As the "Blend Your Own" movement starts to gain real momentum, helped by some solid Web 2.0 enhancements, it's useful to step back and ask if the whisky industry is doing enough to leverage the power of the internet in its many expressions (pun fully intended).
Recent forays into app offerings haven't been great. A quick browse through the N-dimensional space that we call "app stores" reveals a dozen or so firm options at "apping" your whisky enjoyment, all in various stages of what must be called prototype. This isn't a post reviewing those options one by one. Suffice to say that these tools either lean toward curated content (by industry professionals such as Jim Murray and his Whisky Bible) or crowd-sourcing (something like a half-fleshed Pinterest for people and their whisky collections / notes). This post is about the current drawbacks of our web-enabled tools and community, and where we could be if someone could just come up with the time and/or - ahem - capital.
I'm sure a lot of tech-trendy whisky connoisseurs rejoiced the day Jim Murray revealed his Whisky Bible app. After all, your options before that day were to either do all your research before you left for the liquor store, carry a book with you to the liquor store (I prefer Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, but only if Scotch is all you're going to buy - you see the dilemma), open a browser on your phone at the store and try to read trusted websites off that tiny screen, or put your trust in God and/or the salesman. For the sake of time, many of us went with the latter.
The world of whisky, especially single malts, is rapidly changing. Every year sees hundreds of new, rare, and exclusive releases. Who has the exposure to all of these spirits, especially if you're living overseas from the places they're being produced? Answer: people paid to write about them. Take a bow, Jim Murray, Mark Gillespie, and all the other bloggers who've struck gold (spirit) out there - you lucky bastards ;-)
With Jim Murray's app, you at least got to see somebody's opinion about the majority of spirits out there (trust me, I've found - or not found - plenty of missing ones). And that's what you want to know before you plunk down $100+ on these bottles, right? That one person bothered to pen if they even liked the thing or not? So with this app, now you can. As long as you accept that the load screen time will destroy your ability to quickly compare Jim's notes with online prices at leading internet retailers. And the fact that the app functions so slowly that you're worried it just started dramming your phone's 3G antenna. And the fact that it doesn't include cloud support for your wish lists or notes. And as long as you implicitly trust Jim Murray's nose and everything it tells you.
Hence the limitations of curated content. There is no current elite reviewer out there who has a publication that lists every single whisky available, or even close. I appreciate that they try, but one day you're going to say "hey, what's up with this Bowmore 1991 Port Matured Limited Edition?" and turn to the app and be disappointed. Digital publication doesn't have the cost burden that comes with updating a new print edition, so these issues can be quickly addressed, but the reviewer is only human (at least, as human as someone who gets to dram for a living can be). So how do we solve the problem of data gaps?
Some apps are turning to that wonderful Six Sigma speak: crowd sourcing! Let's take a look at some of the more popular and highly-rated offerings available on Apple's App Store:
I think we can allow ourselves to be a little sarcastic about these without sounding like a bunch of whining, entitled brats. After all, crowd sourcing does have its appeal. It's organic, it's grassroots, it's data that is usually owned and updated by people that have a passion for it (look at Wikipedia). While the idea of a Whiskey Wiki does sound cool, here are the reasons why start-ups and app developers will have problems:
You think Google Plus is a ghost town? Just wait until the next app promising to be the social network for whisky lovers and their ideas / notes / shared experiences comes along. I'm bearish on this one, since nothing I've seen so far has reached anything near critical mass. I'd say big conglomerates or companies with interests like Diageo could leverage their market share towards such a goal, but where's the vision for a Whisky journalism app? An HTML5-enabled malt evangelism? A "Login with Facebook" network of enthusiasts? An app that gamifies collection? Maybe people don't want it. Or maybe the people that could provide it don't see a need. Shame.
What we need is a true whisky communicator. Not someone who speaks only to the converted, but who speaks to those who have yet to encounter our unique and potent brand of magic. In short, we need someone to step up and become the Penny Arcade of whiskey, of all distilled spirits. Should it someday be Cereal Alchemist? I don't know - I'll admit its a dream, but right now I'm a one man, part-time content provider. By all means, hit me up if you've got ideas. For those with the wherewithal, the time is right, and the undercurrents are massive.