By Davin de Kergommeaux

Breaking the circle

The life and times of a whisky writer laid bare
I want to write about whisky professionally and love and be loved. How does one break into such a small circle?” There it was. My angst captured in a single tweet, sent by someone entirely unknown to me.
Several prominent whisky writers commented self-mockingly, but I bet that secretly they were thinking the same things I was.

“Vows of poverty,” said one wag, followed by another more cynical, “Max out two credit cards on whisky, take pictures, write tasting notes, contact your local newspaper to get that sweet $75 story then hope a publisher sees it. Then, you can quit your law practice.” The would-be professional whisky writer replied, “So basically a typical weekend but I get $75? “I’m in.”

Turns out, the tweeter whose words so crystalised my disquiet is a successful lawyer – a guy with a well-paying job looking for a side gig writing about whisky. Oh, if only full-time writers could earn extra money practising law on the weekend.

Actually, I’m only half joking. Writing about whisky for a living can be tough, so tough that many of us need to supplement our incomes by doing other things for money. Assignments don’t fall out of the sky, and when we do land one, the pay is often low. We need many revenue streams if we want to eat regularly and sleep indoors.

So, it’s easy to sympathise when writers who have dedicated their lives to their craft, seek other means to pay for groceries, mortgages and kid’s orthodontics. Though white-collar workers with dependable incomes are certainly entitled to their diversions, it is less easy to sympathise when that diversion is my job.

“There are two types of story,” a successful writer once advised me. Pointing his open hand at the horizon he said, “There are those that come from out there,” and then tapping his forehead “and those that come from in here.” The first require research; the second generally require long experience and intimate familiarity with the subject. The first type can be challenging and very fulfilling to produce. My preference is to compose long, analytical pieces that require lots of reading, interviewing, visiting, thinking and re-writing. These take time though, often weeks, sometimes much longer, and the pay is about the same as it is for reporting from press releases.

Max out two credit cards on whisky, take pictures, write tasting notes, contact your local newspaper to get that sweet $75 story then hope a publisher sees it

Tasting notes take less time, but still, you can’t just whip them off if you want any long-term credibility. The whiskies must be tasted methodically, and compared with relevant others. Believe it or not, this is work. Depending where they are published, tasting notes often pay less than narratives do. However, tasting notes yield other dividends by keeping your palate in trim.

Stories based on press releases may be less intellectually stimulating, but this is bread and butter writing.
Announcements of one kind or another are by far the quickest stories to write, and so, the most lucrative. Sometimes your copy is ready in an hour and guess what, it pays about as much as the arduous analytical piece that took weeks. These less challenging assignments pay for the long efforts needed for in-depth stories.

The problem for professional whisky writers though, is that these less demanding pieces are often where the weekend writers focus. These stories used to be low hanging fruit for the professionals, but that is changing. Once the weekenders have spread them across all social media, stories lose their value to the pros. So, that leaves less bread and butter writing for the professionals and little but stroked egos for the dabblers who, come Monday morning, are back at their reliable careers.

This becomes even more discouraging when brand publicists feed information to professional writers and to these so-called “influencers” at the same time, then wonder why the pros haven’t jumped on their latest new whisky. While the PR firms do whatever it takes to generate as many ‘impressions’ professional whisky writers invested in giving informed coverage are left to twist in the wind.

So, now you know. If you still want to break into this circle, here is my advice: first, quit your day job. Only then will you appreciate what it’s really like.