Nov 092020
 

I don’t suppose there’s any reason to wade in slowly, is there? I mean…we’ve known each other for quite some time here on ATW, most of us. And I think we all know that most of the time things are more akin to back alley bare knuckle boxing than to full-on gloved-up pugilism, right? So let’s step into the fray a little bit here. I want to say a few things, but I imagine there are a few of you out there that wouldn’t mind chirping in a word or two, as well. Feel free to weigh in with comments, if you so see fit.

A couple of months back, Jim Murray created quite the stir when he crowned Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye his 2021 Whisky of the Year. That, in and of itself, isn’t the biggest deal. Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but to be fair, the whisky was really, really good. The review here on ATW attests to my firm belief of that. And Murray has long been considered a bit of a leading contrarian. His picks always seem to fall far outside the norm of what most would consider believable winners. Unfortunately, accusations of payoffs and under-the-table dealings have followed him for years. Personally, I’ve never bought into that idea. Some of Murray’s more controversial picks have included Ballantine’s 17 year old blended whisky, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, and an elusive, apparently non-existent batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail. The general consensus seems to be that someone like Murray, being the leading whisky critic in the world, probably has access to some of the most insanely brilliant drams from the 50s, 60s, 70s and every other age imaginable. Ergo, it seems almost inconceivable that Murray’s selections would be so…pedestrian. Inconceivable, that is, until one considers that the man is essentially trying to sell the same book year upon year, with minimal changes to the bulk the text. So how does one keep such a tome relevant, and make sure consumers keep coming back with fistfuls of dollars (or pounds/euros/what-have-you)? It’s simple. Keep it controversial; keep ’em talking. And, let’s face it, picking a 1970s single cask outing from, say, GlenDronach, with an outturn of less than 600 bottles, doesn’t really speak to the masses. But some mainstream release that no one could see coming…and available at an affordable price point, to boot? Rather brilliant, actually.

But that’s not the real controversy this time. The issue at hand, as it relates to the Jim Murray brand, is not a new one. It’s a tale that has become part of the oral lore of the man in the white fedora, rarely turning up in the written word (for fear of legal reprisal, I’d imagine?), but almost always surfacing in face-to-face discussion. The real controversy that has bubbled and roiled beneath the surface for years now has been Murray’s reliance on sex, innuendo, and what is being called out as overt misogyny. And unfortunately, the language in The Whisky Bible does little to assuage the accusations.

It took Becky Paskin, spirits journalist and editor of the incomparable (and now sadly defunct) Scotchwhisky.com, to bring this issue bubbling to the surface of our public whisky discourse. Paskin put herself out there and, risking the ire of a largely male-dominated whisky world, said the things that should have been said long, long ago: that this sort of marginalizing, incredibly inappropriate speech is not even close to acceptable. Period. Sexism is something the whisky industry has struggled with for far too long now, but this sort of egregious example is on another level entirely. And while many were quick to agree that things needed to change, it goes without saying that it should never have been allowed to reach this point in the first place. Brands, retailers, and ambassadors have been using Murray’s scores to sell product for years. Why did it take the fortitude of Becky Paskin to make so many of us do an about face?

I think the thing I struggle with most is that it took this long. I mean, rumors of Murray’s impropriety have stretched back many a long year now. I know of venues and organizers who, after hosting him, utterly refuse to have him back. I’ve heard tell of walkouts and interactions with female audience members that made me cringe, simply in the telling of the tale. Forgive me for not rehashing details or providing examples here, but my knowledge of the law is meager, to say the least, and a libel case is not something my bank account can afford right now. Suffice to say, much is word of mouth, but makes me think of the old adage: if it walks like a duck…

But even forgoing the accusations of impropriety, there is simply no question that Murray’s language (bordering on blue, in many cases) is out of touch and anachronistic not just in the age of Me Too and progressive equality, but in the year 2020. We, as a race, should be better than this. Again, I’m going to choose not to repeat any of the dozens of examples of overtly sexual text from The Whisky Bible that have made their way around the media over the past couple of months, lest my doing so amplifies the voice, but let me simply state that if the language one chooses to use marginalizes and makes a segment of the population uncomfortable, then maybe it’s time to change. And by maybe, I don’t actually mean maybe.

