Deceptive Mixtures

The New York Times ‘Diner’s Journal’ blog has a minor expose on the new Gourmet Live app for the iPad, the re-hashed version of the legendary magazine that Conde Nast axed last year. The Times‘ Kim Severson noticed that all of the cocktail recipes by mixologist Elayne Duke were made with booze distributed by the same conglomerate: Diageo.

London-based Diageo owns so many brands of liquor that one could almost argue it’s hard not to use them all in your concoctions. Seriously, in addition to beers like Guinness and Red Stripe, and many wines, Diageo owns or distributes Smirnoff, Ketel One and Ciroc vodka, Don Julio and Jose Cuervo tequila, both Tanqueray and Gordon’s gin, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Myer’s and Captain Morgan’s rum, Pimm’s, and a whole lot of whiskeys and scotches, including Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal and J&B.

Severson’s argument is that Duke works as a brand ambassador for Diageo (she’s paid to promote them), but Gourmet doesn’t mention it with any of the cocktail recipes she contributed. Severson asked Duke about it:

She said she called for those spirits by name because their flavors fit the recipes well. For example, she said, the company’s Ciroc vodka works better with pear juice and Champagne than other vodkas. Don Julio tequila, used in a drink called El Fuego Orange Crush, is very bright with lots of citrus flavor and hints of white pepper, Ms. Duke said.

It’s a semi-plausible explanation: she uses Diageo brands because those are the ones she’s most familiar with. She’s working with subtle flavors, and substitutions wouldn’t always work without disrupting the balances of those flavors.

Elizabeth Spiers, who works for Gourmet, told the Times that the magazine (or app as the case may be now) did not know that Duke worked for Diageo. A quick visit to Duke’s website, Duke On the Rocks, proves this unlikely. “Elayne Duke has been the head mixologist for Diageo Wine and Spirits for the past five years,” her bio reads. How does Gourmet not know that?

Duke’s credentials are not in question. She’s obviously a capable, well-trained and dynamic mixologist. She has taught classes at Manhattan’s Astor Center, and she created cocktails for great restaurants like Le Bernardin. But she also works for Diageo. Which means she will always work within the admittedly expansive confines of Diageo’s stable of brands.

If I suddenly got a job working for a major liquor distributor, would I have to stop writing about competing brands? Probably. It’s a tough decision for someone who loves an industry, but wants to make a living in it. We lose a little (or a lot) of our credibility when we get paid to talk about the brands we love. It’s even worse when we keep it a secret.

This probably isn’t so bad for Duke (I’m guessing most of the mixologists out there know about her employer), but it’s embarrassing for Gourmet. It would be like Vogue hiring an independent stylist to do a fashion shoot, only to find out later that the stylist worked for LVMH and clad the models only in their brands. It’s free advertising.

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2 Responses to Deceptive Mixtures

  1. barneyabishop says:

    Great post about the ethics of disclosure.

  2. Thanks, Barney. This is a tough issue, but I think full transparency is the best policy. In this case, while Duke may not have been creating advertorial content with her cocktail recipes, Gourmet should have said something to effect of, ‘we asked Diageo rep Elayne Duke to share some of her best recipes using Diageo brands.’ Or at least added a disclaimer that explained how Gourmet asked Duke if different brands of gin, etc., could be substituted, and that Duke said they should not.

    Of course, little ethical conundrums like this will come up in the context of cologne blogging, too: routinely, fragrance brands will send us free bottles instead of small sample vials. We should probably disclose that, especially if we like something we’re reviewing. Getting free shit makes it very tempting to keep negative opinions to ourselves. Anyway, that’s a subject for a later post.

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