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.
What a petty little article.
I think, personally, this is much appreciated and should be called out. Because the very words “Springbank” make consumers pay more, when in fact it may not be fully Springbank. I blindly would’ve bought this , thinking this was a blend f all Springbank distilleries ( Hazelburn and Longrow). But if I knew there was majority grain, I’d pass it up or pay much less.
Right, but the label “Blended Scotch Whisky” (and not “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky”) means that grain can be in there. They’re not being deceptive about that.
The label is very clear that this is a blended scotch whisky, and to have read “silky smooth” on a Mitchell’s bottle would have absolutely screamed “Try before you buy!” to me.
“I tried a lovely blended scotch… Tasty, will satisfy the tourists.”
Where is the deceptive practice here? I suppose they could have put the blend into the tall bottles that Kilkerran used to use and were in use in the distillery shop, but with the difficulties obtaining glass and the enormous demand for all things Springbank, I don’t blame them for putting an inexpensive blend into the bottles they had available, like they have done with Campbeltown Loch.
Don’t tell me you’re offended on behalf of the person who paid £100 for a bottle?
Interesting mix of opinions so far today. I’m not surprised. It was always going to provoke some varied opinions.
For me the issue here is the Springbank bottle and the statement ‘from Springbank Distillery’ on the back. Simple.
And yes to summarise my point is that they should have different bottles for the blends produced by J&A Mitchell just as they have different bottles for Kilkerran for them to comply with the law.
No sympathy for the person who paid £100 but used as an example of how easily people can misunderstand when the law is not followed to the letter.
It should not be down to the consumer tonne educated enough to fully understand the categorisation of Scotch products.
* to be educated enough.
I would surmise then that we are of very different minds on the extent to which consumers should protect themselves via acquiring knowledge vs trusting in the protections of law as first resort. That’s a discussion for a bar.
Thanks for the recommendation for the Leith Whisky Trail and for sticking your head above the parapet. No sacred cows!
Thanks for coming back. And thanks again for taking the time to comment.
Indeed most differences can be most successfully resolved at a bar with a dram. In such circumstances the chasm between opinions always seems shallower and easier bridged.
Please do enjoy the Leith Whisky Trail.
For what it is worth, I rather enjoyed reading this post. I truly hope that the distillers, and bottlers of Scotch are not heading down the same road as “Bourbon Inc.” (e.g. by using intentionally ambiguous wording on whisky bottles with the intent to mislead the buying public).
Reminds me a little of the seminal article on Hyde Whiskey by Bill Linnane a few years ago.
I’d’ve been willing to give this one a pass – it’s marginal either way – except if one person has misinterpreted this as Springbank whisky then it’s one too many and needs to be cleaned up
Thanks for the read.
Sadly I cannot access that article as it too sounds interesting. If you do find an active like please drop it in this chat.
I do agree with your sentiment.
It may not be perfect but the Wayback Machine has a copy of the Bill Linnane article mentioned above.
Excellent work MH – I couldn’t find it! Not sure what’s it’s disappeared from Bill’s blog
Thanks for sharing. A great read. Bill Linnane and I share a similar outlook I think, but Bill’s prose is a few levels more eloquent.
Interesting to see a connection with Malt founder Mark Newton too through the Twitter-verse.
Really useful article. Well done for raising this issue.
Although you had second thoughts on publishing this article, I think your decision to proceed was the right one as the debate which has ensued has got to be seen as positive. It shows people care about whisky and the diverse views welcomed whether one allies oneself with them or not. This whole area can be a bit of a minefield and it’s been good to get your interpretation. (P.S. If you did want to find out more about the Pattison brothers check out Royal Mile Whiskies as they stock a fully illustrated book on the subject.) Kind regards, JB
Thanks for your kind words. I’ll certainly look out for the Pattinson’s book. Can you ever have too many whisky books? I expect not.
Did you ever have a look at Royal Mile’s Website for the Book on the Pattison Brothers as per your reply to my email?
Jim! You wrote the book? I have to admit that although I have purchased one I have yet to find the time to read it.
Throughout this winter period though, it will make a great fireside read.
Many thanks for pointing me in its direction.