Friday, June 2, 2017

The Importance of Negative Reviews

"If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything" is a maxim most of us heard repeatedly while growing up. And while it might be a useful way to make children think before they speak, it becomes more complicated as we get older.

All good? Some? None? Well, probably not the North Port
Unless you're lucky enough to be fantastically wealthy, most adults have limited resources and are
regularly forced to make all sorts of decisions about how to allocate them. These decisions ultimately all come down to value - what am I getting for what this costs?

The problem in the spirits community is that we have more cheerleaders than genuine critics. With rare exceptions, on blogs and social media there is nearly always someone willing to chime up and speak favorably when someone asks "Is this any good?" It's reached the point where certain expressions are nearly unimpeachable, whether that's Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, Aberlour A'Bunadh, or in certain parts of the rum community nearly anything distilled from sugarcane. While that's perfectly fine if people are primarily looking for validation, it's less useful if the question is earnestly asked to decide whether to spend money on something they may or may not like.

I think there are a number of factors at play. One is that people are often looking for and want to give validation. You spent your hard-earned money and want to believe that it was worth parting with those precious dollars/euros/pounds/yen/etc. With rare exceptions, no one likes to feel that they bought a stinker. And humans are nothing if not good at rationalization. Telling other people that they bought something good reinforces our own sense that we have made good decisions.

This tendency can become self-reinforcing as anyone with a contrary negative opinion feels disinclined to pipe up either because they implicitly feels bad about yucking everyone else's yum or explicitly as dissenters are shouted down. Further reinforcing this tendency is the fact that there is no accountability - few are going to keep track of everyone who chimed in and if they come back to report that something wasn't good (which, given how heavily many of us stock up, may be months or years after the initial purchase), it can always be claimed that tastes simply haven't aligned or that an expression has changed since they last tasted it.

Negative reviews are an important way to push back against these tendencies. Even when you can't sway anyone's opinion, negative reviews are still worthwhile simply to normalize dissent. No one reviewer can say that a particular expression is definitively bad or a poor value, but being willing to say "This wasn't worth the money I spent on it" or "This doesn't fit with my tastes" are both critical pieces of information when drinkers are trying to decide how to spend their own money. I can't condone telling someone else that they're wrong in enjoying what's in their glass, but when someone is asking whether they should buy a whisky that I didn't like or thought was a poor value, you can bet that I'll speak up. And I wish more people would do the same.

10 comments:

  1. I fully agree. There is a blogger who boasts he will not post reviews of whiskies he scores low as this is part of his service to the community, I say it's a disservice. Furthermore, I find interesting the high correlation between free samples provided for review and blogger's high scores!

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  2. I concur with one minor correction, I would prefer honest feedback and reviews. "This isn't worth the money I spent on it" or "This doesn't fit with my tastes" is useful, more so when followed up with a rational or reason. "The finish isn't as smooth as I would expect for the price." or "Too peppery and not complex enough in the finish."

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  3. Can I just say I didn't enjoy the new Shackleton Blend?
    And in reply to anonymous - it tasted like an entry level blend not becoming of the great exploits of the man it was named after.
    But at the price point offered - what else should I have expected?

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  4. I can't agree more. I think people are afraid to trust their own tastebuds. I can think of several bourbons Angels Envy , Hudson Baby Bourbon to name two that get such great comments and reviews but I don't like either one. Not for me. And when I've posted that opinion i state it's not my taste and why. I am sure the distilleries are not concerned about my opinion their is enough marketing behind them. At least if some one see my alternate opinion they might think a little more about buying a Bottleking until they have a chance to sample at a bar.

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  5. Realize your intro is a rhetorical device, but I'd add not even wealthy people who can afford everything want all the shit on the shelves these days. The rich and poor alike just want happy tastebuds. The stratigic barrage of choice (limited/special/numbered releases) these days is, to me, tied directly to your great point about seekers of validation and dispensers of worthless softball criticism.

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  6. I always appreciate a negative review based on substance. When someone says they dislike the X flavor because it is too strong, etc it at least allows people who prefer that strong flavor to know to buy it and prevents the dogma that can often accompany negative reviews.

    There is one caveat for me though. I always feel a little bad writing negative reviews for small producers, even NDPs because their feelings may genuinely be hurt and I could be damaging their business. These small producers are fighting an uphill battle to begin with, but honesty is important so it's a tough balance to strike.

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    1. Ultimately for me, no matter the size of the producer, it's a business transaction, not a personal one. I don't make enough money that spending $50-100 on a complete dud won't hurt, so I have to be careful to not just buy a good story. While I can appreciate that small producers are in a tough position, I still need to be getting value for money and if I don't think something is worth what it costs I'm going to say so. I'm reasonably certain that has cut me off from free samples, but I can't say I care too much.

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  7. A good negative review is valuable, especially when accompanied by some explanation (many positive reviews suffer from a lack of explanation as well). What I find missing from too many reviews is a sense of the author's general view of whiskey, which I think adds context to their reasoning. For instance, a reviewer who believes it a point of pride to never spend more than $30 on an American whiskey would be expected to say that many of those above $30 are "overpriced". Without knowing the reviewers outlook (and which market they buy in) we may overweight their opinion. A critic's attributes in a number of areas can help to give their readers a better sense of how to use their reviews. For instance, what proof they gravitate toward, whether they are an alcoholic or just enjoy a few drinks a week, what mashbill or distillery they most enjoy, how much they like peat, sherry, etc. Obvioulsy it is unlikely that someone would add all this content in every review, but something relevant to the comment would certainly help. As in the example, a reviewer might add that "I will rarely spend more than $30 for a bourbon and this one, at $35, just wasn't any better then a similar $25 bourbon from the same distillery". For those who hold a similar view of bourbon, this review could be reasonable and useful, but for someone who commonly sees good bourbon as costing $40-$50, or more, the difference in flavor and aroma for an added $10 might seem perfectly worth the overall price.

    By the way, that picture looks suspiciously like the scotch section of Tenth Ave Liquor, which I've found to be the best store around here.

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    1. I can't remember if I've written about it before, but one of the points I've made elsewhere frequently is that reviewers are really only useful when you can get a sense of their preferences. This is why I generally find aggregate reviews less useful because I expect that everyone is operating from perspectives that are so diverse that the mean of their scores is not particularly helpful.

      Good eye, though the picture is from several years ago when they still had a lot of dusties hanging around.

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    2. That's a good way of putting it. Ratings are subjective, changeable, and just because there is a large group of them it doesn't make them any more useful than your average group of opinions. All one can really hope for is a regression to some mean that can give you a sense of which ones might be a good bet.

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