Thursday, 18 February 2016

Guided by the Compass: A plea for transparency.

'We believe...That Scotch whisky producers should have the freedom to offer their customers complete, unbiased and clear information on the age of every component used in their whiskies. That those customers have the right to know exactly what it is they're drinking.'

Sounds fair enough, right?

We live - are privileged to live - in an age of knowledge and of information. Not sure about something? Ask Dr Google. Looking for an answer - it's on your phone and with you in a click. Which is a wonderful thing by and large, and the only real shame is that it's brought an end to those wonderful 'pub arguments' where some bizarre topic would be the subject of heated debate by two parties neither of whom knew much about the subject nor, prior, to this point, had previously cared about the answer. Both of whom would often turn out to be entirely wrong. The only row of substance I have ever had with my best friend was over which shade of pink fell under 'Salmon.' We each maintain to this day that we were right and that the other was a fool.

This desire for transparency naturally extends to consumables. Of course it does - what idiot doesn't want to know what they're putting in their mouths? (Unless it was bought from a kebab shop between the hours of 11pm and 5am, in which case I'd rather it stayed a secret. In any case, I side with the general consensus that nothing eaten during those hours counts.) Which begs the question: why, on the 29th of October last year, were Compass Box, a whisky blending company of the very first rank, and of unimpeachable character, informed by the SWA that they were in breach of EU law by packaging two of their blended whiskies with a full breakdown of the malts and grains included in their makeup, along with the corresponding ages of those whiskies?

The online whisky community responded in fairly partisan fashion to this news, overwhelmingly supporting Compass Box, wrongly damning the SWA and calling for the anonymous SWA member who had 'snitched' on Compass Box to be swung naked from a gibbet with bacon attached to their nethers and a pack of small, hungry dogs released upon them. They didn't spell out that last bit,
but I read between the lines. The outcry caused editors of, whom I regard as the aristocracy of the whiskynet to write an open letter to the members of the SWA. In it, they asked whether the members believed that distillers and blenders should be entitled to complete transparency with regards to their products, and whether they would be prepared to ask the SWA to lobby for changes to EU legislation which currently prevents it.

So. This legislation. What is it, and why is it in place?

Basically, Regulation 12.3 of the Spirit Drinks Regulation No. 110/2008 provides that any mention of a maturation period or age could only refer to the 'youngest alcoholic component' in a blend.

In their response to the SWA said that the EU adopted this legislation owing to 'the need to have one simple and enforceable position which effectively prevents anyone referring to age in a range of misleading and potentially confusing ways.' Now that sentiment is fair enough. Before the legislation was put in place Johnnie Walker Blue label, which contained a thimbleful of 60 year old whisky, was being labelled in some markets as being 60 years old. Clearly erroneous, cynical and misleading. It should also be noted that this legislation is not the SWA's - they were acting on behalf of Compass Box in noting that their whisky marketing was not conforming to EU law. The only question remains the identity of the SWA member who pointed that out to the Association, their motive for doing so and the reason behind their subsequent desire to remain anonymous. Ours not to make conjecture.

Today John Glaser, founder of and whiskymaker for Compass Box, launched an online campaign for transparency in the whisky industry. Near the start of the petition was the statement quoted at the top of this page. I immediately added my name to the petition, and am writing this article to urge anyone who loves - hell, anyone who just occasionally drinks - whisky to add their names to it too. Because I believe that the need for transparency in the Whisky industry has never been greater; that it is the single most important issue surrounding Our Drink today.

I have touched before on the subject of the No Age Statement Whisky, and the controversy that surrounds it. I consider it to be an inevitability, and I believe strongly that it does not have to be a death-knoll for Scotch - indeed it has the potential to open doors to innovation, creativity and a focus on the quality of malt such as is displayed by Bruichladdich, by Glenmorangie, by the Aberlour A'Bunadh range to name but three. 

However let's not pretend that this is currently the rule. Furthermore, the principle objection voiced by blanket opponents of NAS is that they are being asked to pay the same if not more for
their NAS dram as they were for the age-dated whisky they enjoyed previously, without any price justification. Many brands do already provide information; Bruichladdich famously are keen on identifying the provenance of their barley, and the PPM of the peat in their malt. Newly released Ailsa Bay also contains a peat ppm specification as well as an innovative ppm for sweetness, which would be easier to contextualise if we had any frame of reference for what that is! It is also common for whiskies to name the style of cask used, and all of that is well and good and commendable. 

However none of this will assuage the niggling suspicions which plague the whiskynet, which provoke the furore and fire and brimstone and curses and damnation. The suspicions that most NAS whiskies - blended, blended malt or single malt - are simply minimum-age spirit mucked about with in some way or another and then given a fancy marketing spin. Those suspicions will not go away. Quite the reverse - as more and more labels drop their age statements the thunder of discontent will roll ever louder until brands provide a complete breakdown of what has gone into their bottles. 'We can't tell you, it's a secret' is for uninformed tourists on distillery experiences, who don't much care either way. We know why you can't tell us, and we don't like it. From the noise made around October we know that many of you - notably Tomatin - don't like it either. Something has to change, otherwise trust risks being irreparably broken.

The second reason I would cite for the importance of transparency is in attracting and educating new consumers. I work in wine, and believe me, everyone likes to think of themselves as an expert. They know countries, they know regions, they know grapes, they know styles and my God do they have some strongly held views. A couple of years of working in retail and sales made me wish that some people were a little less well-informed about wine, but the bottom line is that the information is there. People can go into a supermarket or wine store, and they can make decisions based on accurate, concrete information both online and on the label. It is a long time now since I bought a wine based on its tasting note, because it's a long time since I've had to resort to anything so subjective. And - actually - people enjoy being knowledgeable, and to be able to talk about what they're drinking or serving guests, whatever the extent to which you want to take your expertise. With wine you can have that confidence. And that's only the case because of transparency. Those of you fortunate enough to be well informed about whisky I would ask to cast your minds back to the first bottles you ever bought, and consider the information you had to go on. It just doesn't stack up, and if people like Compass Box are trying to change that - to shine a light through the darkness - we should do all we can to support them.

I love whisky. Sometimes I don't like how much I love it, mostly when I look at the toll it takes on my bank balance, but I can't help myself. And the reason that I love it goes beyond smell and taste - it's a fascination. Every day I learn a little bit more about whisky and with every new fact, every new piece of learning, that love grows a little bit deeper. I know many of you reading this will feel the same way. How wonderful then would it be if all that is hidden from us now was thrown into relief? If windows were opened that for so long have been shuttered and bolted? If we could buy with confidence; if we had total disclosure on NAS spirits; if we could talk with more excitement and information about our favourite drams, and share them more fully with an ever-wider audience? Of
course there will always be an indiscernible magic around Scotch; an aura if you will. But, just as Ligo's recent unravelling of another scientific mystery has only increased fascination with our Universe, the demystification of whisky would surely serve to further kindle the love so many of us feel, and to open eyes more fully and more clearly.

It is time for the veil to lift. It is time to let Compass Box guide us through the fog, and into a brighter day.


Follow this link to support Compass Box's Campaign

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