Two comments I came across in my reading last week stuck in my mind and dovetailed into conversations I’ve had with others over many years. The first was from a reviewing website which stated (paraphrased) that they don’t review what they have nothing good to say about. The other, from a high-end watch-review site called Hodinkee, quoted a journalism professor as saying “If you’re going to write about something bad, it needs to be bad in an important way. Just being bad isn’t enough.”
Which got me thinking. Why write negative reviews at all? They’re often depressing experiences, however easily the words flow, and I always wonder how some companies who claim to love the juice can make such bad swill at all.
Now, some sites I visit regularly rarely write serious (let alone scathing) criticisms of poor quality rums. A few adhere to the above policy of if there’s nothing good to say, then not saying anything at all. Serge Valentin, who scored one rum I liked 20 points wasn’t particularly negative in his review, just mentioned he didn’t like it (probably because he’s a true gentleman in such cases, and I’m not). Others use temperate language that skates over any kind of negativity, and their disdain is muted. Against such easy-going writers, others write clearly and angrily why they don’t like a particular rum (or aspects of it), as The Rum Howler did with the Appleton 30, for example, or Henrik of RumCorner did with the Don Papa rums, and for sure Wes of the Fat Rum Pirate has done the language of snark proud on many an occasion and caused me to nod in appreciation more than once, because his reasoning and preferences were clearly laid out (even if I disagreed).
Looking through all the reviews of rums I’ve written in the last seven-plus years, I note that I’ve published a few very savage critiques of rums that I felt were sub-par, many in the first few years. These days I pick more carefully and dogs rarely piss in my glass, so that may be part of why there are now less negative reviews than formerly. Still, while age has mellowed me, it’s not been by that much, and I still think the opinions expressed back then, and the ones I write now for stuff I don’t like, are relevant. And there are many reasons for that, and why I wrote, and continued to write, as I did, and why I feel it’s necessary, even important, that we do so.
Firstly, it must be stated that I disagree with the quoted professor as applied to the subject of rums, because this is money being spent by me. I’m not saying I’m a Ralph Nader style consumer advocate, but I do write for consumers, not for producers. Having written a few hundred reviews, my concept of the site has tilted slightly away from merely writing a blog about rums I tried and enjoyed – though this aspect remains and always will — to writing about every rum I can lay hands on, as part of a desire to share the experience with those who share my passion. There are actually people who read these meandering essays, and importantly, some base buying decisions on the opinions I express. It implies an obligation on my part to write well and clearly where disappointments occur. Too, since this is my time and my money being expended (a lot of both, trust me), then if I find something that wastes either, I’m going to say so. The language may be tempered or furious, and I basically do it so you don’t have to.
Secondly, I believe that by not writing about mediocre or badly made products – and thereby assuming or hoping somebody else will – I’m essentially giving substandard table-tipple a free pass. That’s a cop-out, and I am firmly opposed to this philosophy. We are bombarded every day with hysterically positive targeted mass-marketing, meant to entice us to buy the latest new “premium” juice, and without a skeptical and jaded eye, it all fades into a dronish mass of boring sameness, without anyone trusted enough to pay attention to writing a dissent. Ignoring bad stuff is therefore not the solution. It has to be confronted, whether it is bad in a big or small way, and not just in commented Facebook posts that disappear in a week. This is especially important when new rum drinkers are entering the fold and are casting around for more than the Diplomaticos, Bacardis, Don Papas or Krakens to which they are accustomed. As writers and opinion shapers, there is a duty of care upon knowledeable bloggers to say when a product doesn’t come up to snuff, and why. Our websites are not facebook pages, but repositories of information and opinion going back many years and are consulted regularly – so why shouldn’t we call out crap when it exists? It detracts from our street cred if we don’t, is what I’m thinking.
Thirdly, there’s the matter of comparability. When there is a large data set of products about which nothing but good things are written, then there is no balance. People have to know what is disliked (and why) so they can evaluate the stuff a writer does appreciate (and why). In other words, an understanding by the reader of the writer’s preferences – it’s not enough to ignore or leave out the stuff one don’t like and expecting the reader to understand why, and where else will one gain that comprehension except by reading a negative review? This is not to say that I think anyone who disagrees with me is a fool (as Sir Scrotimus evidently does about anyone who disses his pet favourites) – I’m just pointing out that agreements and disagreements over any writer’s opinions exist, and given the wide and varying spread of preferences in the rumworld, one should take encomiums, even my own, with a pinch of salt, with the criticisms as a useful counterweight. Far too many buyers do no boots-on-the-ground, rum-in-the-glass research of their own and simply go with somebody else’s opinion…and if that’s the case, that opinion had better be one that has at least a modicum of credibility.