Credit where credit is due: Murray is a hell of a writer. It’s not easy to sell over a million copies by being a hack writer (James Paterson, Dan Brown, etc not withstanding). If you want to read prose that teeters on the knife edge of poetry, read Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky. As an author, he truly is gifted with a knack for beautiful turns of phrase most of us can only envy and admire. It’s in other matters, though, that he leaves us wanting. Or in some cases, wanting a little less. In Murray’s contemporary jottings, it would seem that a bit more socially conscious diction and a sense of judiciary selectivity are the pieces that are lacking. In short, as gifted as he is, there is simply no need to resort to this sort of lazy eroticizing to romanticize a great drink. There are plenty of non-innuendo driven superlatives that would not only suffice, but more adequately serve the purpose.

But they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and maybe there’s some truth to that. In four days Murray turns 63. Hardly an old dog, excepting in the matter of old habits. Instead of a scenario where most would have issued their mea culpa, Murray instead doubled down, referring to “faux outrage” and the criticism being an exercise in “cancel culture” meant to take down “the world’s most successful author on the subject.” So much for tact.

Whether Murray recovers from this, or The Whisky Bible ever regains its place of prominence remains to be seen. A legit apology or entreaty to make amends does not appear to be forthcoming. I think many are now curious to see what sort of rebranding, if any, will be undertaken to strip the tarnish from this once towering reputation.

So the question now becomes one of who or what fills the void left in the wake of Murray’s exit. Well…it’s simple really. And I don’t understand why it didn’t happen sooner. In 2012 I did an interview with Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, wherein I asked him whether or not he had plans to publish any sort of alternative to The Whisky Bible. It need be noted that Whiskyfun is now home to almost 20,000 tasting notes. In Serge’s genuine and endearing humility, he assured me that he was not the cat to chase down the chubby little mouse (Murray, I mean, and yes…I am paraphrasing, as Serge is much too polite to use such an analogy), and had no plans to publish (in paper form, at least) his whisky reviews. Now here is where I’m left a little perplexed. In an age where paper is starting to take on the stigma of plastic or fossil fuels, why are so many married to the idea of a hard copy book that brazenly refers to itself as the bible, staking claim to a title that suggests near impunity from criticism? All of us, seemingly, carry our phones with us everywhere we go now. Does it not make more sense to simply bookmark Whiskyfun on our mobile browser? The reviews are fair and humble. They are articulate, relatable and succinct. And more importantly, they are legion. It’s hard to imagine a source more complete than what Serge has curated for us on his site. I dare say, in 2020 The Whisky Bible is well nigh obsolete. It has been in my circles for many years now anyway. And no one I know mourns its place on their shelves.

So let’s take this opportunity to reflect a bit on where else we may be overlooking long overdue change. When is reflection ever a bad thing?

Finally, I just want to say thank you to Becky for saying what should have been said long ago. Your courage is an inspiration.

And for those that want a few more details, here’s an article from The New York Times that provides a bit more context.

Yours,

C

 Posted by at 1:26 pm
Mar 292020
 

Hi, friends.

For those of you kind enough to follow my darker literary pursuits, Rotten Soil, my second novel is now up on Amazon. A lot of us are in isolation/quarantine/misanthropic bliss, so a bit of escapism is pretty much mandatory. The thing is…most of us are also suffering a fair bit of economic strain too.

So, I have put the book up at $0.99. I make nothing, but at least maybe a handful of good people can fill a few hours with thoughts other than the second coming of ‘Captain Trips’. I have also dropped the price of Sadie (short story) and Darker Things down to $0.99.

