Trade Bodies are rarely the cause of impassioned chat on whisky WhatApp groups, Twitter, and other social platforms, however there is significant discourse occurring on that very subject at the moment.
Prompted by an Exclusive announcement via The Whisky Magazine, a long standing publication with considerable clout, revealing new Cask Whisky Association created to self-regulate cask sales. In the headline it is clear: “EXCLUSIVE: UK association launches to protect cask whisky investors.” To protect cask whisky investors. Except it isn’t, and it won’t.
The Whisky Magazine article name dropped a significant number of key players: Charles Mclean, and also distillers themselves including Speyside Distillers managing director Patricia Dillon, and The Glenturret managing director John Laurie, as members of the advisory panel. Also, there is representation from Shepherd and Wedderburn, one of the “big five” law firms in Scotland.
However, those fans of independent bottlers – many of whom are cask traders themselves – will be surprised to recognise very few of their favorites in the founding members. In fact, of most on-trade cask traders are not involved at all, with only DS Tayman, Fruitful Spirits, and Spiritfilled being among those to be involved at this stage.
There has been a lot of initial criticism. Let me address the first point that has commonly been made: that the CWA is comprised of those with a vested interest. I’m sorry to say, that’s the case for all trade bodies or associations. They simply would not exist if there was not an interest. I can find no other positive voices beyond the Whisky Magazine and CWA themselves. All trade bodies are formed to promote and protect the vested interests of their members. The Trade Association Forum lists 182 member from different industries across all industrial sectors in the UK all who represent the “vested” interests of their members.
This is clear when we look at the long-standing Scotch Whisky Association, comprised of dozens of members who are distillers, associated trades and supply chain. The SWA mission: “to secure a sustainable future for the Scotch Whisky industry. We want Scotch Whisky to be produced sustainably, traded globally and enjoyed responsibly.”
Looking in more detail the extent of their activity is largely associated with lobbying government:
- drive our sustainability strategy, working with our supply chain to fully decarbonising the industry.
- campaign for regulatory and tax environments which support improved competitiveness and prosperity.
- secure rules and frameworks that allow Scotch Whisky to trade freely and compete equally with like products anywhere in the world.
- agree legal frameworks that ensure Scotch Whisky does not face unfair competition by enabling effective intellectual property protection.
- build constructive relationships with national governments and international institutions on the role alcohol plays in society, including promoting responsible consumption and participating in action to tackle misuse.
It is clear that the SWA is not claiming to act in the best interests of individual consumers.
Much previous criticism of SWA is around the size of the organisation dominated by the big producers. This is why a tequila brand-owning global distiller, Diageo, influenced a change in the rules to allow tequila casks to be used for Scotch as a “traditional” technique. The size of SWA and its global protective mission does result in local issues being missed. The SWA was uninterested that non-SWA member Springbank breaches some rules around bottling and labelling, but were committed court cases in Canda and Germany against producers of local whisky using terms such as “glen” in the name… something assuredly Scottish, apparently. This approach by the SWA has left a vacuum of influence in relation to Scotch whisky investment and cask sales; too small and niche a sector to attract interest from the SWA.
That vacuum has been filled by the Cask Whisky Association, with their mission to keep the investment industry a reputable place to put your money, and provide independent advice to investors. However, the recent examples used in the Whisky Magazine article of whisky investment malpractice are only the worst offenders. Recent commentary from those inside the cask trade who’d never sell whisky as an investment has suggested that many of the founders of CWA are not without their own records of poor practice. One article suggested that those involved in CWA have themselves been kicked out or refused access to reputable bonded warehouses for unscrupulous practices.
Both The Spirit Business and Forbes Magazine have carried recent criticism of the CWA. In Forbes, George Koutsakis went as far as to call for the group to be shut down. Stating that “self-proclaiming themselves as protectors and advisors of the entire cask whisky industry and positioning themselves above all the other companies who are operating fairly and with integrity” was a justifiable reason. But, Koutsakis also noted that subsequent joiners enter at a lower status than the founders, an obvious concern that Koutsakis, a cask trader himself, missed out on this initial opportunity. I do wonder how much of these commentators are privately wishing they’d thought of this idea first.
