I was recently in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe. 2022 saw the first full post-covid return and by all accounts the famous arts festival was a great success. The festival was slightly marred by the local council workers going on strike over a pay dispute. This resulted in the rubbish (or trash) not being collected for a week. The week was particularly warm and sunny, and unusually rain free. The piles of trash reached 10 feet in places, and although there had been a big clean up by the time I visited town, there was an unholy stench in the air around the city centre. In the last few days I have been investigating something whisky related that absolutely stinks too!
When in Edinburgh I travelled down the Royal Mile visiting all the most respectable establishments: Royal Mile Whiskies, Jeffery Street Whiskies, and of course Cadenhead’s. Cadenhead’s independent bottlers are owned by parent company J&A Mitchell & Co Ltd, the same company as Springbank distillery and Glengyle distillery that produces Kilkerran single malt. The shops have been run as franchises until more recently when the London store came back under the company control. Cadenhead’s recently announced they would be rapidly winding up support for the European stores, prompting a stern rebuke from none other than Serge Valentin on 7 September.
In the Edinburgh store I tried a lovely blended Scotch released for the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe 2022. Campbeltown is prominently displayed on the label, and the bottle is heavily embossed on the front with “Springbank Distillery.” The blurb on the back label states the blend is from Springbank Distillery. The retail price was £25 but before I took the plunge, I enquired about the Springbank whisky in the blend, and sought further information about the contents.
The shop staff informed me the blend was unlikely to contain any Springbank whisky, possibly a tiny amount of Hazelburn whisky, but majority of whisky is standard Highland and Speyside blending whisky stock. Hazelburn is the Springbank Distillery spirit that is tripled distilled with air dried malt; it is not peaty and is fruitier, which would fit with the profile.
I left the shop have an exceptional afternoon touring Leith on the Leith Whisky Trail, run by the charming Justine Hazelhurst, which really deserves its own article some time. I could not recommend it enough. Leith was – for a few hundred years until the 1970s – the epicentre of Scotch whisky production. I did not think much more about my budget blend.
When reviewing the auction prices on Scotch Whisky Auctions this weekend, I was surprised to see the blend I had bought in Edinburgh proudly labelled as Springbank Distillery blend, with a price around £100, four times the price I paid. I was initially surprised that the auction had labelled the lot in such a deceptive manner but, on further examination, there was no information on the auction listing that was not contained on the original bottle. Was I misunderstanding something? Or was I being misled?
Scotch Whisky is legally protected in the UK by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, which contain all sorts of legal definitions from single malt, to single cask, and why we have blended malt and blended Scotch as separate categories. It is designed to protect consumers from fraudulent or mislabelled products. It is designed to protect producers from fraud or mislabelling that would detract from their brand. Although often decried as restrictive, the Scotch Whisky Regulations are well known by whisky geeks and an absolute requirement to understand by anyone in the whisky business.
In the case of the Edinburgh International Festival blended Scotch, Regulation 9 is most relevant:
Names of distilleries and distillers etc.
9.—(1) The name of a distillery mentioned in Schedule 1 must not be used as a brand name, or as part of a brand name of a Scotch Whisky, or be used in a similar fashion in terms of its positioning or prominence, unless the whisky has been wholly distilled at that distillery.
(2) Any name adopted for a Scotch Whisky distillery after these Regulations come into force, including the name of a new or re-opened Scotch Whisky distillery, must not be used by the proprietor of that distillery as a brand name, or as part of a brand name, for a Scotch Whisky, or be used in a similar fashion in terms of its position or prominence, unless the Scotch Whisky has been wholly distilled at that distillery.
(3) But paragraph (2) does not apply in the circumstances specified in Schedule 2.
(4) Scotch Whisky must not be labelled, packaged, advertised, or promoted in any other way that, having regard to the presentation of the product as a whole, creates a likelihood that the public may think that it has been distilled at any distillery or place other than the distillery or place at which it was actually distilled.
(5) Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Single Grain Scotch Whisky must not be labelled, packaged, advertised or promoted in any way that, having regard to the presentation of the product as a whole, creates a likelihood that the public may think that the whisky was distilled by any person other than the person who distilled it, or the owner or operator of the distillery at which it was distilled, whether by an indication that that person is the distiller, the owner or operator of the distillery, or otherwise.
(6) A person must not label, package, advertise or promote any Scotch Whisky in a way that contravenes the requirements of paragraph (1), (2), (4) or (5), or sell any Scotch Whisky that has been labelled or packaged in that way.
