Nov 112020
 

If there’s one whisky book I diligently make sure I have, it’s Ingvar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook.

When the book landed in my mailbox, delayed as usual because of the Israeli Postal Service, the first place I turned to was the perennially excellent The Year That Was section (on page 260).

Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021: The Facts, the People, the News, the Stories: Amazon.co.uk: Ingvar Ronde: 9780957655379: Books

To me, this section is your “industry crib sheet” for the year. Perusing it I learned that single malt was still showing double digit growth in 2019, both in volume and in value, and that overall whisky is doing relatively well in an overall declining market for alcohol.

In a new section appearing this year for the first time, Ronde ranks countries by the relative percentage of single malts out of the whole Scotch whisky import market. We’re not surprised to find Taiwan (47%) and the USA (22%), alongside Singapore (26%) and Germany (19%). Most surprising, or maybe considering what I know is actually happening in this market this should be less surprising, is that Israel closes out this list with a 14% single malt share, putting it 10th in the world!

Malt Whisky Yearbook - Ingvar Rönde - Malter Magasin

The section then goes on to three factors that made 2019/2020 really challenging years for Scotch whisky. I’ll leave the details in the book, but I’ll mention the COVID-19 is obviously one those factors. Alongside the pandemic, the US tariff wars with the EU imposed a 25% tariff on Scotch (coming after the EU imposed a tariff on American Whiskey), and the US was seeking to raise that to 100%, but nobody is sure where that is going in the wake of COVID-19. Lastly, if alcohol consumption numbers remain as low as they have been measured among Gen-Z (15-25 year olds), this trend bodes a whole world of trouble for whisky (and whiskey) makers. This section ends with a rundown on the year for the major producers, with quite a bit of interesting thoughts and information about 2020. Glenfiddich is still firmly in the global lead over Glenlivet (the former sells just over 18 million bottles and the latter at 15.6 million bottles). You’ll recall that in 2015 Glenlivet leapfrogged into the first place for single malts, but Glenfiddich did what Glenfiddich does best, marketing, and has grown by an impressive 40% since, reclaiming the top spot once again a couple of years back.

In the New Distilleries section you’ll find brand new distillery for 2020, and there are more updates on new distilleries on pages 270-274 covering both Scottish and on Irish distilleries.

As usual, the first part of the book includes in depth articles, with Charlie MacLean looking at malting and the effect the move from distillery floor maltings to centralized drum and pneumatic maltings had on whisky flavor. Joel Harrison addresses the question of how new distilleries might bring something new into the fray, rather than making more of the same type of Scotch whisky. On that issue I’ll mention what my friend Nitai Morgenstern, manager of Israel’s peated Yerushalmi Distillery told me during my visit to the distillery: “I’m never going to be able to out-Lagavulin Lagavulin, and I’m not going to try. My job here is to make Yerushalmi an experience that is different to anything you can get out of Scotland, or I don’t really have a right to take up space on store shelves worldwide”.

Ian Wisniewski explores the mechanics of whisky tasting, bringing science together with some thoughts from the top masters in the industry. My favorite article was Neil Ridley’s look at the ‘Old vs. New’ divide in the whisky world. The nostalgic thought that ‘the good ol’ days’ were better. Ridley points out, rightfully, that modern day production and management methods allow for much more consistency than in older whisky, where hit and miss was more the rule. His conclusion is that there is no real resolution to this question, as long as the whisky producers are focused on keeping a character to their whisky as opposed to being “vanilla”. My personal view on this is that I’m actually very happy with the place the whisky industry as a whole is at the start of the third decade of the century as far as production goes (without going into questions of pricing here). I think the greater consistency on the core expressions is fabulous, and both production and wood management shows. There’s also a great variety of single casks bottled (both as OB and independently), allowing a greater than ever exploration of whisky. However, I do think that the advances in science and management can allow producers to go back and explore older production methods, such as floor maltings and locally grown old strain barley with the greater consistency available nowadays.

Photo Credit: Sotheby’s

Gavin Smith takes us back to ten single malts (well, nine. One is a blended malt) that created something new in the industry. My first thought was that I would have included the Balvenie Classic as the first expression finished in another cask. This wasn’t an oversight, Mr. Smith simply holds that credit in Glenmorangie’s court, with the Glenmorangie 1963, despite having been released later than the Balvenie.

