Over the past few months, whisky – Scotch in particular – has been in the news a lot. Like, a whole lot. Yes, I know it might sound absurd to compare the Twitter chatter and media coverage surrounding a centuries-old heritage-craft-turned-corporate-juggernaut to the attention conferred upon Hollywood’s newest Hot Young Thing, but ride this one out with me.
The mainstream media has long been publishing stories about Scotch, bourbon, Irish, Japanese whiskies and the rest, but it’s typically a fun feature in a news or culture publication’s lifestyle section. Sometimes, as any reader of this magazine knows, it’s a report about a labour issue, market fluctuations, or a corporate merger or acquisition. These days, however, there are bigger topics sparking noisy reaction and discussion.
Most recently (as of writing this in late February) was the hullabaloo around the report that former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon released in January in an effort to curb alcohol sales and, in turn, problem drinking. In a statement that will likely live in infamy, she asserted: “Without branding and other marketing strategies, alcohol products in each beverage sub-sector are essentially variations of the same thing.”
At first, I thought she was conflating all whiskies – 45-year-old single malt Scotch, blended Scotch, Japanese, American, Irish and everything else alike. But on a closer read, it got worse. By referring to “each beverage sub-sector”, Sturgeon said the differences between Longmore 16 and Laphroaig 25 are as imperceptible as those among bulk-produced vodkas. In other words, she announced her hard-line and, frankly, offensive ignorance of her nation’s biggest and most famous export, a huge economic driver (it adds £6.1 billion to the economy annually) and, perhaps more essentially, a core of its cultural heritage. In response, Scotch producers have not only made the point that eliminating branding would affect tourism, but that it disregarded Scotland’s lofty role in history and history’s important role in Scotland today.
In a way, this points to a failure of success. Sturgeon did not make her statement in reference to the more-ubiquitous beer. (If you disagree about ubiquity, ask yourself this: does anyone drink Scotch when attending a sports match?) By equalising beer, wine and spirits, whether impulsively or with calculation, she announced the drink’s prevailing popularity.
At its annual economic briefing in February, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States revealed that after 13 straight years of gaining market share, spirits supplier revenues surpassed beer for the first time. Spirits sales clocked in at 42.1 per cent of the US alcoholic drinks market, while beer held at 41.9 percent.
Sturgeon’s announcement is, of course, all smoke and mirrors. Even if some kind of new regulation were to limit alcohol advertising, no one with the ability to count to 10 could be convinced that all single malts – or all gins or lagers or rums – are the same without their identifying label. And let’s be honest, alcohol advertising could never come to an end – not with corporate titans always poised to spend cash, or with social media reacting to algorithms and gobbling up attention.
American regulator the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)released a guide spelling out how its alcohol advertising regulations apply to social media. Alcohol companies are not required to get preapproval of advertisements, but the TTB offered to review materials for compliance. This is a rational and achievable measure that’s hard to find fault with, unlike Sturgeon’s extreme proposal.