Scotch whisky industry in litigious mood in defence of wee dram


LONDON LETTER:FEW ORGANISATIONS are as litigious. Every week, the Scotch Whisky Association has 70 legal actions on the go around the world in a never-ending battle to protect its members' brands and reputation, writes MARK HENNESSY

In the Netherlands, it sued a distiller who dared to produce a malt whisky called “Highland”, and won: “Whatever else the Netherlands has, it doesn’t have highlands,” says the association’s David Williamson.

The reasons for its willingness to sue is simple. Last year, £3.1 billion worth of whisky was exported from Scotland: a quarter of all of the United Kingdom’s food and drink exports.

Next Monday, new regulations will come into force to close off loopholes that have been exploited, most particularly the habit of calling inferior whiskies “pure malt”. In future, there will be no such thing.

The Scots have international legal reach, because Scotch whiskies, like Champagne and Cognac, can only label themselves as such under European Union law if they have been distilled in Scotland.

The destruction of the pure malt title has been high on the general industry’s list of ambitions since Diageo tried to get the Cardhu brand off the ground, only to retreat in the face of widespread fury.

Nor will distillers be able to pick a name that sounds like an existing Scotch distillery, such as Glenfiddich, or Laphraoig; or a name that does not exist, but which might sound like it came from a genuine Scotch distillery.

“There is evidence to suggest the term has been used to disguise the fact that a product is a blend of different malts rather than a Single Malt. Consumers have also been confused as to whether pure malt is in some way a superior category of whisky because of the connotations associated with pure,” said the association.

The new regulations, piloted through by the secretary of state for Scotland Jim Murphy – a teetotaller, incidentally – define the different categories of Scotch for the first time.

Scotch whisky can be broken down into single malt, or single grain.

Single malts from many distilleries can be mixed together to form blended malts, and single grains to make blended grains.

Or both single malts and single grains can be blended together to form blended Scotch whiskies: the best-known example being Johnnie Walker, which was the world’s biggest-selling whisky before the Indian Bagpiper brand came along.

Indeed, Bagpiper illustrates the challenge to Scotch whisky.

Established in 1976, it has become a major success in India on the back of endorsements from Bollywood movie stars, and its cheap price: about 180 rupees, or about £2.20.

In India, Johnnie Walker sells for 2,300 rupees, or £28.40. Even Bagpiper, though, tries to exploit some link with Scotland, as its name suggests. Its logo features an Indian piper, though in ceremonial dress and with a turban.

The right to bear one of the five highly-prized regional names traditionally associated with whisky, Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay will be limited to Scotch whiskies which have been wholly distilled in those places.

“This will protect these terms from misuse overseas, where they have been used to deceive consumers. Examples of misuse include Highland whisky produced in the Netherlands and China, and Lowland whisky produced in Spain,” said the association.

Up to now, Scotch whisky has been defined in the UK by the Scotch Whisky Act 1988, and subsequent regulations based on it, though phrases such as “single malt” have been governed only by convention, and, therefore, open to abuse.

From now on, single malts will only be classed as single malts if they are made from malted barley from one distillery, distilled in batches in copper-pot stills, and – this is one of the key changes in the legislation – they must be bottled in Scotland.

The extent of the industry’s influence on the legislation is evident throughout. The ban on single malt bottling – Glenfiddich, or Laphraoig, for example – made sense for the industry since single malt sales are a small, but a rising part of the business.

However, the trade has always shipped millions of gallons abroad – about 15 per cent of total whisky production – to be bottled for blended Scotch brands overseas, and so this remains unaffected by the secretary of state for Scotland’s new rules.

Not everybody is happy. The Loch Lomond distillery uses new distilling methods that have sharply cut its energy use, but fall foul of the rule that a single malt must be produced from batches made in a copper-pot still.

From now on, Loch Lomond – the third largest-selling blended whisky in the UK – will be regarded as a grain whisky, and, thus, more likely to stay on the shelves if image-conscious shoppers stay away.

The changes, said Murphy, would ensure that others are not allowed “to trade off our good name and to pass off inferior whisky as being produced in Scotland”.

However, Murphy intends to stay a teetotaller.