Lastly, Jonny McCormick takes us into a defining moment for American single malts and the true ‘wild west’ frontier of innovation happening in the USA now in this field. It makes for a very interesting read with new and upcoming names in the industry I’m sure to follow.

The one thing that’s very clear from reading the articles as a whole, is that the industry has some ‘superstar presenters’ who are interviewed and quoted multiple times in various articles. I was thinking I would have liked to have a review of how the whisky industry dealt with the last real pandemic, but in 1918 the industry was ravaged by four years of war and a two decade slump. So much for that idea 🤷‍♂️.

The main section of the book is, of course, the Scotch distillery profiles, where the well established active distilleries get a full profile and newer distilleries get a shorter profile in the New Distilleries section. A short profile is also provided as a memorial for distilleries that didn’t make it, from the very coveted and currently resurrected Port Ellen, Rosebank and Brora to the nearly forgotten Lochside. Interestingly, the only distilleries profiled are those who were active in the author’s lifetime, which is an interesting editorial choice, and one I rather like. Of course, there are books that trace every licensed distillery in the UK going back to Victorian times. Another section lists single malt distilleries around the world, including a section on our burgeoning local distillery scene here in Israel.

I did notice in the entry for Glen Garioch (yes, it’s the first one I read if that wasn’t obvious) that some information needs some updating, as the Vintage expressions are no longer “recent” (they were released in 2010 through 2014) and some of them are omitted: Vintage 1986, 1991 (it’s a beauty, try to taste it!), 1995 (another belter!) and 1999 are not listed, nor is the release of the Virgin Oak No. 2. But after you read my conclusion below, you’ll agree with me that this is pretty minor.

There are fascinating one page “chats” (interview and a short profile) with some largely retired whisky legends, such as Michael Urquhart, Alan Winchester, Frank McHardy and Jim McEwan, which make a perfect accompaniment for a dram. Of course, this reading would be very much augmented by matching your dram to the whisky-maker.

I’ll just conclude noting that this blog is now included in the Yearbook’s Websites to Watch section, which is a nice recognition for Malt and Oak. Now I have my sights set on getting an asterisk ūüôā

Conclusion

I feel that recommending this book to my readers is a bit superfluous, as the Yearbook precedes my own entry into taking whisky as a serious hobby and, obviously, this blog, so anybody serious about whisky will already be a reader. Nevertheless, unlike other yearbooks in almost every field – which are meant to keep the professional up to date until the next edition of the canon text, The Malt Whisky Yearbook strives, and succeeds, in being independently valuable as a stand-alone book. Hence, I keep all my previous copies (I have them dating back to 2010), as there’s very valuable information in each of them, beyond the distillery profiles. In fact, I feel that this is where Mr. Ronde’s work shines through.¬†

Doing a yearbook has some serious challenges:

  1. How do you keep each edition different enough to make each successive purchase of equal value, yet familiar enough to be handy?
  2. How do you keep up in the first place, with such a vast amount of information in the whisky industry, and choose what goes in?
  3. How do you cope with the rewrites out of a basically finite factual pool, and do so for the 16th time?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this going from year to year, but the text description on each distillery is rewritten for each edition. Beyond the yearly change of focus on the distillery, it also lays out the planned work schedules and production plans for the year, as well as new expressions and other news relating to marketing aspects of the business. So basically, you’re reading a new book, that feels very very familiar. Reading through successive years of coverage on the same distillery gives the reader a subtly different view on the same “object”.¬† That’s a form of art.

The Scotch industry is pretty huge when you try to cover every important change, plus keep tabs on single malt distilleries all over the world. Here, again, Ronde shines.

The fun thing about the Malt Whisky Yearbook is that even now that I’ve “finished” reading it, I know I’ll be reaching for it frequently as a reference going forward, well, at least until the 2022 edition comes off the press.

If, for any reason, you don’t have a copy, this would be a good time to get one ūüôā

 

 

Feb 272017
 

I recently published a review of the GlenDronach Peated, and that got me thinking that there’s a major shift happening in the tectonic plate alignment of the whisky world. We’re moving away from distillery house styles to a whole new way of looking, experiencing and thinking about whisky.

