French ‘Scotch’ Maker Faces Backlash

The Scotch Whisky Association apparently has a battery of lawyers ready to sue anyone who dares misappropriate the Scotch name. This week it turned its attention to Bercloux, a French brewer that announced plans to buy Scotch whisky from Scotland, mature it in France and sell it as Scotch.

This violates SWA rules, which stipulate that you can’t call something Scotch unless it is made and matured in Scotland.

Cracking down on labeling makes a lot of sense. Appellations are generally considered sacrosanct when it comes to liquor to ensure the authenticity of the product, and rightly so. The aging process in whisky is key to the final product, and many link unique properties of the finished cask to the local qualities of the air where they are stored.

There seems to be nothing sacred in geography when it comes to actual quality: Whisky Magazine this year named Japanese single malt Ochone as the best in the world, topping numerous local Scotches.

In the end, it boils down to money, not taste. Scotch whisky makers will never give up the home court advantage without a fight, and neither would you if you were in their shoes.

That said the SWA can be a tad aggressive, and has been pushing its claims beyond the term Scotch. It recently launched a trademark battle in Canada, seeking to bar Nova Scotia distiller Glenora from using the term “Glen” in its labeling. Glenora won round one at the trademark office, allowing it to continue marketing its Glen Breton brand. But it lost round two in court in February. Here’s a legal analysis of the decision.

Actions like this make the SWA seem overly litigious, and the agency has drawn criticism for being a tool of giant multinationals like Diageo hellbent on keeping new small competitors out of the market at all costs. Add hypocrisy to the charges, as the SWA has recently pressed for and won changes in labeling rules for vatted single malts that could create consumer confusion to Diageo’s benefit.

In the end the main question for the consumer is transparency, and enforcing strict labeling rules should in the long run help everyone. As Japan has shown, non-Scotch single malts can gain respect without resorting to name games.

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~ by whisky1 on September 10, 2008.

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