Transparency In Scotch Labelling

In some ways you’d think this might be a bit of a contentious topic for a first post on my blog, but given the reactions to Compass Box’s Transparency campaign online – the fact that one of the ‘big boys’ of Scotch, Bruichladdich (which is owned by Pernod Ricard), is openly supporting the campaign – and the fact that even the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) is now planning to hold talks on the issue due to the sheer number of people that have signed the petition; the topic probably isn’t really all that contentious at all except for the fact that for there to be any movement on the matter will require legislative approval from 28 nations that comprise the EU.

Some people (possibly cynics – but that usually includes me) believe that this campaign is a publicity stunt by Compass Box, and possibly Bruichladdich as well. I personally doubt that publicity was the primary purpose of the transparency campaign – although I don’t doubt that the increased attention that the campaign has generated is welcomed by those involved.

For those that aren’t aware of the transparency campaign, it is about one thing, and one thing only – the fact that it is currently illegal for aged spirits (such as whisky – either blends or single malts) to display the age of the component casks that make up the bottling.  The age of the components are not allowed to be displayed either on the bottle, nor on any marketing or sales material.  At present, whisky is allowed to either display no information, or only the age of the youngest component cask. Compass Box wants an amendment to the aged spirits laws of the UK and EU that would allow all of the details of each component cask, including the age, to be displayed – but still only allow the youngest component’s age to be displayed as a headline of the label (if any age is displayed).

Despite the admirable motives behind the current laws (protecting consumers from unscrupulous producers advertising the age of one component of a bottle as the age of the whisky even if that component only makes up a small part of the bottling), the methods that the laws use are less than ideal – any published age statement must be the age of only the youngest component, and blanket bans on information regarding the age of any other casks that make up the bottle’s contents.

I personally am in favour of distilleries being able to publish whatever information about their bottlings that they want – the decision should be a commercial decision made by the distillery, and not set in stone by legislation. The amendment that has been proposed by Compass Box, whereby producers could provide as much or as little information as they desire to consumers (but still only allow a headline statement to show the age of the youngest component, if any age is published on the label at all), seems like an entirely reasonable change to me – although I’m sure there would be an enormous amount of political wrangling over what the differences between a “headline statement” and “complete information” are.

There have been numerous battles over the years to increase the amount of transparency allowed in scotch whisky labelling, but none have ever substantiated to anything.  Any change to the laws will not be a simple task – all 28 nations of the EU need to approve the changes (although on a slight tangent; one wonders if this task will be enormously less difficult if the UK leaves the EU).  Change will also require the backing of the SWA, and at least a few of the big transnational scotch corporations (Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant, Beam Suntory, Edrington, et al).  It is with the transnational corporations where the campaign might actually find backers – Compass Box lists Barcardi as a major shareholder, and Bruichladdich is wholly owned by Pernod Ricard.  All of these distillery owners also operate in other whisky/whiskey producing regions where such restrictive labelling conditions do not exist, and Beam Suntory does list component parts on at least some of its American and Japanese bottlings.

In this day and age, with everybody carrying smartphones with them everywhere, a QR code on the label leading to a web-page listing the cask numbers, and a database that lists every detail that the distiller/blender wants people to be able to look up for each cask number would be a fairly simple way for a producer to skirt the current laws – and seems to be the approach that Bruichladdich is planning to take in regards to their Classic Laddie, although I believe they are simply printing cask numbers on the label, and providing a cask information lookup form on their website (and even that has some people questioning the legality of).

Whilst this approach is in many ways fantastic for those of us that love the minutiae, as you can put a hell of a lot more information on a website than you can on a label, it is not as clean as a change to the law would allow – after all if you’re comparing two different bottles in a shop it can be difficult to do so whilst trying to browse on your mobile.  It also hinders making more informed impulse buys (if there is such a thing), and disadvantages those that are particularly non tech-savvy (including many of the elderly).  In an ideal world producers could list the cask details on the back of the bottle, and have a database that can be accessed on our phones that contains all the information we could possibly want – many people will be happy to just be able to read what percentage of the whisky came from which distillery, how long it was aged for, and what it was aged in.

One part of John Glaser and Compass Box’s campaign that I do want to touch on, and one that many people seem to have glossed over is this particular quote:

Scotch whisky producers should have the freedom to offer their customers complete, unbiased and clear information

Whilst many producers may want to list and describe the components of their whiskies, for many it is the equivalent to the secret sauce, and they are unlikely to want to publish this information.  I personally don’t have an issue with this – although knowing the contents of the blend may help many people figure out if they wish to buy the whisky in the first place.  If there becomes a groundswell of drinkers who refuse to drink a whisky that doesn’t publish the details it becomes a purely commercial matter for that producer – which is exactly the point; it should be a commercial decision, not a legislative mandate.

All up, the law needs to change to allow whisky producers the opportunity to innovate, and to provide the information in a sensible manner for those that want to know it.

If you haven’t already, read the posts regarding their views on both Compass Box’s and Bruichladdich’s websites, and sign Compass Box’s petition on their website, and let’s get some momentum for change!



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