The second decade of the third millennium is a fascinating time to be a whisky fan. As the industry strains to cope with unprecedented demand for whisky (in all its types, including Irish, American bourbon and rye, Canadian and “World” styles – which in whisky means European, Asian and Australian). The industry is throwing all it has into the market, but so much has been written about NAS, that I’m not going to touch that subject at all.

Photo Credit: claxtonsspirits.com

No, I’d like to talk about whisky regions and house styles. Riling against the concept of whisky regions isn’t new, and Oliver Klimek made a clear cut case against keeping the whisky regions back in 2011. ¬†In short, Oliver says that regions aren’t useful as there are so many distilleries in every region that defy the characterization of the region. He specifically cites Talisker as being no less an “Islay” than Lagavulin, and takes apart that whole Island region as a collection of singular distilleries. Or, if you will, take Speyside – is it the sherried sweetness of Glenfarclas, the fruitiness of Glenlivet or the light sipping of Cardhu that define the region? And how about my own pet regional “peeve” of placing an Ardmore next to a (modern) Glen Garioch and them next to a Glenmorangie.¬†So on this matter I fully agree with Oliver, despite using the regions freely in tasting I lead…

But what has radically changed is the concept of “house style”.

It used to be that you could describe a distillery by the profile of flavors it produces. Indeed, with some distilleries, you can still do that. Take Old Pulteney as an example. All Wick expressions are unpeated, clean and somewhat briny, with most of the differences between the various expressions being due to age and sherry/bourbon cask combination. Yes, there have been releases matured in casks that previously held peated whisky, but there has been no change in the distillate itself. In this grouping of ‘single style’ distilleries we can put Glen Garioch, Glenfarclas, Dalmore (sans the E150a), Oban, Talisker, Glenkinchie, Glengoyne, Benromach, Deanston, Aberlour, Highland Park¬†and some of the classic Islay distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore¬†and Kilchoman), to name just some. These distilleries have a single type of liquid coming off the stills, and variations start in the cask.

On the other hand, there are distilleries who have no ‘house style’ in the first place (or shall we say that they have ‘multiple styles’), rather building more than one brand. For years, Springbank has been producing three different whiskies in the same stills: The heavily peated Longrow is distilled in the traditional double distillation, Springbank is more mildly peated and is distilled 2.5 times (meaning that some of the spirit gets a third distillation) and Hazelburn is triple distilled from unpeated barley. Similarly, Tobermory produces two distinct brands, a trend which is becoming common in the industry, with the likes of Tomatin’s¬†¬†C√Ļ B√≤can, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte and Octomore, Edradour’s¬†Ballechin and Tomintoul’s Old Bellantruan. I’m going to roll BenRiach into this category, since it has three distinct lines of whisky (regular, peated and triple distilled), although they’re all bottled under the BenRiach name.

The whisky industry used to be divided squarely between these two prototypes of producers, with the vast majority of distilleries having their own house style that could be described in a few basic words. Take Glenfarclas, for example, described as floral, sweet, sherried and lightly spicy or Laphroaig with its classic oily, peaty and medicinal flavors.

Photo Credit: potstill.org

Here, however, come in the third type of distilleries, let’s call them the ‘diversifiers’. ¬†The diversifiers are distilleries with a traditionally distinct “house style”, who dabble in a different style (mostly unpeated house style distilleries making peated expressions) to get ‘a piece’ of the other market. The original diversifier is, of course, Caol Ila, which produces quite a bit of unpeated whisky for Diageo’s blending needs, eventually making a yearly cask strength release as one of the two readily affordable special releases. Recently, however, it seems like everybody is making peated whisky. Of course, when I say ‘recently’ I do take into account that the whisky for these releases was distilled several years ago, sometime up to a decade and a half ago, placing these decisions a few years into¬†our current epoch, I term geologically the Singlemaltican.

