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The Fight for Transparency in Scotch Whisky

Whats going on, and how you can help

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Much attention has been paid, and rightfully so, to the ongoing issues over the labeling of American whiskey, due largely to sourcingwhen a brand buys its whiskey elsewhere and sells the juice under its own name. Consumers want to know who's actually making their whiskey, and from where it's coming. However, there's a newer fight taking place on the Scotch whisky front. Except, instead of battling to get producers to be more transparent, as is the case with American whiskey, the struggle with Scotch whisky is over the fact that producers are legally restricted from being fully transparent about the contents of their whisky blends, and in particular, the age of the whiskies included.

Current Regulations

"There are two laws we're talking about here. One is an E.U. law, one is a U.K. law, and they mirror one another, so they're the same," explains John Glaser, founder of London's Compass Box Whisky. "The law prohibits a spirits producer, in our case a Scotch whisky producer, from communicating the details of the ages of the components in our blend except for the youngest. You can only talk about the youngest."

That means that current laws actually bar producers from being as open and transparent as possible. Glaser and Compass Box were thrust into the center of this discussion in November 2015, when they were notified by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) that they were running afoul of the regulations with their Flaming Heart and This Is Not A Luxury Whisky releases.

To understand the type of information which Compass Box was making available, take a look at the specifics provided for the brand's Hedonism Quindecimus, a release from earlier in 2015. Here, Compass Box clearly indicated exactly what the whisky's blend included:

17.6 percent of 20 year old North British whisky aged in first-fill American oak, 36.6 percent of 25 year old Port Dundas whisky aged in rejuvenated hogshead casks, 8.4 percent 28 year old Dumbarton whisky aged in American oak, 19.4 percent 20 year old Port Dundas aged in first-fill American oak, and 18 percent of a 32 year old, pre-blended parcel of grain whiskies. This was dubbed as the "mystery blend" because its distillers weren't noted, but even then, its age, maturation specifics, and proportion of the total blend were provided.

Compass Box even offered tasting notes for what each individual component offered the overall blend. Therefore, consumers could learn not only exactly what was in the blend, but also why it was included. Everything that a consumer could want to know about this whisky was revealedand that type of transparency is illegal.

"For about 15 years, we've been telling people the age of every component in our blends. One hundred percent, being fully transparent," says Glaser. "We've known for a long time that's not strictly speaking legal, but we always felt that the law was not fit for purpose. We were just waiting for the day that somebody would try to call us on that, and that day has come."

How Is That Possible?

Such regulations come from a well-intentioned place, serving as a form of consumer protection, preventing misleading marketing from overselling a whisky. However, now they also hinder companies from sharing knowledge and insight.

Current laws actually bar producers from being as open and transparent as possible.

"The regulations were probably based on being the guardians or the police of the industry, and trying to retain the integrity of the whisky," says Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director of The Glenrothes. "If somebody has 12 year old whisky in a bottle, it's not just 1 percent 12 years old in the bottle, it has to be all 12 years old or older ... it's the one thing that defended the consumer at the time. The downside of that is that you are not allowed to mention what the other ages are or the makeup if it's older."

Glaser more specifically describes the scenario which was playing out, and why the regulations were created: "If we go back to why we believe this law is in place in the first place, going back 25 years ago when it was put into E.U. law, back then, we do know there were some spirits producers, some Cognac producers and at least one Scotch whisky producer, that was known for marketing and sales promotion material, telling consumers that there was whisky in this blend as old as X. Very old whisky, a very big number."

He goes on to say that the company in question essentially added a dropper's worth of whisky, say 60 years old, to a final blend and would then promote that it was a 60 year old whisky. "But in fact, it was an insignificant, minuscule proportion of the blend," says Glaser. "So misleading consumers was what that was all about, and that's why we believe the law was originally put into place."

[Image via Compass Box]

The law therefore serves the purpose of preventing that kind of fraud, and nobody advocating for more transparency wants to hinder that positive outcome. They simply want to be able to truthfully share more about what's in their whisky.

