Blogging – your pathway to success

Me, getting some free shit in April 2015 at the launch of ‘Bottle Your Own’ in the Jameson Experience, Midleton. Blogging pays guys! Pic by John Sheehan Photography

Loving whiskey can be a bit lonely. It’s a bit like trainspotting – both involve a love of history and engineering, lots of note taking and bringing a camera everywhere. Granted, whiskey is a lot more fun, as you get to do all those things whilst half cut, but you get the idea – it can be a solitary affair. It can be hard to find others who share your boundless enthusiasm for what most people see as ‘just a drink’. This is where the internet comes in. In the absence of a local network of fellow enthusiasts, we have a digital fan club that spreads across the globe.

When I go online I can see thousands of people who are equally enamored with whiskey, sharing insights, reviews and photos – but we could always do with more, especially for Irish whiskey. More voices, more opinions, more reviews, more insights, more people holding industry to account. So cry havoc and let slip the blogs of war with this handy guide to destroying your life via blogging.

  1. Writing – When I worked as a subeditor we used to have a Leaving Cert (Irish GCSE) diarist who would write daily columns about the exams. Some of the columnists were great – but some were what we would call ‘Englishmakers’. The kids were so used to writing to impress an English teacher that they would be doing linguistic acrobatics. Perhaps in some parallel universe their work would be seen as good, but we thought they were shit, and spent a lot of time unpicking the elaborate tapestry they had woven. So the best tip I could give anyone on writing is via Yoda – there is no try, only do. Don’t try to write, just sit down the hammer the keys. Don’t worry about crafting a masterpiece or you will take a lot of the fun out of writing and a lot of fun out of the writing itself. Just give it a lash. As long as what you say comes from the heart, everything else will work just fine. And, obviously enough, never, ever plagiarise. In the past I have plagiarised, which is why I feel completely comfortable telling you that only cunts do it. Write every word you can, give attributions where necessary, and shoot straight.
  2. Platforms – I started blogging on MySpace, the clunky mess where I more or less ended my career, then moved on to Tumblr, which I soon realised was a hipster wasteland, and then finally came to WordPress. It’s user-friendly, but it has awful storage. To get unlimited storage you need to buy premium – a princely 300 per year – which I have and get almost no use out of apart from being able to store all the rubbish posts I imported from my Tumblr when I started here. If I could go back I would host images elsewhere, like Flickr, which is free, and then embed them here. But for the vast majority of folks not uploading massive image files, either Blogger or WordPress are perfect, with lots of nice templates to make you look like a pro…or at least semi-pro.
  3. Images – Speaking of looking like a pro, a half decent camera is a good thing to have. I have a Nikon D3200, which retails for about 400 euro. It takes lovely photos, is sturdy and not so freakishly expensive that you would be scared to bring it anywhere. Mine is always with me and has been bashed off several stills over the years, along with almost falling into several washtubs. Nice photos can make all the difference to distillery trips and can catch details that you might miss otherwise. To make the photos look better I use Google Nik, a free software package. It has very simple editing software, but also has loads of cool templates which means you can edit your own photos easily, or you can also work on product shots you get from PR firms to make your use of them stand out from the crowd. Humans are visual creatures – a nice layout with strong visual content is always a good thing, even if it’s just millions of photos of bottles, or pictures of you clutching John Teeling or Charlie MacLean.
  4. Features – There is always something to write about with whiskey – especially with Irish whiskey. There are all these new distilleries just waiting to tell their stories. Wherever you live in Ireland, there is going to be one within driving distance. Ring them up, ask them if you can pop round, and get your geek on. One handy piece of advice is to download a dictaphone app to your phone and record the visit. This is also a good tip for when you attend tastings with reps. You don’t want to be scribbling details in your notebook when you can relax and enjoy, and then go back over what was said later to check any details you might be hazy about. Use your own internal barometer on what to include in any coverage and what to leave out. Obviously, I never follow this advice, as I write massively overblown long-form pieces, but it keeps me busy and thus out of trouble. Or does it?
  5. Trouble – If you don’t like a whiskey, you say it. It doesn’t matter if you got sent the bottle for free and you fell you should really say nice things about it, don’t. If it’s not good enough, then why should anyone else go out and buy it, simply because you didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the creators? They aren’t going to learn that way. Everything is, of course, relative to price, and is worth bearing in mind with every review, no matter how you got your hands on the sample. Give credit where it’s due, and don’t be negative just for the sake of it. Everyone has their favourite brands or distilleries, but try to be objective and give everyone a fair crack of the whip.
  6. Evidence versus opinion –  If you are going to take on a brand over claims they make, you need to make sure you have cold, hard facts. Gather evidence – screenshots, PDFs, newspaper interviews. You need to be able to stand over what you say. This is the internet – assume everyone in the world is going to read what you write. Be nice to brands when they deserve it, be critical when it is needed, and be clinical when you need to take someone down. Offering your thoughts on the liquid is fine – it’s not defamatory to say a whiskey is shit, that’s honest opinion – but all the other cultural stuff about sourcing, marketing etc really needs to be backed up in fact, otherwise you could end up defaming someone.
  7. Defamation – To defame someone is to lower their opinion in the eyes of right minded people. One classic example of this from the whisky world is the annual shit tornado that comes when Jim Murray releases his best-of list. People line up all over the internet to make accusations about how he comes to make the choices he does, yet no-one seems to be able to produce evidence to back up the slurs. Frankly, I’m amazed no-one has been sued over it – perhaps he doesn’t care, or perhaps he doesn’t need the hassle. But it’s worth noting that if you make an accusation against someone, they are not legally required to prove you wrong, you are legally required to prove yourself right. Unless you can back up what you said with evidence, you are fucked. Of course, there are always going to people who claim they have been defamed simply because they don’t like what you say, or because their feelings are hurt. So know what the law states, and remember that this is the internet, you need to get used to the rough and tumble of online discourse. Defamation is a very, very expensive process, both to prove, or to have proved against you. If an incorrect or inaccurate statement has been made, usually a correction or clarification is issued and that puts the matter to bed. Never be afraid to say you are sorry. Unless you weren’t wrong, then just tell them to go fuck themselves.
  8. Don’t be a mouthpiece – Approach brands for samples, bottles, photos, press releases, their first born – there is no shame in asking for free stuff.  When I worked in the paper there were senior reporters who used to blag free holidays for themselves, or free concert tickets, or free anything. Newsrooms are awash in freebies, to the point that we used to be turning down free holidays. Take a freebie as long as it doesn’t compromise you. If you’re in the blogging game to gain favour with distilleries, that’s fine, but your blog will be shit. Nobody wants to visit your site to read a nonsensical press release. If you don’t have time to rewrite what they sent you just use the salient points and cut out the colour – give the data, but try to do your own tasting notes. Your tasting notes are unique to you, your memories, your culture, your life. I love tasting notes as they are objectively meaningless, but are a brilliant way to profile people, as one might do with a serial killer: ‘This is the Zodiac speaking, and I am detecting notes of heather honey’.
  9. Shamelessly whore yourself out – You need to help people find your blog. I use Twitter, so when I tweet a link to a blog post, most of the traffic comes from there. Most people use Facebook, which works more or less the same. On a related note, never buy followers. It is deeply transparent and truly desperate. Make sure you use relevant tags in your blog posts. WordPress and most other blog platforms have time settings so you can write a load of posts and then set them to be published at a rate of one a week. I write all my pieces in Google Docs, which is available everywhere (obviously), and then I rework them and copy them onto WordPress and quickly throw the layout together. It is all pretty simple – I’m really quite the Luddite, so if I can do it, pretty much anyone can. Or, you can get your kids to who you how to do it. It is also worth getting business cards – Vistaprint are cheap and cheerful and have loads of options, Moo have nicer ones that cost more but look far superior. Make sure before you buy that you are happy with your blog title, domain name, email address and so on as once the cards are printed you will be held to them. Also, be reasonable – I got 700 cards printed up in 2015, and think I gave away about 40, max. Even though they are handy, they are also quite cheesy and a little bit Eighties. Like, who couldn’t find you using Google?
  10. Work at it – I’ve always loved the internet, as I was the kid in class who couldn’t shut up. Twitter and WordPress are just extensions of that. But blogging still takes effort. You won’t really know how much you like it until you try, but it is, at the very least, worth a shot – all the freelance work I get these days comes from a blog post I wrote about whiskey back in 2016; for some young blades their blogs became a way into the industry as ambassadors, but for most of us it is a hobby that gives us a way to share our thoughts and our passion with other fans. With that in mind, here are a few of the Irish whiskey blogs that I read and enjoy:

Liquid Irish – the first whiskey blog I ever read and still my high benchmark for food and drink blogging. I still use David’s site as a resource for information not available elsewhere about the nitty gritty of Irish whiskey. He is Obi Wan Kenobi to my Jar Jar Binks.

Westmeath Whiskey World – Short, snappy pieces about Irish and Scotch, thinkpieces about the future of Irish whiskey, and a really unique voice. Really like this one.

That’s Dram Good – From entry level to high end, Omar knows his whiskeys. Excellent taste and although just started, Omar has been writing and posting at a wicked speed.

Dave’s Irish Whiskey – Another passionate fan starting a blog, one of Dave’s first posts is about how he drove 500km for a bottle of whiskey. Hoping this blog will be the On The Road of Irish whiskey blogs.

Whiskey or Whisky? – Liberties-based Marc asks the eternal question – how should we spell the word anyway?  A welcome focus on the new/old distilling hotspot, the Liberties.

WhiskeyJAC – Jamie is NI-based, and is putting out the posts at a solid rate; coverage of events, pieces on other spirits, and no aversion to a dram of Scotch.

Bourbon Paddy – A blog about bourbon from Ireland. What’s not to love? Some amazing bourbons out there, and this is a good place to learn more about them.

Causeway Coast – Phil writes for the excellent Malt but his own NI-based blog is packed with excellent news, reviews and features.  

Pot Stilled – Matt Healy moved on to become Tullamore DEW’s man on the ground in Philly (fly Eagles fly!), so his blog is a little quieter these days, but still has excellent critical mythbusting pieces on whiskey.

Whisky Belfast – Stuart’s blog gets quite deep into the detail, like an episode of The Wire. A real nerd’s blog, which in whiskey terms is actually quite the compliment.

Insider blogs:

Chapel Gate blog – A voice from inside the industry, but one that shoots straight. Louise McGuane has insights into how the industry works that bloggers never will.

Waterford Distillery blog – Mark Reynier is a masterful communicator. You may not agree with him, but you can still enjoy the message.

Blackwater Distillery blog – Peter Mulryan, like Reynier and McGuane, makes the industry more interesting by going full Jerry Maguire on it. Big things ahead for their distillery, share the journey with the blog.

I’ll update this list as I find new ones, but this is a good start. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of all Irish whiskey blogs, but these are the ones I enjoy. It’s heartening to see so many newcomers, as this is all about diversity and discourse. There is no single voice of Irish whiskey – it’s up to all of us to help guide people through the category, and share the passion and knowledge we have of the subject with the world. And sher, if you get some free booze out of it, how bad.  

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