Thus, we have Bunnahabhain making both peated and unpeated whisky, AnCnoc has seven (!) peaty expressions comprising nearly half of their range, and many distilleries have one peated expression, like the GlenDronach Peated, Scapa – forever the ‘other’ Orkney distillery – Glansa, Jura’s Superstition, Glenglassaugh (in line with the other BenRiach distilleries) released the Torfa, Macallan’s Rare Cask Black, Glenfiddich Vintage Cask, Tomintoul has the Peaty Tang – placing it in two categories at once, with Old Bellantruan as a separate brand, and the soon to be released Balvenie Peat Week, bottling whisky that’s very clearly intended to strike at the heart of the things that make aficionados go weak in the knees. It’s age stated (with a vintage, a la Knockando), non chill filtered, relatively high ABV (48.3%) sure to hold more flavor, and the novelty of truly peated Balvenie (as opposed to the peated casks used in a few experiments in the 17 year old releases, namely the IslayCask and the Peated Cask). Also, calling it “Peat Week”, distilled on the 37th week of the year (which comes out in early to mid September), with a 2002 vintage promises a yearly release (with the vintage possibly even making it collectible).

Distilleries don’t like to disclose their plans, but I suspect this category will be growing, with many more distilleries trying to find their place in this market.

What does this look like for many smaller players? For some, it’s about carving your place in the category, educating consumers through a comparison with your direct competitors. Consider this “here’s where we fit in” graphic from AnCnoc, a player that was not part of the peated arena at all:

Photo Credit: maccurve.be

For others, mostly independent bottlers less concerned with specific brands than with their own umbrella brand, it might take on the shape of selling a style of whisky, a flavor profile, rather than a specific distillery, as the SMWS has been advocating for the past two years or so, first with the “clans” and now with the profiles, going all the way as to putting color codes on the bottles themselves:

www.smws.com

 

Chris Anderson brought the term ‘long tail’ into common use in an article in Wired in 2004. In short, he claims that in today’s market, where there is an abundance of information and choices, and consumers will be looking for niche products and that a strategy of getting a small piece of a market rather than trying to dominate it may be the way to go in markets with wide product variation. This is, indeed, what we’re seeing now, with more and more distilleries doing away with ‘house styles’ to be part of everything happening in the whisky market. On the one hand, this is a smart business strategy. On the other hand, might it affect the novel idea of “favorite distillery” (come on, we all have one….or a dozen), shifting us to becoming ‘whisky profilers’….

Not this ‘profiler’ ūüėČ
Photo Credit: seriesaddict.fr

Indeed, we live in interesting times!

 

Oct 022016
 

Facebook is full of secret whisky associations, and the most secretive of those, with only¬†104 of the most discerning whisky nuts, is the WFFA. While I can’t say any more about the group, since one can’t ask to join it, and as two of the three rules the group has were taken out of¬†Chuck Palahniuk’s book, and I’m already toeing the line there: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club”. The third rule relates to Fridays and is not important. I will say that there are some serious hitters on there, and people from all walks of life. These are people who own quite a few bottles, belong to whisky clubs, trade samples with each other, and meet at whisky events.

Photo Credit: hatchbyte.com

Photo Credit: hatchbyte.com

We hear many pundits talk about “best whisky” or “best distillery”, but what do real, serious, maltheads think about the distilleries? Who actually has the hearts of the hard core maltheads?

I can actually answer that, as one of the group’s highlights is the annual “Best Distillery” vote. Each member sends in their top five distilleries, and 30 points are distributed per member. About two thirds of the membership voted (67 out of 104), and the votes were spread over 56 distilleries. The survey was run by our admin, John McDougall. A distillery will score points according to rank among members. Thus, each member assigns 30 points, spread as follows:¬†10 for the first place vote, 8 for your second, 6 for the third, 4 points for the forth¬†and 2 points are assigned to your fifth place vote.

While Springbank ran away with the vote (it won first place last year too, but this year seems to have gathered many more first place points –¬†21 first place votes, while fourth¬†place Bruichladdich was next with¬†seven first place votes), the top of the list is very similar to last year’s with the top six distilleries remaining the same. To me, this confirms the status of these six distilleries as favorite malthead distilleries, all of whom got over 100 points, and all of whom kept their places in the top six for the second year:¬†Springbank, GlenDronach, Ardbeg,¬†Bruichladdich, Lagavulin and¬†Kilchoman.

