People

What's wrong with vat?

Inevitably this issue's debate looks at labelling and the use of the words ‘blended malts'
By Dominic Roskrow
The Panel
Dave Broom, Contributing editor, Whisky Magazine (DB)
John Glaser, Compass Box (JG)
Martine Nouet, Regular Whisky Magazine contributor (MN)
Erkin Touzmohamedov, Russian writer (ET)
Ricky Christie, Speyside Distillery (RC)Q Are we winning the battle to get the consumer to understand the differences between different types of whisky?DB: No... of course not.MN: No, I’m not sure either. I agree with the decision to ban the word ‘pure’ which is really confusing for the customer but I am less enthusiastic on categories such as ‘blended malt.’I just don’t understand why they spent so much time in discussions and debates to produce such a controversial conclusion!ET: In Russia it’s different. Interest to whisky is rocketing and although 80 per cent of sales are in Moscow people everywhere are becoming aware of different types of whisky. In many big cities elite consumers flock together in something like ‘whisky clubs’ and enjoy their favourite drams of malt.Q Do the new proposed labels, particularly Scotch blended malt whisky, help or hinder and in what way?DB: Hinder. The aim was to try and clarify the difference between malts and blends. While the proposals have come up with some very positive suggestions, the idea that ‘blended malt’ somehow manages to differentiate between two distinctly different categories is beyond me.RC: To introduce the suggested descriptive terms as recently outlined by the SWA, greatly concerns me. It wipes out all the good work over generations that I and many of my industry colleagues have achieved, indeed it makes us at best look stupid and at worst, misleading.The proposed terms will only cause great confusion as the existing consumer already knows (or thinks he does) the difference between ‘blend’ and ‘malt’ and we will now have to re-educate them with a vastly more complicated structure.This may be of little concern to major companies, however. They believe that their brands will prevail as the key descriptive factor and whose only interest is to make it more difficult for the smaller independents to do business.MN: It takes a long time to make the ‘blended whisky’ notion clear when you start describing Scotch whisky to beginners. Now seeing the word ‘blended’ applied to different whisky styles will be very puzzling. If the idea is to ‘dress up’ a category which is often (and wrongly in my opinion) considered ‘’inferior’ to the single malt one, well it is misleading and dangerous. The term ‘vatted’ malt might appear a bit mysterious but it was not difficult to explain.And on the label why not give a ‘recipe’ which would make it clear that a mix of single malts are involved?JG: All I’ll say is that based on my feedback on this subject from consumers around the world, I believe the proposed new labels will most certainly create more confusion on the issue of vatted malts.Trying to legislate the term ‘blended’ in association with vatted malts seems counterproductive, and possibly aimed at trying to elevate the perception that single malts are somehow superior to the skilful blending of more than one single malt. In fact, it’s easy to argue that the blending of single malts can create a superior product to a single malt because you have the potential to make a more balanced, more complex, more complete whisky. It’s the same principle behind blending wines of different grapes from different vineyards.Q: Were there better options than the ones chosen?DB: Well... given that vatted malt has been used since 1853...JG: I’ve just spent the last two days in Bangkok and Singapore teaching audiences about what vatted malts are, about their historical role in the whisky industry, and about the advantages of blending malts from more than one distillery.With convincing results. If these proposed SWAchanges go through, all the work I’ve done over the last four-and-a-half years will have to be re-taught. If these proposals do go through to legislation, I hope the SWA will consider it their role and obligation to help the industry educate/re-educate consumers around the world regarding these new definitions through advertising and other consumer communications.MN: How can consumers clearly understand ‘blended grain Scotch whisky’? Wouldn’t Scotch grain whisky be enough, with the addition of the word ‘single’ clearly stating that it is not a mix of grain whiskies?RC: Perhaps more emphasis on the guaranteed ‘quality’ of a ‘bottled in Scotland’ product would be of more assistance, as the greatest risks today do not come from within the Scotch Whisky industry but from Countries where they are all too prepared to take advantage of our heritage and who must be looking forward to the confusion that we may wreak upon ourselves.Q. Which is the way forward: a continuation with traditional labels and ages statements which people have had years to get used to, or modern labels with interesting/ irreverent/ provocative names and a whole new way of addressing whisky marketing?MN: There is certainly room for improvement regarding the labels. They should be more informative, with the distilling and bottling dastes clearly indicated, and a good clear, short information on the type of maturation.Provocative, irreverent literature can be a bonus on the label provided the basic information is given first.The only way to maintain consumer interest and confidence is to tell them the truth. in a simple and informative way.RC: One of the values of whisky is the fact that it’s traditional, conservative. Whisky will only lose if it bends to please questionable tastes of the market, or rather follow some dubious marketeers’ opinios.Contemporary experiments in cognac labeling and packaging are appalling and even horrible. Scottish whisky should not follow the French who will do anything to sell their brandy.Have you tasted the cognac and yoghurt cocktail that one of the leading cognac houses was promoting for cognac connoisseurs a couple of years ago? Only terminal perverts or alcoholics would take it seriously (as a hair of the dog).And can you imagine Jack Daniel’s changing its label? Young people love it because it shows centuries old values which only grow stronger with time…DB: Yes surely we’re talking two different issues here?Undoubtedly the industry needs to attract new drinkers and that may mean new packs, new brands, new liquids etc .At the same time it does need to embark on this course while working within a clear and legal framework as to what various terms mean.You can call a brand Floribunda’s Gusset if you want, just as long as it is clear whether it’s a blend or a malt or a grain. At the moment it isn’t.