When I accepted the offer of updating Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion more than two years ago, I came in to the project with my eyes open. Fellow whisky writer Gavin Smith and I knew there would be critics and we accepted it, and I vowed that whatever was said I would not be drawn in to any debate.
Most of the critics have the honestly held view that Michael’s work should be left alone and that the Companion should either not be updated or it should be published under the names of the new writers. A few, though, are motivated by altogether less altruistic motives. I’m not bothered by any of this and nor do I care about the criticism. Not only that – I’m immensely proud of what we have done because we set out to make a very outdated book relevant again while showing respect to Michael and the way he wrote, and we have undoubtedly done that. But I have been forced to comment on the book for two reasons: one, because someone who claims to be close to Michael has made the criticism personal, and unfairly so; and two, because the book includes a glaring error early on which reflects badly on Gavin, myself and our American colleague Will Meyers, and which needs explaining.
I accepted the offer to be involved with updating the book because… well why wouldn’t I? I had set up my own freelance business writing about whisky and here was a substantial job offer writing about whisky; I was immensely flattered to be asked and I was well aware that it would do my career no harm to be associated with what is the world’s best selling whisky book; and I knew that it would give me the perfect opportunity to keep in touch with distilleries and consolidate my position within the industry.
There was one other reason. Frankly, I knew someone was going to be tasked with the job and I felt that no-one was more qualified than Gavin and I to do it. We were aware that Dave Broom and John Hansell had been approached about doing the book and had turned it down. I look up to very few whisky writers but they are two of them. Another, jim Murray, was never in the frame for this project. After them, well Gavin and I are arguably as good as anybody. Whatever else we were motivated by, it wasn’t money. We were paid a very average flat rate and the money could never justify the amount of work we put in. Before we even started I spent many evenings running over weeks identifying which whiskies needed to come out and which we would pursue to add in.
But I feel it was worth it. And over the many hours I spent on it, I grew to thoroughly respect the way Michael wrote and the way he was so controlled with his use of language. It’s not for me to say whether the finished book is any good or not, but I don’t think anyone can accuse us of not being respectful and deferential to Michael. Which is why I’m a little shocked by the personal nature of the attacks which have come from someone who has never met me but claims to have Michael’s best interests at heart.
One of the criticisms is that the introduction in the book is a veiled attack on him. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Michael died I made no claims to be a close friend but was amazed by how many people did so. In fact I was very honest: although we shared a love of rugby league and a love of the old fashioned hot metal days of Fleet Street newspaper journalism, my working relationship with him was a difficult one. Towards the end of his life, when few of us knew how ill he was, his copy would arrive very late and when it did it was far too long. So I was forced to cut it fast to ensure the magazine went to press. And then Michael would complain about the way the piece had been subbed. But he taught me masses about whisky and I had a huge respect for him. And shortly before his death I spent four days in Speyside and watched him climb back out of his shell and do what he does best – visit distilleries and comb them in intricate detail for a new story. It’s pretty clear to me that there are people who are seeking to exploit his death and dissing Michael’s agent and the new issue of the Malt Whisky companion is one way of doing so. It’s petty beyond belief. Apparently my use of the word ‘frugal’ to describe Michael’s economic writing style implies that he was a mean person. Really?
What is very unfortunate and unacceptable is the mistake in the very first line of the book. It says “When Michael Jackson died in 2008.” He died in 2007. That is not what i wrote or what was submitted to Gavin, Will and representatives of Michael’s estate for approval. What I wrote was: “When Michael Jackson died at the cruelly young age of 65…” and it was this that was approved by all parties. For some reason though, the packaging company charged with putting the book together, took it upon themselves to not only change the copy but to do so without referring it back to the authors and most unbelievably of all, to change it so that it is wrong. I’ve always been able to hold my hands up when I’ve made a mistake but I HATE having to take responsibility for someone else’s short comings, particularly when they were totally avoidable and self-inflicted.
This case is particularly upsetting because of the enormity of the project and its permanence. Make a mistake in a magazine and it’s forgotten about by the next issue. This book has a shelf life of years. I’m writing to the individual responsible him to explain why he did it. Whatever else is right and wrong about the book, that one isn’t down to us.
On a brighter note, the sun’s out, the barbecue’s set, a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye is at the ready and the Avett Brothers and the new Hold Steady are battling it out on the CD player. And I’ve just tried the new Ardbeg Supernova, which is significantly different to the first bottling but an absolute stunner all the same. It’s a train track whisky, with one rail massively peated, peppery and hot, and the other fudge-like, soft and with banana toffee notes. At a hefty 60.1% ABV it warrants sipping without water but explodes in to a complex oral rainbow with a touch of water. Quite wonderful. It’s Islay and Arran next week – can’t wait to get out and breathe some coastal air.