“Ginny!” 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?”
― J.K. Rowling,
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:
- 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.
- 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…
- 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?
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.
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”!
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….
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.