Where there is genuine conflict of interest is that the CWA seeks to act both for its members and for the investing public. There is no representation from consumers within the governance of CWA, on the board, there is no check or balance on the nature of the “impartial (non-financial) advice on investments” which they seek to offer the public. The Oil and Gas trade body represents and lobbies for its members with the mission: “We proudly engage, inform and champion the sector and its people. We work with our members to deliver the UK’s energy needs” and, whilst affordability is a focus ,it’s not claiming to act for energy consumers. The National Farmers Union champions the sustainability of agricultural producers but does not claim to offer the cheapest produce to consumers at the supermarket. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders does not claim to offer consumers advice about paying a fair price for a car on a forecourt. The British Hound Hunting Association, whilst not a trade body, is certainly not claiming to work for the benefit of foxes or deer. I could continue with examples, but I feel that all of the 182 trade body members of the Trade association above will have sufficient clarity about who they act for. It is a shame that Shepherd and Wedderburn have not pointed this out in their advisory role to CWA.
This inherent conflict is at the heart of much of the criticism of the whisky “investment schemes” that have offered incredible potential profits and too-good-to-be-true returns. Investment schemes’ profit is driven by continued growth of an industry that now seems to be slowing rapidly. As profit margins cool off, these schemes are increasingly at risk. Today. as I draft this article, another whisky investment business is wound up, and investors are likely to have lost out. Our esteemed editor always points out it’s not whisky “investment;” it’s speculation. So, the fact that the Cask Whisky Association has attempted to represent the consumers and investors and the sellers is an inherent inditement of the CWA itself and those who back it.
Compare that with real consumer focussed groups such as the National Consumer Federation, who clearly represents the rights of consumers and state: “As consumer representatives we need to ensure that consumer interests are not confused with those of business or other influences. We aim to bridge what is sometimes seen as a divide between providers and consumers, pointing out what works well for consumers, what could be improved, offering potential solutions and advice on how best to protect consumers.” (emphasis added).
The actual advice on the CWA website is clear: as an investor you are on your own. It’s your own risk and your responsibility to perform the due diligence. The CWA recommends advice from its members, but does not state that your money is at risk or that you should seek independent financial advice. The PR launch focusing on protecting individuals is an attempt to legitimise this group, and little more.
The future is uncertain for this fledgling Trade Association. But, the hatching gives a certain impression that the CWA is the cuckoo in the nest, desperately trying to give an impression of propriety rather than delivering appropriate governance. It’s a red flag in a sea of red flags.
Whisky Investment carries risk. You may lose all your investment. Your capital is at risk.
Malt approached the Cask Whisky Association, the Scotch Whisky Association and MP Wendy Chamberlain, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Review Group – who has been asking questions on behalf of CWA, -for comment, but none responded.
I don’t believe this article warrants a new whisky review, I’ve reproduced my lowest every scoring review below, as the most appropriate conclusion.
Fujikai Japanese Single Malt Whisky – Review
43% ABV. About £50 in 2015.
On the nose: Window putty, rubber squash balls, chemical cupboards, wood shavings, ozone, permanent marker, hot lamination machine, Crayola crayons.
In the mouth: Sharp, jarringly unnatural, hairspray, contact adhesive, paper ash, damp newspapers, new car tyres. Finish is slightly solvent driven and vegetal.
Certainly deserving of 1. It’s probably not whisky at all, as it is rumoured to be aged rice spirit rather than malted barley. It is barely palatable and tastes rather like some cleaning chemical was accidently sprayed into your mouth. Interestingly, the week I complied these notes I sent out 2 5cl samples of this whisky to people who had heard about this legendary fail and were interested to see for themselves.
Fujikai photo courtesy of Master of Malt.