Friday, April 7, 2017

The Loss of Advocacy

"Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing."- Herodotus, The Histories
There are moments of helplessness in my life that I have become accustomed to; fleeting but poignant instances where I can only watch as the storm before me finally makes landfall. It is my personal bugbear the past few years. I don't say this as a preface solely to garner pity in order to balance out the fact that I never write on this damnable website. I say it because, for once...for one beautiful, blissful second, there is something I can do, no matter the personal cost.

I have been smoking cigars since 2005 and reading about them for as long. Back when I started, the vast array of information pertaining to cigars was not housed neatly on servers. It was not accessible with a quick click. You got your information from magazines and the hushed whispers of store owners who knew more than you did. There weren't many magazines, either. There was Tobacconist magazine, which you could only find at a few cigar stores...and there was Cigar Aficionado.

At the time, Cigar Aficionado was...pretty good, although that may be the rose-tinted glasses. It had full page articles on cigar regions or manufacturers, discussion of trends, and the eponymous ratings everyone was so delighted to slap on any promotional literature they put out. But, as the years passed, it started to slip. The golf section went from a small page in the back to a feature. The ads for watches costing a years worth of my tuition became larger and more frequent. But most telling of all...was the cover. Older copies of Cigar Aficionado prominently displayed it's logo in large font proclaiming, to those that picked up the tome: "This is about cigars and you'll be damned if you think otherwise." But gradually...the word "Cigar" got smaller. And smaller. And the word "Aficionado" got bigger. And bigger. This is what Cigar Aficionado looked like in 1996.

This is what it looked like in 2006:

And this is what it looks like now.

By 2026, I fully expect it to look something like this:

You can even see, based on the stories featured on the cover, the dramatic shift of Cigar Aficionado's focus from the cigars themselves to the "lifestyle" that comes with it. In 1996, the big focus was famous people who smoked cigars, reviews of maduro cigars, and the latest Cuban crop. In 2016, the biggest stories are golf, Vegas vacations, and an interview with an actor.

It broke my heart to watch Cigar Aficionado change and by 2012, I just stopped buying it. It had no information in it that I didn't already know by the time it came to print and I had to stop playing golf back in 2004 when I had my spine fused from T2 to L1. I was fresh out of college, having worked only six months, and was getting ready to have my 29th surgery so the $20,000 Rolex watches they were trying to peddle were a pipe dream of the highest order. And by that time, other magazines had come out. Cigar Press was around, even if it meant I had to drive to Albany to get it. European Cigar Cult Journal was beginning to be stocked by the local Barnes and Noble. And Cigar Snob was beginning to hit it's stride in terms of writing. I was never crazy about having models plastered all over it but it was better than ads for Mercedes-Benz. So I dropped it and never looked back.

Well...I did. Sort of.

In 2010, M. Shanken Communications purchased Malt Advocate, a magazine devoted to whiskey and whisky and however you want to spell it. It was a fantastic magazine, helmed by John Hansell with Lew Bryson, who ended up becoming a good friend, doing some serious editing and journalism work. It was a smart magazine in every sense of the word. The articles delved into the technical aspects of distilling that whiskey nerds like myself enjoyed while also not overloading the reader. The reviews were some damn crisp copy, even if I never could agree with any of the tasters. And the ads...were about whiskey, just whiskey, and they were tasteful and muted. It was a daisy of a magazine and I loved it immensely. So watching Shanken purchase it had me quaking in my boots. M. Shanken Communications helmed Wine Spectator and...

Cigar Aficionado

At first, things were okay. They changed the name from Malt Advocate to Whisky Advocate which I actually agreed with. They didn't touch beer so "Malt Advocate" was kind of a misnomer. And the writing was still snappy and fresh. But by about 2012...the ads began. It was slow at first, almost imperceptible. The ad-space began to get larger but I didn't mind, as long as the writing was there. Then, the ads changed. The first cigar ads began and my stomach clenched. But it was just one ad, it will be fine! Then more came.

More and more ads came that weren't focused on whiskey. It was all cigars at first which I could tolerate because at least it was in my wheelhouse. But the quality of the articles began to landslide. Solid articles of technical interest fell by the wayside, replaced by fluffier pieces about travel and hotels. It was related to whiskey, sure, but it wasn't ABOUT whiskey.

And then Lew left.

I feel like there is no shortage of coincidence that his name rhymed with "glue" because it seemed like he was the only one keeping it together. After his departure, the floodgates opened. The last issue I flipped through, the Winter 2016 Ireland issue, had a two page spread about golf in Ireland. The thing I had loved was gone and my money with it. I didn't renew my subscription.

Yesterday on Facebook, John Hansell stated he was stepping down, after 25 years, as the Publisher and Editor of Whisky Advocate effective at the end of April. I knew this writing was on the wall but it hurt to see it. But what hurt even more was the release from M. Shanken Communications, entitled "Exciting Changes Are Afoot for Whisky Advocate." Not only did it state that M. Shanken will be taking over as editor for Whisky Advocate but also (in regards to avenues of growth):

"As everyone knows, M. Shanken is fortunate to have two of the world’s leading luxury lifestyle magazines, Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado. We understand luxury consumers in these segments. Our vision is to build a third franchise with our deep understanding of spirits and lifestyles. We’ll develop Whisky Advocate as a lifestyle magazine rooted around spirits in general and whisky in particular. That will mean more fine-tuning of the editorial content. We’ve recently added to our stable of gifted writers, aiming at a wider consumer audience." - Marvin Shanken, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby "the loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly". I can agree with that sentiment. Over the past three years, I have stared into the yawning abyss of impossible choices and floundering moments as the full brunt of life's fury has crashed upon the rocks of my soul. In every instance, the choices I've had to make and the things I've had to deal with were inevitable and unavoidable. I could just nod my head in dumb acquiescence and hope that it wouldn't tear me apart. But none of it has torn me apart quite like this, despite the fact that I CAN do something. To see a thing you love die is painful. But to think it would be a magazine is boggling compared to what I've been having to deal with.

I wish them luck in their endeavors, truly. The writers at Whisky Advocate are some of the best voices in the industry and I am sincerely glad that they are getting a wider audience who will listen to them extol the virtues of whiskey.

But I will not be one of them.