I could dig around and find startling statistics about the growth of whiskey consumption in the United States, but why bother? TV dramas use bottles of Pappy Van Winkle as a medium of exchange for high class bribery, and everyone has a friend with at least a modest whiskey collection that has to be toured and appreciated before they’ll pour you a drink.
The growth in whiskey popularity has roughly coincided with the growth of social media — all those new whiskey people thrust into a communications timesuck where more-or-less anything goes and, like life on the African veldt, everyone’s status must be established from scratch.
There are, by my own rough count, a billion whiskey groups on Facebook. Each has its own niche or specific interest, and everyone one of them is stupid. This is not something I would say in one of the spirits publications for which I write. It is not something any of those publications would let me say, because their readers are the participants in those groups and it doesn’t make sense to ridicule customers.
It is, nonetheless, true.
One of the dominant post-types in Facebook whiskey groups is photos of some purportedly rare whiskey atop someone’s legs in a car — a crotch shot, as it is known. These photos are taken in the flush of excitement immediately after the whiskey is purchased, a transaction so exciting in the purchaser’s mind that a photo must be taken and a Facebook post composed right now, in the parking lot. They are guttural cries of dominance like a lion roaring over the hot, bloody remains of a wildebeest, except that they are tempered by doubt. They are often captioned with price information and a desperate plea for affirmation.
“What do you think?”
What comes next is usually a long, scornful comment thread mostly made up of people who think the proud whiskey predator paid too much or that the prey is not worth having at all.
“I tried that once,” said one memorable commentator about a proudly presented bottle of Blanton’s bourbon. “It was awful. I poured it down the drain.”
Blanton’s is a bourbon that holds a special place in my heart. When my wife and I moved from Los Angeles to Kentucky, we were scotch drinkers. Soon after arriving in Louisville we went to the lobby bar at the Brown Hotel, where bourbon barons have been cutting deals for nearly a century. We asked the bartender to pour us his best bourbon — this being back the pre-boom days when that request would not cost you $300 — and he poured us generous shots of Blanton’s for, if memory serves, $6.75 each.
Blanton’s is, if you don’t know, a trailblazing whiskey. It was the first commercially available single-barrel bourbon, an innovation toward quality that played a significant role in the renaissance of American whiskey. It is rich, distinct, and feels handmade even if it is, like every other whiskey in the world, an industrial product created behind a camouflage of romantic hokum.
We were Blanton’s drinkers from that point on, charmed by bourbon’s illusion of sweetness. We abandoned our internationalist pretensions in favor of drinking local. We bought Blanton’s when we were feeling fancy, and other, less expensive brands when we weren’t.
In the overheated environment of today’s bourbon culture, the regular old Blanton’s we could barely afford at $30 for goes for around three-times that much, and variations can fetch up to $400 a bottle. Pouring it down the drain, as the Facebook commenter claimed to have done, is a horrifyingly wasteful overreaction to what could only be a marginal taste preference. I don’t believe for a second he actually did that, by the way, but that Facebook post and comment thread demonstrate everything stupid and hateful about Facebook whiskey groups.
What’s happening in most Facebook whiskey groups is not connoisseurship or intelligent discernment. It’s competition. People — mostly men — liberated by online anonymity, one-up each other on their proud conquests. That turns whiskeys like Blanton’s into totems of self-worth that render irrelevant the cost of acquisition. Which, over the long term, gives space to whiskey marketers to jack-up prices on products lucky enough to go viral in the groups.
The other half of the Facebook equation is down in the comment threads, where another status contest is underway: who can be the most dismissive of everyone else’s taste. I wrote semi-professionally about wine for a decade and never ran into a snob as bad as the whiskey snobs that inhabit Facebook’s groups. Good God, what a bunch of assholes.
In a recent online discussion reacting to a video post regarding the already stupid argument what is the “best” whiskey — a concept that whiskey professionals reject out of hand — the thread was hijacked by this observation about the thread’s originator:
He has no palate and less whiskey knowledge than my unborn grandchild. This added to the fact that he has the on-camera presence of a wet rock. He should stick to other shit he might know about like dressing badly, or Zaxby’s chicken, or the Hair Club for Men, or morbid obesity. But not bourbon.
From then-on the thread was all about who is knowledgeable and who isn’t, an argument infinitely more stupid and less meaningful than the already stupid and meaningless argument about which whiskey is the best. And it has the effect of turning the online world, a once-promising place of infinite, judgement-free inquisition and knowledge, into a minefield of potential invective and loathing.
So here we have Facebook whiskey groups: on the one hand serving as a vehicle to raise prices and limit availability, and on the other hand providing a forum of condescension bordering on cruelty. What’s not to love?
Perhaps Facebook, which has lately shut-down groups run by potentially violent political radicals, should step-in and do something about whiskey lovers. Or, if you prefer, for whiskey lovers. Perhaps they can disperse these klaverns that have created a culture of greed and judgment that is ruining what should be simple joy.
Just shut them down. Shut them all down.