Robert Parker enters the Whisky World…

True to form, I missed the window on this by a day or so, but that’s never stopped me before so what the hell. Last week, the news slowly seeped out that the wine world’s high priest, Robert Parker had posted a bunch of bourbon reviews on his paid-members-only website. Earlier this week, the ruggedly handsome Dave Driscoll posted on his K&L Spirits Journal, Parker’s small batch of “reviews” in its entirety for all to read. Suffice to say there were quite a few errors, quite a few head-scratching comments, and quite a bit of non-sensical scoring. He called it a “full throttle inspection/conquest of bourbon” but…it was clearly not much of either one. Not surprisingly, several other writers and people far more versed in bourbon than Parker picked up a sharp sword-like pen in response, notably Chuck Cowdery, Jason Pyle’s Sour Mash Manifesto, and Scotch & Ice Cream’s Tim Read. Driscoll also importantly mentions that he’s already seeing the uptick on sales because these reviews, so clearly this has struck a chord. There’s no question that Robert Parker is a knowledgeable and experienced, if not ubiquitous and perhaps over-exalted, personality when it comes to all things (or at least French things) fermented grape. Over the years he’s become, basically, the Oprah Winfrey of wine in terms of his influence and scoring. A previously undervalued, under-appreciated vineyard can find itself, nearly overnight, an international, money-making sensation after receiving a couple of his (in)famous high scores. He’s become such a constant, influential presence in the wine world that he’s of course received his fair share of backlash. There are well publicized reports of conflict-of-interest, criticisms of his allegiance to Bordeaux, head-shaking over his inflated scoring, and just plain fatigue of having one figure hold so much sway over the industry.

So his entry into the world of spirits, or as he calls it, liquor…a form of booze he admits he doesn’t care for, is a mildly interesting and mildly alarming one for the whisky world. On the one hand, he’s a well-liked, well-known figure, and the more people joining in appreciation of good bourbon the better, right? Sure, maybe. On the other hand (and the above-mentioned articles do a better job than I in pointing out these negatives), Parker wades in as if the world of Bourbon needed him to mention a few expressions. His list was an oddly assembled one, notably full of already hard-to-find, and pricey bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle and George T. Stagg. His popularity and influence will without a doubt cause these already rarefied whiskies to be even harder to find, much less afford. Prior to this, Van Winkle’s were already sliding into the dark, senseless pit of the collector, not the drinker, and Parker’s mere mention of them will cause even more people with more money than actual appreciation to seek bottles out. But, you know what, that’s fine, this kind fo crap happens every time something gets “mainstream” popular. It might be frustrating for those of us in the know, (wink, wink) but ultimately it’s what happens when the popularity, perceived value, and status of something soars. Perhaps us whisky people should start professing our love for old, rare Kool-Aid packets, and willfully drive up their caché and collectibility to deflect money in that direction so as to distract others and keep things status quo for the “real” whisky appreciators.

More disappointing, though, was Parker’s inaccuracy and rather cavalier approach to the whole thing. In a span of a few words, he called his exercise “full-throttle” and then “off-the-cuff”. Off-the-cuff is much nearer the mark. He asks questions that could’ve been answered with 10 seconds of research, mentions distilleries that don’t exist, and calls Rowen’s Creek “Rollin’s Creek”. He was apparently inspired by the TV show “Justified” which apparently often shows the characters nearly pickling themselves in Pappy. I can understand a TV show creating a healthy interest, I can barely watch Mad Men without a cocktail, however, after watching the show, I’m not about to begin writing about mid-century furniture. It was as if Parker chose (or had chosen for him) a selection of bourbons and then wrote about them after making almost no effort in researching his subject. Again, no one is obligated to research everything they drink, eat, watch, read, etc., but when you are an internationally recognized wine expert, with internationally wide exposure, you really owe it to everyone involved to be accurate in the information you put out for the masses.

The whole mess, if it can even be called a mess, also raises the interesting question of whether a single person, or personality, with such huge influence would be a positive or a negative for the whisky world. There are several people in the industry who occupy a top tier of expertise and popularity, and while a few have rather inflated opinions of themselves, none of them have the singular influence that Robert Parker does on the wine world. In general, I think that’s a very good thing.  I like that whisky’s exposure, in terms of the media, is relatively open and accepting of a great many opinions. I’d rather not see little tags next to empty slots on store shelves saying “the supreme overlord of whisky deems this one a 103 point hot buy!!!”. Who knows, perhaps this is the only time Parker writes about “liquor”…perhaps not. If he is going to continue, posting a write-up and series of reviews that reads like a non-experts unedited article for Forbes or the Wall Street Journal was probably not the best way to get started.

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Robert Parker enters the Whisky World…

  1. Parker made his bones by being the first wine reviewer who wasn’t in some way sponsored by the industry, so he felt free to tell the truth about everything he tasted without endangering his livelihood. I’ve aspired to that same independence, although I can’t seem to get away with charging as much for my newsletter as he does for his.

    1. Well, you certainly deserve it, Chuck! And I agree, he’s certainly been a positive influence in many ways. However, I think his stature has grown a little unwieldy, is he still so independent and un-sponsored?

  2. Glad he didn’t mention Weller 12, Elmer and Four Roses SmB.

    It was his crappy info and half assed writing that was the real problem. His tasting notes seemed fine. I’d like to think he tasted all of them in one sitting so he was pretty toasted by the end.

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