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.
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:
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:
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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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).
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.