After the debacle with the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) censuring Compass Box’s recent Flaming Heart (5th Edition) and This is Not a Luxury Whisky releases for, literally, revealing too much information about the recipe used in the bottle, Compass Box has come back fighting with a Campaign for Scotch Whisky Transparency. I witnessed an interesting exchange on a Facebook group where the opinion was raised that this is just a publicity and/or marketing stunt by Compass Box to drum up more controversy and thus more exposure. Let’s break it down.
The issue at hand is the current EU (not just UK) law regarding the labeling and marketing of aged spirits. It states that any mention of age or maturation period (on the bottle label OR in published marketing material, including websites), if any, MUST refer ONLY to the youngest spirit in the bottle. This applies to blends which could have hundreds of components, blended malts which could have anywhere from two to dozens of malts of various ages, and even single malts, which could include multiple ages of whisky from the same distillery. According to the law, in all cases these products can only disclose the age of the youngest component. It should be noted that the SWA’s role in this was simply to inform Compass Box that they were potentially in breach of EU law.
Compass Box proposes this be resolved by changing EU law (which would require ratification by all EU member countries) to “allow producers the freedom but not the obligation to provide complete, unbiased and clear information on every component whisky in their product – with or without a headline age statement outlining the age of the youngest spirit.” In short, they mean the big number on the bottle or in the headline of the marketing material can refer only to the youngest spirit (as today), but the “small print” description on the bottle or marketing text can describe, in full, the composition of the bottle’s contents. Read the campaign’s website for more information.
My opinion? I think that whether this is a marketing stunt or not is irrelevant. No company in the history of capitalism has ever done anything without self-interested motive (even charitable works and donations are meant to improve a company’s image for marketing purposes or goodwill for negotiation/lobbying), so what we need to examine is not the incentive but the intended outcome. In other words: Do Compass Box and the whisky-appreciating public have aligned interests? In this case, I believe we do. I want to know what’s in my whisky, and I want to have a reasonable assurance that the information stated on a bottle or in official marketing materials is factually true. I think this information would go a long way towards improving the education of a whisky-drinker (“So that’s what 10% old peated whisky in a blend tastes like, as opposed to this bottle that has 10% young peated whisky!”) and the experience of drinking an expensive blend (“Ahh, that’s why it tastes so good: There’s some 40 year-old Mortlach in here! This bottle was worth the price after all!”). [Ed.: Hyperbole intentional. Yes, I am my own Editor.] Compass Box, in turn, has realized that when people read today’s marketing and bottle labels on most brands, they feel like they’re being lied to by omission. Try to get any good factual information about the contents of a bottle of single malt or blended scotch from its label and you’ll see what I mean. Think how refreshing it would be to pick up a bottle and read the recipe on the back, complete with ages, percentages, and wood types! Compass Box gets it.
As to the proposed legislation, I think it would be a bit tricky to enforce. When does an “Age Statement Headline” bleed over into marketing text? I can definitely imagine the potential for abuse, such as releasing a NAS (no-age-statement) bottle with a label back and marketing prose that says “Contains 100 year-old Macallan!” when all you did was add a single drop of archival Macallan to each gigantic vat. Similarly, one could describe the minority high-profile malts in a blend while omitting the low-profile malts that make up the vast majority of the blend. Let’s keep in mind that the current EU regulation is intended to protect customers from exactly that kind of deceptive marketing. In the extreme hypothetical case where the EU law doesn’t exist, a producer could take the above blend with 100 year-old Macallan and sell the blend as “Aged 100 Years”! Nobody wants that to be legal.
My solution? One of three possibilities: (Two require the EU to change the law, an apparently arduous and lengthy process. The third doesn’t.)
1. Allow the release of factual component information (age, distillery, wood type(s), etc.) in marketing materials but not on the bottle label. Any information so released must be documented with proof in case of an audit. If the information includes the age of a component that is not the youngest spirit in the blend, that component must also include a percentage by volume.
2. Task a third party such as the SWA or another sanctioned group to maintain a public (online) database of whisky products on the market and the factual information released by the company. This information would be voluntary. It would be fact-checked (or at least backed up with proof as above in case of audit), and it would be in a standard (easily comparable) format. A producer could refer to the existence of this information in marketing materials, and could place a standardized graphic containing the approved information (think USDA Nutrition Label) in the marketing materials or on the bottle label.
3. Skirt the law and release proprietary production details about products to industry insiders (press, bloggers, whatever), who will proceed to publish it (unofficially) with abandon. Give no public comment. People who want to know (like me!) can find the information. The general public is none the wiser (and no more deceived than they are today). Downside: This approach is rife for abuse.
Whether you think Compass Box is out for itself, that the proposed legislation is ineffective, or that the EU will never bother to change the law, I still urge you to consider supporting the campaign if for no other reason than it might spark a dialog that could lead to improved regulations and more information for consumers.
What do you think? Comment away!