Picture the situation: you walk into any high-street supermarket and any item you come across has no indication of nutritional content or identification of farm or origin; you’d think twice about purchasing it, wouldn’t you? I mean, it could come from literally anywhere. So, why should it be any different for alcohol, and whiskey in particular? The origin of a consumable, or its constituent parts, allows us to make informed decisions about the quality and freshness of produce and, in some cases, nutritional value.
I recently reviewed the Killowen distillery’s Rum and Raisin Batch 3. Killowen, who have been shackled by EU Regulation 12.3 of the Spirit Drinks Regulation No.110/2008, can only advertise the youngest whiskey in their blend. They were quick to vent their frustration about the lack of transparency provided to their customers. This all came about from a release back in Jul 2020 that indicated the constituent parts of a whiskey, some of which were older than the boldly displayed ‘10-year-old’ designation. This came about from a blender around three decades ago, including a meagre percentage, say less than 1% of a very old blend, say 40-year-old plus, and then advertising it as a 60-year-old blend. That’s misleading and overselling a product, and clearly a reason for the EU to act. It’s hard to argue against that, but why should that prevent distilleries from presenting the actual makeup of their whisk(e)y on the bottle itself?
We’ve discussed Ardbeg twice already on this blog, but to dismiss them here would be remiss of us. In 2010, before the regulations were enforced, Ardbeg released the ‘Rollercoaster.’ What was refreshing about this was that the profile percentage was printed on the back of the whisky. It’s no wonder why distilleries advertise their whiskies now as a Non-Age Statement (NAS), as I’m not sure anyone would have paid the £150+ asking price for the Rollercoaster if it was advertised as a 4-year-old, as it ought to have been under the EU regulations. I’m not saying that a rule change is required to force blenders to only to state the oldest whiskey, but shouldn’t a profile percentage be obligatory? And this isn’t about snobbery either; it’s more an opportunity to show what can be done with several young whiskies, much like Killowen’s Rum & Raisin release.
As purveyors of integrity and change in regulations, Compass Box calls for “freedom but not the obligation” to print the age of all constituents included in their whiskies. Refreshingly, John Glaser, founder of Compass Box, stated that “Scotch whisky producers should have the freedom to offer their customers complete, unbiased and clear information on the age of every component used in their whiskies.” Their plea for reform comes after their Flaming Heart and This Is Not A Luxury Whisky releases came under scrutiny from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) that they were running afoul of regulations, who bizarrely were informed of the deed by another brand member. The calls for transparency have also been echoed by Bruichladdich, who, voicing their support for Compass Box, have pledged to publish the age and origin of all the various casks used in every vatting to date and every future vatting as a menu on www.bruichladdich.com/archive. And from April 2016, they provide a new field on The Classic Laddie product page of their website. Every bottle they have ever produced carries a simple batch code. If this is entered on the website, it will list the component casks: a simple but effective method that exploits a loophole in the regulations.
It seems to me that some distilleries are afraid of transparency and telling consumers what is in their whiskies. Fear should not be an excuse; it’s the excitement, the enthusiasm and the curiosity that attracts the average whisky drinker to whisky. I recently came into the whisky drinking game and didn’t think of this as a significant issue. Still, after seeing some of the older bottlings of the likes of the Ardbeg Rollercoaster, I immediately thought of how incredible it was to see such a simple graphic. I’m not angered by the fact there’s a four-year-old whisky (at the time of bottling) in the blend; I’m more concerned about whether the whisky tastes good or not!
There’s definitely a case for reform here, and I’m not for one second suggesting that all restrictions should be dropped. Misleading people is a reprehensible deed, and there should be limitations on what can be displayed and what can’t be said. I’m sure there are whisky drinkers that couldn’t care less about it; they drink the whisky, the whisky tastes good, so I’ll not worry about anything. But wouldn’t it be interesting to live in a country that allowed distilleries to show what they’re putting in their whisky, how old the whiskies are, what the whiskies are, how many whiskies there are? That doesn’t scare me or make me shy away from whisky; it makes me far more interested and captivated by the veracity of the information.
The process will be long: having support from the SWA to move forward would mean a change in law from the UK. As John Glaser states, “We believe that producers should have the right, but not necessarily the obligation, to tell consumers 100 per cent what’s in their blend.” I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree.