It takes a special sort of journalist to be so established in one field that his or her name is forever associated with it. Amazingly, Michael Jackson has achieved the honour not in one area, but two.
I first encountered Michael 13 years ago, when the British pub trade was in a state of upheaval caused by changes in the law which restricted the number of pubs big brewers could own. New pub companies were springing up, and I think it’s true to say that we all got carried away with marketing speak and gimmicks for a while.
Not Michael. He won’t remember, but I went on a press trip with him and listened to him talk inspirationally about specific beers, about tradition, about maintaining standards.
His message: that there is no substitute for quality; that true pedigree would win in the end, no matter what else was marketed at us; that we should always seek out the best. I never forgot the lesson. Fast forward 12 years and Michael is being interviewed by German television. It’s my first day in this job. They ask him what his favourite whisky is.
“That’s impossible to say,” he says. “I mean if I’ve had a lovely day on Islay, it’s windy and I’m sitting on a hill looking out over the sea, then a single malt from Islay would be my favourite. But if I’m in Kentucky on a hot day and having a drink with my friend Jimmy Russell, then his Wild Turkey 101 is my favourite ...”
And in the next five minutes he gives more valuable information than you’ll get from a month’s reading. That’s the thing about Michael: he’s not only knowledgeable, he can communicate his sheer love of the grain – in whatever guise it’s in – like no one else.
Brought up in the Northern English county of Yorkshire on a diet of ‘proper’ beer and rugby league – the blood and sweat version of the game once played by colliery workers and as tough a game as there was before the marketing people got hold of it –
Michael is what we would describe as from the ‘old school.’ He discovered whisky at 18, and has championed it ever since. His work in the area was ground-breaking and given how many distillery gates were closed to him back then, he must often smile to himself now when he sees how mainstream drinks writing has gone. Not that you’d ever catch him doing it; he’s far too nice and modest for that.
He is an inspiration for anyone who has heard him speak and he has achieved almost iconic status. You can joke about the name, but watch him at one of his ‘gigs’ signing books and surrounded by fans, and he really is the nearest thing whisky will ever have to its own pop star.
For all that though, he’s still the one at the front on any distillery tour he goes on, notebook in hand, bombarding the poor guide with questions. I once asked him why he still bothered, given that he must have been round the place 10 times beforehand known all the answers.
“Oh no,” he said, “there is always something new to learn.”
He is a true inspiration, a great writer, a charming and affable man and a wonderful ambassador for both the worlds of beer and whisky.
Or as Dave Broom puts it: “He’s the guv’nor.”