Ridley Takes the Reins

Ridley Takes the Reins

Does the whisky industry have a problem with transparency?

Thoughts from... | 04 Dec 2015 | Issue 132 | By Neil Ridley

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We welcome Neil Ridley as our new Editor-at-Large. Neil is an award winning drinks writer and commentator, Chairman of the World Whiskies Awards and also writes features on spirits for the The Independent and other leading drinks related magazines.

Neil makes regular appearances on Channel 4 food programme, Sunday Brunch, alongside appearing on a variety of other international TV and radio broadcasts about food and drink. He is the co-author of Let Me Tell You About Whisky, and Distilled, which recently won the 2015 Fortnum & Mason prize for Best Drinks Book.

You're a dinosaur, Bond. A relic of the past. We're living in the digital age now, Bond, we know everything. We see everything.'

Here I was, about half way through watching the new James Bond epic, Spectre when it suddenly struck me that rather like the machinations of the 'New' British Secret Service (I won't spoil the film for you, if you haven't seen it yet) there seems to be a real issue at the moment with transparency in the UK whisky industry.

As the net - or shall we say web of information available to our government grows wider, so does, it seems, the lack or transparency on what kind of data is harvested, how it is used and ultimately who it is shared with - and just how easily things that you're probably not supposed to know about can fall into the wrong hands.

Of course, in the past, we knew better than to ask such trifling questions about secrecy and freedom of information. But then, we didn't have such a colossal portal to dip into to find out practically anything we fancied learning about. We had 'spooks' - spies, or as Judy Dench's M would say, 'Blunt Instruments' keeping us safe. Now we have computer operatives sitting at terminals in far-flung places monitoring our emails and web histories.

In whisky making, the argument about transparency has risen its ugly face again and last month, we saw just how the concept of shared information on a whisky label is seemingly a very bad thing indeed - from the perspective of the Scotch Whisky Association.

In case you missed it, the latest releases from Compass Box, This Is Not A Luxury Whisky and Flaming Heart were at the centre of a dispute about the amount of information which is legally allowed to be disseminated to the consumer.

By detailing the cask types and particularly, the ages of the whiskies in the blend and their proportions, Compass Box was deemed to have breached EU Regulations (namely 'Article 12-3 of Regulation (EC) No. 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of spirit drinks'.

It all comes down to a matter of age. Under this regulation, only the youngest component whisky age can legitimately be stated. What Compass Box has effectively done is openly give out the recipe of its blends. In any other business, one would deem this to be benevolent business suicide - can you imagine Coca Cola deciding to publish its secret recipe on an obscure Tumblr micro-blog page? Of course not, but Compass Box is not a cola brand and its audience is a tad more savvy and discerning about what goes into its products. For many years, the ethos of Compass Box has been to demystify whisky, making it simpler and - let's face it - a more enjoyable experience for the consumer.

My question is, what has Scotch got to hide? It makes arguably the finest spirit in the world. It has advanced the understanding of oak maturation beyond any other spirit and today, we have a consumer who demands as much information as possible.

As the unofficial 'Edward Snowden of whisky', (sorry, couldn't resist this one) Compass Box deserves credit for highlighting. But the company won't be the last to come under fire for what seems like an outdated rule.

Isn't it time we allowed our whisky makers to 'Come In From The Cold?'
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