If you do read any of them, and find yourself with a few minutes time afterwards, I’d greatly appreciate any reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. No pressure, though. This is not a quid pro quo thing.

Hope you’re all taking care and being safe. I’ve been debating whisky reviews here for a bit now, but it seems almost inappropriate at the moment. Feel free to a drop a line and share your thoughts.

C

 Posted by at 11:06 am
Jan 032020
 

Happy New Year, friends. Hope your 2019 was rich in stories and blossoms into some of your greatest memories. And here’s to 2020 being the best yet.

As for me and mine? Well…it’s been a rough go ’round here. The last couple of years have seen some twists and turns in our lives, and very few have been positive. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to let it all get us down. Life is too short to wallow, aye?

This is just a quick note to let you know that I am wading through a few health concerns as we speak. And yes, unfortunately they are concerns that may well limit my ability to do this. Notice I said ‘limit’, and not ‘prohibit’. Just bear with me. I am trying to find a couple of contributors to maybe help share the burden. Easier said than done. I’ve yet to meet my ‘Angus’.

Anyway…I am okay. Until we reach the end of a run of tests here (a wee ways off yet), then it will be status quo. Albeit, a more leisurely-paced status quo.

In the meantime…how ’bout a Port Ellen review?

 Posted by at 9:23 am
Oct 282019
 

Haven’t forgotten about ya. Fighting a ridiculous cold. Unless you want tasting notes for Buckleys cough syrup and hot toddies, I’m probably not much good to you right now. Back soon. Promise.

 Posted by at 9:49 am
Oct 132019
 

Back about four and a half days now. And I can’t lie, I have never experienced such jet lag. I simply can’t seem to get back in the swing of things. Granted, I only took a single day of recovery before heading back to work, but still. I think I’m starting to wear my years with a little less grace than I once did. I ask no sympathy, though. How do you feel bad for someone who just spent the better part of two weeks drinking with his mates in some of the greatest warehouses in Scotland?

I have a quick malt malt feature tasting note coming later today, then we’ll start digging into trip updates, reviews and some editorializing. Bear with me. Much to come. In the meantime…it’s good to be back.

And yes…I am already planning 2020 trips.

 Posted by at 11:52 am
Aug 272019
 

Ever heard that expression ‘if you try to be everything to everyone you’ll end up being nothing for anyone’? That’s sort of what I’m struggling with here on ATW right now. Readership is understandably low coming off a very lengthy hiatus – which means there isn’t much of a barometer to gauge opinions – but I’m doing to my best to tackle a bit of everything here. That was always the game plan and I like to think that, throughout the years, I’ve done just that. I’ve drunk rotgut and scored it limbo-low, and sipped 70 year old drams that would make your accountant’s eyes roll back in his or her head.

Believe it or not, the easiest drams for me to source are those that fall in the mid zone. Couple hundred up to about a grand. Those at the lowest price points are scarce in my circles, simply because neither me nor my friends are buying them. And those at the top…well, I do get to try quite a few, but they’re far from everyday treats. Fortunately, my job allows me access to so much more than simply what I secure myself. Hopefully I’m getting at a bit of what everyone wants to see.

The reality is, though, that there is almost certainly a much wider audience for a review of an Oban 14 than there is for, say, a 1966 Banff. The latter is fun to read about for context and historicity, but the former is what aids in buying decisions for some. And I think, aside from a virtual social engagement, that’s what most use this site for. I think you guys and gals know me by now, though. It’s the scarce and storied malts that really light me up. They tend to be in very limited allocation and they tend to be pricey. ie. Not for for everyone.

But the problem is that notes on so many of these brilliant old and rare drams will never see the light of day. There are legions of hoarders out there who will never open these bottles, collecting showpieces as opposed to collecting the memories associated with the experience of sharing them. And that’s fine. No judgement. (Okay…maybe a little) But if I can use this as a platform for getting more info out there, I will. It gives perspective, if nothing else. And keeps my batteries fueled for the other stuff in life that is less enjoyable.