What can be learned from these results? A few things

  1. Maltheads like boldly flavored whisky (GlenDronach is the only non peated distillery in the six, and they have bold sherry casks galore).
  2. No core range presented at 40% and chill filtered made the top of the list. Not even close. In fact, the first one we meet is Laphroaig, at number 10, with one such expression.
  3. Maltheads appreciate tradition, but also respond to personal marketing (and being part of a “Committee” will gather commitment).
  4. Even serious groups have buffoons¬†(one voted for Jura, Glenfiddich, Loch Lomond and Fetttircairn, with no fifth distillery given). So if you wondered, as I did, how Jura got into 22nd place, there’s your answer).
  5. Mild distillery character is a disadvantage with maltheads.
  6. Non Scotch whisky is noticed, but not in a significant enough way (this is true for both American and East Asian whisky). Could this be the primarily European composition of the group? Could be. I’d love to see what results an identical survey would bring in Malt Maniacs and Friends, Facebook’s primary whisky group.

So with no further ado, I’ll give you the full list, next to each distillery you’ll find the total number of points, as well as the total number of members that voted for it. It’s interesting to note that had there not been a weighted system to the voting, the top six would have remained the same, and Bunnahabhain would have come in at seventh place.

WFFA Member's Choice Award

WFFA Member’s Choice Award

 

Top 20 Places in the 2016 WFFA Favorite Distillery Poll

  1. Springbank 376 points (48 votes)
  2. Glendronach 178 points (28 votes)
  3. Ardbeg 148 points (23 votes)
  4. Bruichladdich 144 points (23 votes)
  5. Lagavulin 142 points (21 votes)
  6.  Kilchoman 108 points (19 votes)
  7. Kilkerran 76 points (11 votes)
  8. Arran 68 points (9 votes)
  9. Bunnahabhain 62 points (13 votes)
  10. Laphroaig 60 points (10 votes)
  11. Clynelish 54 points (7 votes)
  12. Caol Ila 48 points (10 votes)
  13. Benromach 38 points (8 votes)
    Highland Park 38 points (9 votes)
  14. Glenfarclas 34 points (7 votes)
  15. Aberlour 30 points (6 votes)
    Buffalo Trace 30 points (5 votes)
  16. Yoichi 26 points (5 votes)
  17. Kavalan 22 points (3 votes)
  18. Mackmyra 18 points (5 votes)
    Yamazaki 18 points (3 votes)
  19. BenRiach 16 points (2 votes)
    Jura* 16 points (2 votes, including buffoon vote)
  20. Balblair 14 points (3 votes)
    Balvenie 14 points (4 votes)
    Tobermory 14 points (3 votes)

Concluding Thoughts

What does this vote mean? Nothing. Just like any other award, prize, medal or honorable mention.
What it can tell us, though, is what the core of maltheads seek, which can serve as a guide to anybody looking to market to (or produce for) this segment of the market.

It also shows that there are still some gems of distilleries out there that even hardened maltheads don’t think of when they talk about their favorite distilleries, secrets perhaps best left untold ūüėČ

Mar 272016
 

‚ÄúGinny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?‚ÄĚ
‚Äē J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

What is the state of trust between whisky producers and consumers?

There are several issues that effect trust, from the harmless and expected to the really harmful:

  1. Level of marketing fluff around a product. Stories sell, and products need to have a story. You pretty much have a free hand with this story, and none do it better than the American bourbon makers’ ability to spin tales about magic recipes handed down from frontier men and clergy from generations past, all the way to pre-prohibition yeast strains.¬†You’ll find much of this in the Scotch industry too, from a batch of casks that nobody knew existed to a mistaken shipment of peated barley. No big deal.
  2. Appearant truthfulness in advertising. This is always an issue, not specific to the whisky industry. How much do you disclose? How transparent are you about what’s inside the product or where it’s made. The bourbon industry has this issue with provenance, about stating who actually made the bourbon, if it’s sourced. The Scotch industry has the ever looming question of NAS whisky, where consumers are basically told “trust us, we know what we’re doing, you don’t really need to know what’s inside”. Sometimes this works out beautifully, like with Jura’s Turas Mara (reviewed here)¬†and the¬†Oban Little Bay (here), and sometimes, well, less so…
  3. Outright lies. These will almost never refer to the whisky itself, as sanctions on that would be too high. So I’m not talking about producers bottling a 15 year old under a 21 year old label. I don’t think these things happen, and I doubt if they did happen regularly, they wouldn’t be exposed. But I am talking about embellished truths, that are actually not. This post will examine one of those lies.