Does a negative review have to be “bad in an important way”? Not at all. A bad rum is a bad rum, people pay money for it, whether five bucks or five hundred, and if we as writers don’t say so, the consumer is left with marketing hoopla, vague word of mouth, brief social media comments, and the click bait of ill-informed online journalists who know little about the subject they are writing about. One good example was the Downslope Distilling’s wine aged rum, where, when I did my research, I was appalled to find writers rhapsodizing about how it compared so well with top end Martinique rhums. I can only wonder how many bought the rum on that basis, and how many switched off rums immediately afterwards. Robert Parker, in his essay on “The Role of a Wine critic” stated that as far as he was concerned, good wines should be singled out for praise, and bad ones made to account for their mediocrity. I feel the same way about rums, whether made by old and proud houses which have been in existence for centuries, or by new outfits who’re trying to break into the business with small batch production. That’s why I wrote a negative about Doorley’s XO and a positive about the FourSquare 2006, and can stand by each.
Also, who defines what “bad in a big way” is? What is important and big to me is less important and much smaller to Joe Harilall down the street, or even a different reviewer. Is it taste, additives, design, mouthfeel, price, availability, overinflated marketing? For instance, some love the Millonario XO for the very same sweetness others so passionately hate, so what one considers a catastrophe may to others (or me), be inconsequential. To attempt to stratify negativity into stuff that matters and stuff that doesn’t is to attempt to rate what’s important to the larger public; and I lack that kind of omniscience, or arrogance. Better to lay it all out in the open, present the facts, justify the opinion, express the annoyance, and let the inquiring reader or buyer or taster make up their own minds. To me, that goes as much for a cheap ten dollar spiced rum as it does to a thirty year old rum costing two hundred.
The argument was made to me some years back that I should not embarrass or shoot down small producers who are now starting out, who need good word of mouth and positive feedback in order to grow and improve over time. They are, after all, employing people, paying taxes and “doing their best, while you, buddy, what the hell are you doing?” We should support them by buying their rums and providing cash flow which they will use to create better products over time. This line of reasoning is fallacious on several levels. One, it’s my damned money, sweated for, hard earned; purchasing and then giving a pass mark to a substandard product is encouraging the maker to continue making the same product, since it’s clear nothing is wrong with it – so where exactly is the incentive to change coming from? Second, it’s a straightforward conflict of interest, because then I would be supporting not the consumer (on whose behalf I write, given I’m one myself), but the producer with what amounts to free and fake advertising. Thirdly, people aren’t fools and never more so than now where social media allows them to communicate dissatisfaction faster than ever before – my credibility would be shot to hell were I to say, for example, that Don Papa is one of the best rums ever made. Lastly, I think every producer has an obligation of their own not to rest on their laurels or produce low level crap that passes muster among the less-knowledgeable, but to go for the brass ring: if they tart up a neutral spirit with additives up to the rafters and try to sell it as a premium product for a high price, why on earth would I want to be a party to that? Or if they are really a small outfit and are making a poor-quality rum, why would I want to be less than honest and tell them where they are failing, when that’s the very impetus that might make them try harder, do better, push the envelope?
So, for laser-focused sites concentrating on a very small portion of their market like Hodinkee does, their editorial policy of writing only about good stuff can perhaps be justified. From mine, where all rums in the world are the reviewing base (though they’ll never all be tried, alas), it’s simply untenable because I do my best to try everything that crosses my path. I write about any and all of them. And that means taking the good with the bad, the high end and the low end — in fact, I actively search out the younger and cheaper stuff (which is not always the same thing as “bad”) just to ensure I don’t get too caught up with the old and pricey stuff (which is not always the same thing as “good”).
It’s a personal belief of mine that the past decade of amazing, thoughtful writing by so many bloggers has engendered a relationship between the Writers and the Readers based on some level of trust. Therefore I contend that writing a negative review of a rum on which I spend my money, and one day, you might spend yours, is not lazy journalism or a fun way to let off some steam and bile with witty and eviscerating language, but an important aspect of the overall business of critical thinking and writing abut rums — and maintaining that trust. My own feeling about duty of care towards the audience for which I write may be in a minority, but that feeling is rooted in a desire to provide the best information and opinion possible to an increasingly educated and curious public. As such, I honestly don’t think that a negative review, in any form, if supported by the weight of evidence and clearly-expressed thought, should ever be considered as something to avoid.
Note: In this opinion piece I am merely expressing my reasoning in support of the thesis that published takedowns of poor quality product serve a useful purpose. No negative connotation towards any of my fellow rum bloggers is meant or implied.