As I said, though…reviews of that nature target a very select audience: those with pockets deeper than most of us will ever have and those with a bent to masochistic and vicarious participation. In other words, the geeks who can afford ’em and will buy ’em, and the geeks who simply devour every word about the most complex spirit in the world. I recognize that some of the site’s content could be construed as pretentious. I guess there’s no getting around that.

But let’s continue to fight the good fight together. You let me know what you want to see on here and I’ll try to make it happen to the best of my ability. And hopefully I can continue to walk the line between archiving notes on grail malts and sharing the word on the daily drinkers. Because they all deserve their day in the sun, aye? And who knows? With the bubble reaching (arguably) its apex position, its not only possible but probable we’ll see it pop (or at least deflate a bit) and perhaps the gap between these points will close a bit. Food for thought for another day, though: careful what you wish for. It would not be a good thing to end up where we were back in the late 1800s. Or the 1920s. Or the 1980s, to speak to a bit of more topical time.

Much love…

 Posted by at 9:02 am
Aug 012019
 

As much as I’ve kept a fairly public persona for the last decade or so, I do relish my privacy. There aren’t a lot of pictures or videos of me out there, and I prefer it that way. But the point has been made – here and elsewhere – that too many people hide behind anonymity, especially when they say anything polarizing. I get it. Sometimes an online persona isn’t really a viable option, especially when the subject matter being debated may cast a shadow over one’s professional life. The flipside is (in my opinion, anyway), if you are going to throw your voice out to the public, then step up and own it. There are too many chickenshit keyboard commandos lobbing grenades with no concept of repercussion. I miss the days of consequence. Action/reaction. Throw a lunch, expect one in return. So…consider this a reintroduction. There are always new readers, and there are probably a lot of old school readers who’ve never met me face to face, despite the amount of online interaction we’ve shared.

In short…I’m Curt. I like whisky. And writing.

I’ve been writing about whisky for over a decade now. I’ve led countless tastings (both public and private), presented for large groups, contributed to publications, and traveled for what I love. I’ve created successful whisky clubs, bought private barrels and led several distillery tours over to Scotland. I have a lot of single malt whisky here. Like…several hundred bottles. I don’t collect, however; I just squirrel away bottles when the price/opportunity is right. They’ll all get opened at some point. Or traded. Or given away. I don’t flip bottles, nor do I much like the secondary market. I get it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

My blood is mostly Scottish (with a bit of English; y’know…neo-Germanic all the way back). Scotland is home away from home for me. I love Islay and the whiskies that are made there. I adore Brora and Port Ellen. Springbank and Clynelish and Glenfarclas are perennial favorites that are never in short supply around here. I also kinda think that every distillery in Scotland has brilliant barrels sleeping away in their warehouses. Whether or not they are ever given their day in the sun is another matter. It all comes down to how they’re used, right? And if I have my druthers…unpeated second or third fill ex-bourbon at 30-40 years. That’s my jam.

I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters. I work in the whisky world, but this blog is on my own time (and my own dime), so updates are as frequent or infrequent as life dictates. As Lennon said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

This is me.

 Posted by at 11:41 am
Jul 242019
 

My name is Curt. And I have a problem.

It’s not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated.

It’s the fact that I work in the whisky world. Most of you are probably aware I spend most of my waking hours at Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. KWM is sorta like the Malt Mecca of Canada. Twice now the store has been runner-up for World Whisky Retailer of the year. Yup. We’re just that good. And humble.

I’m telling you this (or maybe just reiterating this, if it’s something you already knew) to give you some idea as to where I’ve been and what’s happened to the site over the last year or so. (Hint: nothing. Nothing has happened here). The simple truth is that I was finding it hard to balance my work responsibilities with my prime directive: honesty. Let me show you what I mean…

One evening many, many months back I wrote a couple reviews for the site. One was a rather positive review for a malt I liked. The other…maybe not so positive. The whisky in question was sulphury and…well…flawed. I published one. I went to publish the second and sorta pumped the brakes. We have loads of this stuff left on the shelves. If I talk shit about it, who’s going to buy it? Then I thought, just wait until it sells out, then publish. But that theory comes with its own problems. I could just see someone at some point calling me out: if you knew it was shit, why did you let me buy it? 