Have you ever looked at a core range bottle of Jura?

Photo Credit: elitetraveler.com

Photo Credit: elitetraveler.com

Did you notice the embossed writing on the bottle? It says “Established 1810”, and you think to yourself, “wow, this distillery was working since before Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg were, so cool”. It makes you all warm and fuzzy inside seeing a distillery take pride in their heritage, stating their claim to fame in this beautiful tradition of distilling started in 1775 with Glenturret, and proudly stating it on each bottle. Liking to know more about distilleries, you also read up a bit, and it seems that every serious whisky publication, from Ingvar Ronde’s canonical¬†Malt Whisky Yearbook to the sparkling new and informative¬†Scotchwhisky.com,¬†put the distillery’s establishment date at 1810. Indeed, they all mention a gap between 1901 and 1960 (or 1963), but this is clearly the history of one distillery.

Jura Timeline - scotchwhisky.com

Jura Timeline – scotchwhisky.com

Or is it?

Fact is that there was a distillery that was established in 1810 at this location and it was even named, after having a few other names, “Isle of Jura”. But this,¬†original distillery was closed down and dismantled by owner James Ferguson after losing the right to be on the land due to a dispute with the land owner,¬†Colin Campbell. For the next six decades, there was no (legal) distillation on the island. In 1960, an Edinburgh based company, Charles Mackinley & Co. LTD. started building a new distillery on the same site, beginning distillation in 1963, and through a succession of owners, came to rest in the hands of Whyte and Mackay.

So we’re clearly not talking about a distillery that was mothballed for some time and revived by the same owners. We’re not even talking about a distillery dismantled and rebuilt (although even that seems to be off limits, as Pernod-Ricard recently refrained from using the Imperial name for the new distillery on that site, though I doubt anyone would have seriously objected).

The company’s website is far more careful, and until recently, so were their bottlings. The text provided by the distillery makes no mention of anything prior to 1963. They obviously have a good lawyer giving them legal advice. The farthest they can go is “reborn”. Not renewed, not reactivated, not mothballed between 1901-1963, only reborn. Even the “re” is a bit of a stretch, but it’s not an outright lie. The “Established 1810” on the bottle, though, is a serious stretch of the truth – and, indeed, older bottles of the whisky say “Isle of Jura Single Malt Whisky”. It should have stayed that¬†way…
The first lesson they teach you about perception management is “manage it, never believe it yourself”!

Jura Website, 26.3.2016

Jura Website, 26.3.2016

I’ll be clear about this: Claiming Jura was established in 1810 is akin to my opening a distillery in Black Isle, between the A9 and the A835 near Inverness, and calling it Ryefield (or Ferintosh), which is the oldest known modern distillery. Hell, I could even do it in one of the original 17th century buildings still remaining (see picture on the lostdistillery.com page dedicated to Ryefield).
Would I then be entitled to say it was established in 1689? Of course not, and if I did, you’d laugh me out of town….

Are we starting to believe our own stories?

Are we starting to believe our own stories? Old and new bottles….

Now don’t get me wrong, Whyte and Mackay were¬†toeing this line very carefully, allowing third parties to spin the lore for them, for the most part. This line was crossed when the new bottles began to say “Established 1810”, while it should really read “Established 1963”.

Is this the worse embellishment¬†ever? No. I mean, in truth, who really cares? But it erodes trust. Badly. If you’re not truthful about when you were established, how can I trust you on other issues, even though I know your labels are honest?¬†¬†You¬†can slip young whisky into a bottle, fluff it up with some marketing BS and sell it for more than the older age stated whisky sells, and that erodes trust. When you slip in a little white lie about your corporate history and¬†date of establishment, you reinforce that erosion with fact. Why do it? What will you really gain from it? Most of your consumers in 2016 are younger than 52 anyway, you seem old enough to them!