"What we musn't do is get ourselves into a situation whereby the regulations are changed, which would allow unscrupulous producers to splash a drop of 20 year old whisky into a bottle of very ordinary whisky and sell it as 20 year old," says Carl Reavey, spokesperson for Bruichladdich. "We are the first people to realize and understand that that is absolutely the case."

When the SWA called out Compass Box last year, Bruichladdich came out swiftly and publicly in support of the brand, releasing articles directly on their website such as, Transparency. We Support Compass Box. "We were able to move to support the Compass Box petition within 24 hours of it being announced," says Reavey.

The brand is planning to offer online "batch recipes," basically providing all of the pertinent information about a particular batch of their whisky. However, they won't be using it in marketing materials, only offering it online to be accessed by consumers who've already made a purchase, and therefore view it as a means of providing extra transparency without going against regulations. They were actually planning to take this step before the hubbub over Compass Box began, which was, in part, why they were so quick to voice support for transparency.

"We're just going to start, and we know it's a delicate area, it's a challenging area," says Reavey. "What we're going to do is that we're not going to advertise this, but we're going to make this information available to people who request it, and who have access to the batch number which is printed on the bottle that they have in front of them. So basically it's information that's available in response to a request from a consumer. It's not ourselves projecting this as a marketing ploy."

The Glenrothes is known as a vintage-only producer. That means that instead of releasing age statement whisky, they offer whisky distilled in a specific year. For instance, a 2001 vintage, bottled in 2012. The same vintage could be aged further and released down the line separately, i.e., the 2001 vintage bottled in 2020, for example.

"On each of the bottles we came out with, it would have the year in which it was distilled, and underneath it, the year it was bottled," says Cox. "So transparency is something we've always been interested in."

Yet, their Reserve Collection series blends together multiple vintages, and by law, they cannot then explain what the specifics of the blend are besides referencing the youngest whisky. "If our youngest whisky in a Reserve would be 8 years old, which it could be, it would be quite nice to tell people that that's 30 percent of the total, and the rest of it is older, and you could just say that," laments Cox. "That would be a wonderful thing, but unfortunately we're not allowed to do that, and I think that's wrong."

What's Happening Now

On February 18, Compass Box launched an online transparency campaign showcasing their proposed amendments to current regulations and explaining their stance, while encouraging people to join the movement. Over 3,000 people signed within 24 hours, and altogether, over 7,000 signatures have been obtained.

In terms of other producers, Bruichladdich and Tomatin have offered public support, while Berry Bros & Rudd, an independent bottler and the parent company of the Glenrothes, has vocalized the importance of transparency as well. Elsewhere across the industry though, there's been crickets.

"I suspect that the rest of the industry will just watch to see what happens," says Reavey. "Well it has to be said that the silence from ..." he says, trailing off to be careful with his words, "... well how many other Scotch whisky producers have yet stuck their heads above the parapet to support the Compass Box initiative?"

A Compass Box barrel. [Image via Compass Box]

Keep in mind that it was an SWA member, i.e., a fellow Scotch whisky producer, which blew the whistle on Compass Box.

"According to the Scotch Whisky Association, one of their members contacted them to complain about what we were doing," says Glaser. "They told us it was a member, they would not tell us who it was."

Not only do some companies not want to be transparent, they don't want anybody to be able to be transparent.

The writing on the wall then is that not only do some companies not want to be transparent, they don't want anybody to be able to be transparent. After all, being open and honest about a product could help drum up consumer support, while brands which opted not to be transparent could theoretically have their bottom lines hurt.

"The truth is the Scotch Whisky Association in this instance is just an advisory body, anyway. It has no power to enforce the regulations," says Reavey. "If somebody was to challenge, ourselves for example, or any other company, then the only legitimate challenge is from either Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or from the European Union commission ... and the idea that either the HMRC or the E.U. would challenge a Scotch whisky producer on the grounds that it is publishing the ingredients, the recipe, of one of its whiskies, is too bizarre for words."

For most other consumer goods, producers wouldn't be banned from sharing this kind of detail, they'd be mandated to share it. "If we were selling bottles of Coca-Cola, or tins of custard or whatever it might be, we would be required by law to put it on there," says an exasperated Reavey. "So the idea that the E.U. or the HMRC would challenge us is too ridiculous for words."

