Christopher Null is the Editor in Chief of Drinkhacker, the essential site for the discriminating drinker. We recently sat down with Christopher to learn more about the alcohol/spirits review blogosphere, and to hear his opinions about testing products and communicating with brands and producers.
Tell us a little about your background. Why did you decide to start a “drinking” blog?
I launched my first website in 1995, a movie review site called Filmcritic.com. It eventually became wildly successful, even though when I started it I had no formal training in film. I learned everything I could about the subject and eventually even wrote a book about how to become a film critic called Five Stars: How to Become a Film Critic, the World’s Greatest Job. Ultimately, I sold the website to the AMC TV network.
Anyway, somewhere along the way I asked myself whether I could do the same thing in another field. At the time, I had been writing freelance pieces about wine and spirits for San Francisco-area publications and wanted to expand the amount of writing I was doing in the field. So I decided to start a blog with wine reviews, cocktail recipes, and the like. Within six weeks, it was exploding on Google. That was 10 years ago this September. Today, Drinkhacker is one of the foremost authorities on many drinking categories (particularly whiskey) and has 10 writers.
What are some of the characteristics of the alcohol and spirits industry that make it so unique and different from other consumer products industries?
Alcohol is a tough business to write about because it is so restricted. Obviously, a huge portion of the web audience – those under 21 – can’t readily use Drinkhacker. Advertising is severely restricted, and merchandising is very hard. I would love to be able to link to an affiliate site so readers can buy a bottle of everything we write about, but those opportunities are very scarce. Merchants can’t always ship to all states or internationally. It’s really a mess of an industry, and it’s very tough to monetize a site focused on alcohol because of this.
What do your readers love most about your blog? What makes your blog different from other spirits review blogs and sites?
I receive a lot of letters and comments from readers who enjoy our no-nonsense tasting notes and the depth of information we try to provide about every spirit we review. Many sites will just write up some quick tasting notes and assign a grade. We try to put every review into context as much as possible. We also publish every day of the year – usually two or three times a day – so readers appreciate that there is always going to be something fresh when they visit.
As for differentiation, most sites tend to narrowly focus on a specific beverage, like wine, beer, whiskey, rum, etc. We’re agnostic on all things alcohol-related, so we have some of the most far-ranging coverage in the business.
Since your blog has its own product rating system, could you tell us what happens when you review a substandard product? Do you publish a bad review, or do you just decline to feature it on your site?
I’ve done both. Our D/F Rating category is loaded with some real gems that merit a spin when you’re looking for what not to drink. Ultimately, our duty is to the reader, not the producer; and if a potential buyer is considering spending $30 on a bottle of wine or liquor, they deserve to have an honest review before they plunk down their cash. That said, we’re not in this business to destroy companies, and given how subjective palates can be, I will sometimes opt to simply not cover a product – mainly out of pity.
How have you been able to grow your personal brand so that your reviews and opinions about spirits are perceived as being more authentic than those of other bloggers?
I think there are many credible reviewers out there, and I don’t think my reviews are any “better” or more authentic than the others. But in this field, that’s probably a minority opinion, as egos run pretty high. There are quite a few writers who are dead certain that their reviews are correct and everyone else’s is wrong. I’ve been attacked for reviews from writers that haven’t even tasted the product in question but were certain that the product could not be as bad (or good) as I described. Most writers understand that everyone’s tastes are different, of course, but if you’ve never tasted the product… well, that’s a credibility question, I think.
Other than the quality of the product, what makes you want to strengthen your relationship with a particular brand?
We strive to be completionist, so we want to have good relationships with all the brands so we can review all of their new products as they are released. I have some excellent contacts in the business that I’ve known for years, and I consider many of them friends. Our goal is really to leave no one behind and cover everything going on from the big guys to the startups, though that is tough to do with new distilleries and brands popping up every week.
Finish this sentence: “It really rubs me the wrong way when a brand or product that is trying to establish a relationship with me or my blog… “
… just doesn’t get it. We don’t print announcements about the promotion of a brand’s new VP of sales, or the fact that a beer is now being sold in Arkansas. We’d rather just write about the beer! It’s not that difficult.
How will the relationship between spirits producers and industry influencers evolve over the next several years?
As with most industries, the concept of “everyone’s a critic” is becoming a phenomenon. Amateur critics now flood a variety of online forums, often with anonymous (but visible) reviews. Brands are already struggling with how to deal with this, because samples are limited and they have to decide where to invest those precious resources. Hopefully, Drinkhacker’s credibility and long history keep it at the top of that list; but I know it’s always a battle to keep the mindshare you have.
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