Indeed, this is a symptom of the greater breakdown of the bond of trust between the distilleries and consumers. You see, Marketing bullshit is bullshit, not a lie. NAS is¬†not officially a lie. Not an outright lie, anyway. But it¬†is a small lie of omission.¬†Consumers will live well enough with product stories, though some of them will get you called out upon, as Yoav did recently with Macallan’s Rare Cask (see here), but in general, that’s expected, and is usually held against the marketing department, not the distillery. Anything beyond that, you’ll be losing points. Real points.

Honestly, if there’s anything the SWA should concern itself with, it’s this¬†erosion of trust. This is the real danger to the industry. The question the legal department needs to ask itself is this: Does this action elevate consumer trust or erode it. Obviously, full Compass Box like transparency promotes confidence, while fictitiously backdating your year of establishment erodes it. Yet, somehow, the SWA is all over Comapss Box, and said not a word to Jura.

Marketing fluff is expected, lies should not be tolerated. I leave you with the only open question: How much transparency is right for the industry? That debate is one that won’t be resolved in this post.

 

Feb 192016
 

The whisky industry is pretty much self regulated by an industry association named The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

The SWA’s forerunner was formed in¬†October 1912 as the¬†Wine & Spirit Brand Association,¬†¬†renaming itself the Whisky Association¬†in 1917¬†and got its current name in 1940, while the SWA was fighting for the right to use cereals during the war years to distill whisky, a repeated episode from¬†World War I. The SWA’s mission statement it:

The SWA’s role¬†is to advance the global interests and profile of Scotch Whisky, our members and of the industry as a whole.

Produced in Israel in the 1960s and labeled as "Fine Scotch Whisky", Escott was probably none of those.....

Produced in Israel in the 1960s and labeled “Fine Scotch Whisky”, Escott was probably none of those…..

A noble role, no doubt. Overall, one must admit that the SWA’s staunch stands on many issues, from taxation to legally fighting to protect Scotch whisky as a protected trademark, including a fascinating, and little known legal battle waged in Israel, 42 years ago. I mentioned this before, but it turns out that begining in 1960, an Israeli company named “National Distillers LTD” was producing “Fine Scotch Whisky” in the northern city of Karmiel. By 1970, the SWA together with John Walker & Sons, John Dewar & Sons and Hill Thomson & Co. were embroiled in a legal battle, that made its way to the Israeli Supreme Court and was case 253/72 was adjudicated before the legendary¬†Justice Joel Sussman. Remanded to the District court in Haifa, the company was ordered to cease selling whisky labeled “Scotch” and to pay damages, which caused the company to go bankrupt. I’m unclear as to the practices involved in making this Escott, but it wasn’t distilled locally, and the writing I found about it referred to using a “Scotch extract”, so who knows…. The point is, the SWA has an important role to play.

Nevertheless, being an industry association, it’s dominated by and is mainly concerned with the big players. Their interest is very clear: Keep Scotch Scottish, work with governments world over to lower taxation and remove trade barriers and keep all players “playing fair”, meaning prevent anybody in the industry from taking an unfair advantage. It’s in this, last category, that our current discussion falls. To protect consumers as far as age statements go, European Union regulation¬†110/2008 specifies in¬†Article 12(3) that:

3.   Without prejudice to any derogation adopted in accordance with the regulatory procedure with scrutiny referred to in Article 25(3), a maturation period or age may only be specified in the description, presentation or labelling of a spirit drink where it refers to the youngest alcoholic component and provided that the spirit drink was aged under revenue supervision or supervision affording equivalent guarantees.

What this basically means is that you can only give the age of the youngest component in any description. This makes sense, since you could take 695 ml. of a three year old whisky, and 5¬†ml. of a 40 year old, and without this regulation, you¬†could conceivably pass the whisky off as being (or appearing to be) 40 years old. So the regulation makes perfect sense and is, indeed, most beneficial for consumers. It makes even more sense considering that companies are usually loath to disclose their formula, regulators have chosen to keep things simple. Youngest or NAS, and that’s that.

