too much ‘prime time’. Very wearying. There are men and there are women and there are LGBT and goodness’ knows what else. Sheep?

    Grow up!

    In our nuclear family (at least my husband and I), we have an agreed directive, ‘You can look, you can salivate, you can comment, but you cannot touch.’ As a ‘portfolio career person’ (Wine and Construction), I have been subjected to various forms of builders’ (and occasionally wine people’s) sexually-related comments, because in both industries senior women (line managers) have been absent until recently and are still not exactly prominent in either industry. If I hadn’t just ignored the ‘blokes’, I’d spend my entire working life in lawsuits or tribunals, as opposed to creating buildings or wines…

    Stop the jealousy or fear of ‘injustice’, please.

    Rant temporarily over. 😉

  2. Andy - December 14, 2021

    Everyone I know in the whiskey industry thinks Jim Murray is a complete shitheel and has hated him well in advance of any ‘wokeism’. This Daily Mail story is just a different wrinkle on the book release press ‘controversy’ circus that he whips up every year to move books.

    Just read the Jim Murray tags on whiskysponge for the last decade or so

  3. Tom wark - December 14, 2021

    Your concern with Murray’s success, marketing prowess and career stamina is well noted.

  4. Chris - December 15, 2021

    The whole suggestion of gender-based language as sexist is ludicrious. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Tom. I for one am not that insecure as a woman to take offense. I relate to the language in reviews because it is part of my experiences, too. People like Paskins need to stay holed up in their glass houses so that the rest of us can enjoy life and celebrate the differences between the sexes and the experiences they bring to the conversation. We don’t all have to have the same opinions. I’m going to order a copy of the Whiskey Bible today.

  5. acv - January 5, 2022

    Well, that was depressing. Even with a silver lining this story still made me feel…. well, sad.

    On one hand, you have this tool – social media, which is often being used as a medium to push out corporate propaganda. Vinfluencers on Instagram or wannabees on TikTok or more insidiously when it’s a YouTube educational channel and they are handing over their platforms for sponsorship deals so that these companies/ corporate lobby groups/ billionaires (Jeff Bezos) can ensure that the answers people find on the platform are amenable to their interests. Bankrolling corporate messages in this way in the form of capitalism propaganda let say.

    For Corporations, a prediction of the future has dollar signs attached to it.

    Say, autonomous self-driving cars. This prediction must have life and a popular way of fighting for a particular future is by using these media platforms to not simply describe what is yet to occur but to act as if it is a forgone conclusion. No better way to get self-driving cars authorized and adopted by the public than to get a bunch of YouTube tech channels gurus to hawk your corporate vision.

    That’s what makes these paid influencers so problematic. They can’t even see they’re being used while complaining they’re not taken seriously…. because why would we? They’re not serious and lack little self-reflection

    Conversely, these same corporations are virtue signaling, and you guessed it on social media, to keep cancel culture from affecting their bottom line and their level of risk-averse to “static” is skin deep.

    All this is being principally carried out by a handful of companies as the “truly gatekeepers” to what most people can think, read, and say -. Namely Google, Facebook/Instagram, and Twitter. These are the companies at the forefront that are allowing us to behave so aberrantly. It doesn’t take long for the fascist reflex to rear its head in many – especially the left.

    Do you doubt that if an attack on the Three-Tier system was as toxic as say an anti-vaccine message on YouTube….it wouldn’t be suppressed just as likely?

    Whether I like Jim’s bawdy descriptions or not and, I must admit there was a little bit of ick factor in the visual, my generation was taught “You’re free to change the channel”.

    However, it is precisely that ick factor that is ruling and ruining our epistemology. It’s getting so finely calibrated we have terms like microaggressions, speech is violence. This re-conception of harm has made everyone performative and as thin-skinned as you can be.

    So, people armed with these new “Social weapons” (this is how we communicate now) have become reflexively authoritarian and it’s put fear in all of us.

    At some point, the Internet stopped being a place for debate and exploration a place where people of like interests got together and compared notes in some sort of free-flowing, Dewey-Decimal database chatroom and it’s become a place where people go after each other in a particularly vicious way – their livelihood.

    The fear is palpable. I’ve watched the Fermentation Blog suffer this same fate. These articles used to have a much more robust debate in the past but not so much today. I see the lack of comments as emblematic of an assault on those who worry their thoughts might not just pass today’s muster of etiquette but will get them fired from their job.

    It’s hard for me to say this…. but corporations care about one thing….the bottom line and not you in the least.

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