This leaves me in the unusual situation of either being one of the first to taste grain whisky distilled at Springbank, or the first to raise the issue that my blended Scotch has been sold to me in a potential breach of the Regulations. As you can imagine, I asked Springbank Distillery to comment and clarify my observation. They responded thus:
“The front label displays the wording ‘Blended Scotch Whisky’ which by definition means a combination of one or more single malts with one or more single grain scotch whiskies have been used to create the whisky inside the bottle. The blend was created and bottled from casks of malt and grain whisky held at Springbank Distillery.
We will review future labels to ensure there is no ambiguity but would highlight that we have used the same Springbank bottles and wording on festival labels for a number of years without any concerns being raised.”
The Scotch Whisky Association, the principal trade association, often gains press where its legal department seek civil remedies for breaches of the legislation. Looking outward, they are most well-known for taking non-Scotch producers for court abroad for similarly named products such as those including “Glen” in the name. In the case of Springbank Distillery, who are not members, a Scotch Whisky Association spokesperson said:
“The SWA’s small legal team handles many cases and investigations at any one time around the world, and they are dealt with based on priority, with spirits pretending to be Scotch Whisky getting the most urgent attention.”
It can therefore be assumed Scotch whisky with the original distillery mislabeled will get a lower priority and any investigation takes longer. It also explains why the odd non-regulation cask such as Cider and Absinthe casks slip through the cracks without much action.
The statutory enforcement body identified in the 2009 Act as “food authorities” are local Environmental Health Officers. The teams are embedded within each UK local authority. Failure to comply with the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 is a criminal offence.
In addition, [His] Majesty Revenue & Customs (HMRC), operate the Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme in the UK. This is legacy EU legislation designed to protect the geographical origins of Scotch Whisky. The scheme is designed to verify the processes companies must have to ensure compliance with the regulations and is described in HMRC guidance. Essentially seems to replace the traditional exciseman who would closely monitor things directly at the distillery. This link also contains the Scotch Whisky Technical File
I have reflected on the benefit of publishing this article; indeed, a character in one of my whisky WhatsApp groups only half-jokingly threatened to cancel me if anything happened to the hallowed Springbank distillery over this issue. There is some behaviour that breaches the Whisky Regulations – such as cider casks – that I can happily (perhaps hypocritically) overlook. But, practices which deceive – whether deliberate or through some fundamental failure of management – deserve to be called out and challenged for the good of all whisky buying consumers.
Another J&A Mitchell’s blend, Campbeltown Loch blended malt, states on the back label that it contains all five of Campbeltown’s malts in the recipe. It is perhaps disingenuous to put it in a bottle embossed with Springbank Distillery. Glen Scotia in a Springbank Distillery bottle, now there’s a thing. If two products from Springbank can be misidentified, how many more? Campbeltown Loch and Campbeltown Loch 21 have both traditionally been bottled in Springbank Distillery bottles over the years, apparently without any issue raised. Recently facelifted Kilkerran bottles, on the other hand, have been designed without the Springbank Distillery embossing, featuring instead their pot stills.
Do the regulations on labelling overlook the prominent embossed lettering on the bottle itself and creating a grey area? It’s certainly possible, but the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 Regulation 9 is quite explicit.
“Having regard to the presentation of the product as a whole, creates a likelihood that the public may think that it has been distilled at any distillery or place other than the distillery or place at which it was actually distilled”
The avid whisky historian will be reminded of the infamous Pattison brothers, who were found guilty in 1901 of selling cheap whisky laced with a small amount of fine scotch as “Fine Old Glenlivet”! If you don’t know how that story ended, you absolutely must sign up for the Leith Whisky Trail.
75th Edinburgh Festival Blended Scotch Whisky – Review
From or by Springbank Distillery for the 75 Edinburgh International Festival 2022. 46% ABV. £25.
Colour: Pale golden promise.
On the nose: Dusty vanilla, Windowlene glass cleaner, aerosol furniture polish from the grain, some buttery malt, bright aromatic white fruits flash past, dried apricot, runny honey, a little fizzy and a slight alcohol prickle bely relative youth.
In the mouth: Thickly oily grainy body, buttery malt again, toasted oak, some light effervescent fruit, white chocolate, dusty vanilla, white peppery youthful spirit. Orchard fruits build slightly before the pepperiness returns on the finish, which is medium length.
This is tasty; the grain is prominent, but I’d take a punt that it’s well-aged compared to the malt. This will satisfy the tourists but did not offer a Festival worthy performance for me.