To this, the SWA added a provision regarding vintage statement, in article 12 of the 2009 regulations, having the force of law in the UK.

But what if a producer would like to fully disclose the formula of the expression. Not give it an age statement, mind you, nor state a vintage. Only publish what’s inside with the exact composition down to the exact percentages, distilleries of origin and the age of each component in such a way where confusion was impossible?

Say a producer went all out and wanted to fully disclose the content of an expression, like this:

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Traditionally, all you could say about this blend is that it’s a 19 year old, which is fine for a single glance age statement. You could even go so far as to state that it has whisky from Glen Ord, Strathclyde, Girvan and Caol Ila, much like Douglas Laing does with Big Peat:

Photo Credit: optimist1.com

Photo Credit: optimist1.com

But once you get into ages, you’re extremely limited. Indeed, in late 2015 Compass Box got into trouble with the SWA for clearly outlining the exact formula of two blends in the accompanying literature: Flaming heart and This Is Not A Luxury Whisky. This prompted John Glaser to launch a¬†campaign to add a third option to age statements: Full Disclosure. Basically, it would allow a producer to give the full formula (distillery, age of component, type of cask), down to 0.1% of each and every component of the blend. You don’t get to choose partial disclosure, and if you do wish to state an age for the blend, it would still have to be the youngest whisky in it.

Thus, Compass Box is advocating that full disclosure include “complete, unbiased and clear information on every component whisky in their product ‚Äď with or without a headline age statement outlining the age of the youngest spirit” with these term to mean the following:¬†

Complete: Full listing of the ages of every component whisky that has gone into a given product, alongside a percentage figure given to one decimal place denoting the contribution of each component whisky to the finished products.

Clear: When applied to packaging the information should be displayed with the same prominence as all other mandatory legal information (such as ABV, liquid volume etc.). When applied in off-pack marketing materials there must be no attempt made to obscure any element of the information.

Unbiased:¬†There can be no display bias towards the older component whiskies mentioned on-pack or in marketing materials ‚Äď all component whiskies must be given equal prominence and equal type size. Moreover, the order in which the component whiskies are displayed should be determined by their proportionate contribution to the overall alcohol in the blend ‚Äď with the component whisky that contributed the greatest alcohol displayed first and that which contributed the least displayed last. Where two parcels have contributed the same proportion to the finished whisky, the younger of the two should be listed first.

Component whisky:¬†A parcel of whisky that can be distinguished from the other component whiskies in the final blend ‚Äď at a minimum by its age but if the producer chooses to do so also by referencing other distinguishing features and terminology permitted under the current regulations (such as whisky type and category, distillery source, cask type, region information).

Freedom: No producer should ever be compelled to provide Full Disclosure (in the same way that no producer is currently compelled to include Age Statement information within the current regulations).

Headline Age Statement:¬†Age statement as defined within the current regulations. That is to say that choosing ‚ÄėFull Disclosure‚Äô does not preclude the inclusion of a prominent age statement, so long as this outlines only the youngest spirit in the bottling. (For example, a Single Malt whisky of 50% 30-year old whisky and 50% 40-year old whisky could [in line with current SWA regulation], be described as a 30-year old whisky and the producer could also choose to provide full details of the product’s composition on the packaging and through the marketing of the release. However, they could not describe the product as a ‚Äė40 year-old‚Äô whisky or as a ‚Äė35 year-old‚Äô whisky).

John Glaser’s video made for the campaign:

While I doubt the regulations were as big a surprise to John, a true veteran of the industry and one who has already crossed swords with the SWA previously, as this video seems to convey, he’s absolutely right in this call. Personally,¬†I’m a staunch advocate of mandatory full disclosure, as I have stated time and again when it comes to NAS. So while this amendment falls short of that lofty (and impractical) goal, it’s as far as we can hope for politically anyway, so being a pragmatist, I’m fully aboard with this version.

So unlike my habit, I’ll put in a direct call to action to you, dear reader, and urge you to take a stand. Please go to this page and register your support for this measure. I think that if enough consumers sign it and enough distilleries come aboard (Bruichladdich already announced its support of the measure) – the SWA will have no choice but to start making this change.