By Rob Allanson

Tariffs and troubles ahead

Turbulent times in politics could have impacts on whisky and jobs
Well here we go, depending where you are reading this and when, the start of this column could be quite different. If you have this in front of you before the end of October, chances are that the United Kingdom is still either hurtling head long into uncharted territory or possibly in the heating up stages of a full-blown election.

If, however, you find yourself the other side of Halloween, and yes the Government really did chose that as Brexit deadline day, the possibilities are that the UK is trying to piece its way through whatever deal or no deal the Prime Minister of the day has accepted, or is preparing for another election. Politics, whether you like it or not, has been momentous here in the UK of late, and that shows no signs of abating.
In a few rounds of announcements, which have happened since I sit down to write this, it looks like Scotch has come under fire from the United States and President Trump’s tariffs.

I thought in all these talks over the last few months Britain and the US were supposed to be trading partners? This is the level that things have reached at the moment?

So here is what I know, although like many commentators, it is difficult to discern the outcome of where this is all leading to as there are so many uncertainties and turns in the road yet.

It appears in a tit-for-tat, or Euro spirits for American ones if you will, the US legislature has imposed tariffs of 25 per cent on imports of Scotch whisky, in connection with a World Trade Organisation civil aviation subsidies dispute. This appears to be a response to the European Union imposing a 25 per cent retaliatory tariff on American whiskey in response to U.S. steel and aluminium tariffs.

So what you might say, as tariffs are designed to, is that this will have an on the ground impact, and is being lobbied against by US alcohol trade groups.

The biggest, Distilled Spirits Council in the US, claims that the impact could mean a drop of nearly $3.4 billion in imports and could lead to a loss of approximately 13,000 U.S. jobs, including truckers, farmers and bartenders and servers in the hospitality industry. That’s some hit, and no doubt this could have severe repercussions for the Scotch whisky industry back in the homeland.

Gary Smith, GMB Union Scotland Secretary, said everyone with the Scottish economy’s best interests at heart should be concerned.
He added: “Scotland and the rest of the UK are sitting ducks after October 31st. The collective strength we have in the EU trading bloc will be gone and there is simply no such thing as a ‘special relationship’ with the United State. That’s why we have consistently called on the UK Government to bring forward measures to defend whisky manufacturing in the face of Brexit uncertainty and to stand-up to US demands on the removal of the geographical indicator (GI) protection for single malt production.

“The truth is the best Brexit for Scotland would be no Brexit at all and the increasing possibility of a ‘no deal’ scenario will be ruinous for the Scottish economy and damaging for our vital whisky sector.”

Meanwhile it appears that the Irish industry has for now escaped the punitive measures as it was not named on the list – the hit to Bushmills US business is as yet unclear, but as it is technically still (as of going to press) in the jurisdiction of the UK one can assume it will suffer too.

That said, all might not be too rosy as there is a clause attached that allows the US to reconsider its tariff list in 120 days. This creates a real risk the Republic of Ireland and Irish whiskey could suffer a similar fate. With the industry’s face turned predominately towards America for sales, who knows what that might mean.

So there you have it. Do we need to worry? Is this as big a threat as prohibition for the industry? The answer I fear will not be clear for several months.

The whisky business has weathered worse storms, but this one might have far reaching effects and consequences if we are not careful.
Perhaps the only answer is to start stock-piling your favourites now, just in case, you know.