Spirits

Does Scotch Need to Be Any More Official Than It Already Is?


If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap—at least according to an old Saturday Night Live skit.

In an effort to instill that concept in potentially naive drinkers, the British government is compiling a public register of firms that make Scotch correctly—which is to say, aged in oak casks for at least three years in Scotland.

It’s a page from the playbook of France’s Champagne region, which has been popping the bubbles of imposters for decades. Scotch-making shops could begin signing up for a review of authenticity on Jan. 10; consider it a preemptive strike on a rash of startup distilleries.

“The verification scheme will make sure people who buy Scotch get what they pay for—the finest spirit in the world,” senior U.K. treasury official Danny Alexander said in a statement on Friday.

The move, however, seems to be more of a marketing exercise than a rigorous police action—a way to burnish the brand of a booze that is losing favor with some young drinkers who want a rye Old-Fashioned à la Don Draper, or Diddy’s new tequila.
 
Indeed, Scotch sales have been fairly stagnant in the U.S. for at least 10 years.
 

But rising thirst in Asia has more than made up for cool demand in America. U.S. consumers now drink only 10 percent of Scotch exports thanks to shipments to other regions.

Given that trajectory, the public register seems a bit silly. What’s more, it’s voluntary, which means plenty of legitimate Scotch, soaked through with the peat smoke of the shrouded island, may not ever land on the official list.

Scotch is also already protected as a “Geographical Indication” under European Union rules, a designation that requires regulators to verify production. So the new register boils down to a list and a stamp.

Finally, such “official” stamps mean little unless they are backed by a cadre of trademark attorneys. Scottish lawyers already have a proud history of scrapping for a fight just as aggressively as their counterparts in Champagne.

Most famously, the Scotch Whisky Association lost a protracted battle in the Canadian Supreme Court with Nova Scotia’s Glen Breton brand single-malt. The Canadian distillery didn’t call its booze “Scotch,” but the Whisky Association argued that the term “Glen” was misleading to drinkers.

And then there’s Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay and YouTube Scotch-tasting sensation. Paterson, a stately and poetic drinking coach, promises violence to anyone who holds a tasting glass in the wrong way. With advocates like that, it’s hard to imagine an official list is necessary.

Kyle-stock-190
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com. Twitter: @kylestock

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