One point of difference is that Bruichladdich does all their own distillation, while Compass Box is a blender and independent bottler. Theoretically then, the third parties of that equation, the distilleries from which Compass Box purchases, could be against their transparency effortsalthough that typically would have been resolved via non-disclosure clauses within their purchasing agreement.

What Comes Next

"The Scotch Whisky Association is a trade organization, essentially a lobbying organization, for the Scotch whisky industry," explains Glaser. "It is funded entirely by the dues of its members, who are the Scotch whisky companies. All the big boys, plus some of the smaller companies."

While the SWA served as an intermediary of sorts to inform Compass Box that a complaint was filed against them, the goal for Glaser is to get the SWA members to actually vote to support changing legislation.

"So the Scotch Whisky Association, as they will tell you, they do the bidding of its members," says Glaser. The goal is to have the members decide to use the SWA as a vehicle to take action. "So that these big companies in their quarterly meetings with the Scotch Whisky Association, they come together and decide they want the law changed and then the companies instruct the Scotch Whisky Association to take action and change the law. That's what we're trying to achieve."

As of the time of this publication, Glaser was still waiting to hear whether the SWA council would support changing the legislation or not, or whether there could be an alternate solution.

"We have had a meeting [in mid-March] with the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association to talk about the process here, and what has to happen in order for change to be made if, indeed, there will be change initiated by the Scotch Whisky Association. And we know that it was brought up at a council meeting for the Scotch Whisky Association [in mid-March]," he explains.

For most other consumer goods, producers wouldn't be banned from sharing this kind of detail, they'd be mandated to share it.

If the SWA council does offer support, then the hard work of actually changing the law takes place, and that would be a lengthy, arduous process. The process is at best daunting, but with SWA approval, would likely, eventually, reach its goal.

"If the council says they want to change this law and instructs the SWA to go begin this process, that begins a long road toward changing E.U. law, and then U.K. law," says Glaser. "E.U. law being the much more complicated one to change, and much more time consuming one to change, because you have to get the 27 member states to step one agree that this change should be put forward. What I'm told is that would be a several year process."

So, best case scenario, Scotch whisky producers are allowed to be more transparent by what, 2018? "2018 might even be pushing it," says a laughing Glaser. "From the kind of conversations we had with the SWA on how easy or difficult it is to change E.U. regulation ... It's definitely a process."

Potentially, there could also be a way to circumnavigate the current regulations, allowing more transparency without having to wait for E.U. law to be changed. "I'm hoping there's a third way here, not yes or no let's change the law, but maybe there's another way where given the current law, it can be viewed in such a way that permits companies like ourselves to convey this information in certain, specific ways," says Glaser. "Maybe it's not just a thumbs up thumbs down let's change the law decision."

Interestingly, Compass Box isn't even suggesting a mandate to be more transparent, only that there's an acceptable option to do so. "We believe that producers should have the right, but not necessarily the obligation, to tell consumers 100 percent what's in their blend," says Glaser.

Therefore, the idea that other SWA members would be against the option for more transparency, while not even having their own hands forced, is ... rather strange. "That's exactly how I feel about it," says Glaser. "At the moment, we are waiting for the big companies to take a stand one way or the other. To go public in a formal way."

What You Can Do

Do you drink Scotch whisky? Do you feel that before deciding to spend your money on a product, that having as much information as possible is generally a good thing, and an obvious one to support? Then there are several ways to make your voice heard.

"It would be quite helpful from our perspective for people to sign our statement of beliefs, because that gives us more ammunition in our conversations with the industry," says Glaser.

"It would also be helpful if people want to go to the Scotch Whisky Association website and just fire away an email to them saying 'I support this law to be changed,'" he adds. "And thirdly spread the word, any way that people know how. Spread the word. Social media is an incredible thing these days in terms of being able to spread the word on things like this rapidly. So tell your friends."

Let's get in on the movement.

#ScotchTransparency, anybody?

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