I struggled with this until just a few days ago. Then I decided, too bad. This site has been around for a long time. Ten years. It deserves better than to die a slow, whimpering death, relegated to the periphery of online whisky lore, while daily visits continue to drop. So…I had a sit-down with Andrew. Andrew “Scotchguy” Ferguson, that is. I’m sure you know him from his monolithic online presence, if not as the owner of KWM. I told him where I was at with it, and he was in absolute agreement: get ‘er back up and running.

And the thing about negative reviews? Well…two things, actually: 1) Caveat emptor. Buyer beware. What I write here (in terms of reviews, anyway) is one man’s opinion, and in no way an attempt to push opinion as fact. Almost every online retailer out there now has a review system on their site. I often read user reviews, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, or base my own purchasing on them. And 2) At any given time, probably 75% of what we sell in-store is open for tasting. If I feel a whisky is not great, I simply don’t suggest it to customers. If they want it, however, and can try before buying? Hey…they’ve bought based on their own tastes, and I respect that. Especially if they are bucking the trend and going against the tide. There’s a deep-seated honesty in forging your own path and ignoring the din of voices all shouting in chorus.

Additionally…I will still be reviewing store-exclusive casks from time to time. We do a lot of these. Fair warning: these scores will almost certainly be uniformly high. Is this a conflict of interest? No. Not in my opinion, anyway. I’ve helped select these barrels for purchase, based on empirical evidence (i.e. my own tasting experience with them) and knowing that they were good. Sometimes great, even. Would I stand behind a purchase worth tens of thousands of dollars if I didn’t think the whisky was good? Of course not. And again…you can always come in and try for yourself. Our track record for selling entire barrels in record time is legendary. That, in my mind, speaks volumes about the level of quality we insist upon.

In short…we’re back, baby.

ATW will look a bit different going forward. Not sure what that means yet, but we’ll figure it out together. I do know that reviews will look a bit different. The content will be similar, but the format may be tweaked a little. Gotta keep it fresh for myself too, aye? And, at the same time, try to keep to a framework that people know and recognize. A few more inside jokes, a bucketload of non sequiturs, and some occasionally surreal ramblings will likely be par for the course too. Oh, and perhaps the odd diatribe.

I’m kinda hoping to recruit a few guest writers into the fold. There are several reasons for this, but it mostly comes down to injecting new life into the site and sharing the workload. As of now – until I find my ‘Angus’, anyway – reviews will all still be mine. I sorta feel like this is the only way to maintain consistency. You guys have learned to understand my palate, if not necessarily trust it. It would be disingenuous to let someone else start scoring whisky here until I am positive their tastes nearly mirror my own.

I’ll be leading another crew back to Scotland in a couple months, too. Six of us in total. It promises to be an absolute blast, so you can almost certainly expect some jottings on that l’il endeavor as well. Hopefully some stories, a handful of reviews and some random musings. We’ll see what shakes out.

Also, the sinDicate Single Malt Society is going great guns. Coolest whisky club around. I’m really proud of this one. The Dram Initiative was great, but sin is next level. And cheeky as f*ck, to boot. Which is, of course, my MO. We’ll share a bit more about that in coming days too, including some notes on the club’s first cask purchase. Exciting stuff.

Anyway…it’s good to be back. I’ve missed you guys and gals.

 – Curt

 Posted by at 4:22 pm
Jul 222019
 

You hear that rumbling? Like a great old engine awakened from a long slumber? Me too. I think it’s time. The monster has awoken.

You ready to do this all over again, friends?

 Posted by at 10:10 am