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Whisky labelling issue still far from clear

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Whisky labelling issue still far from clear

Postby Kate » Sun Nov 30, 2003 3:50 pm

Whisky Magazine is throwing its weight to a growing campaign for clearer labelling on bottles of Scotch following the Cardhu row.
Civil war erupted in the whisky industry after newspapers picked up on the story and then drinkers called “foul play.”
Diageo was widely criticised for its decision to scrap Cardhu as a single malt and replace it with a vatted version in similar packaging.
It took a while for the issue to hit public consciousness but when it did several British newspapers accused the company of damaging the reputation of Scotch whisky.
Whisky Magazine is backing calls for a new and clear guide as to how malt whisky is defined on bottle labels. Among the more radical plans is a call for a ban on the words ‘pure malt.’
Dave Broom has suggested a new code of conduct in his column in Issue 36.
Last edited by Kate on Tue Dec 30, 2003 3:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Deactivated Member » Tue Dec 30, 2003 2:33 pm

Well said and a good idea to set up a standard for clear labelling.


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Postby Pot Stiller » Sat Jan 03, 2004 8:58 pm

I totally disagree

I have four main points to make.

Firstly, I am appalled at the treatment of Diageo in this episode. If I am not mistaken, Diageo was voted your Distiller of the year last year.

They have made a business decision based on the success of their Cardhu brand, mainly in Spain. They have informed all the relevant organizations, yourself included, as to their intentions. (My local Diageo rep, who has a multitude of non-whisky products in his portfolio was able to discuss the matter in full with me).

They have been subject to innuendo and outright hostility as to their motives.


Were Volkswagen criticised when the boxy Golf was replaced with a more streamlined version. Were people up in arms about it being a different car so that therefore it should be renamed? I don’t think so. Why? Because, fundamentally, it was the same. Ordinary consumers accepted that there were differences, but not significant. Experts could discuss the differences at length. Ditto Whisky.

Other companies looking at the treatment of Diageo can only conclude that when faced with similar decisions, the best way to deal with it is to stay very, very quiet.

The second point is that the article treats the whisky buying public with contempt.

To say that people cannot understand the differences between Single & Pure/Vatted Malts is insulting.
Not everybody understands these terms, but those who want to, do.
The key is “Single”.
Single implies, in my humble opinion, “one” – in relation to a distillery.
Therefore a “Pure Single Malt” is a single malt with an adjective as likely to influence my purchase as “Youmusthavethis” Single Malt.
A bottle labelled “Pure Malt” indicates that the contents are the product of different distilleries. If a producer wishes to label his single malt as a pure malt, I would consider that similar to VW labeling their Golf Gti as a Golf Cl. Not quite true, but the consumers gets more oomph for their money!

And Thirdly, Mr. Broom’s suggestions –

1.“Single Malt: a malt whisky coming from a single, existing distillery. All malts with fictitious names should be re-defined”

What does this mean for Cooley whiskies from Ireland? Or are we only talking about Scottish Malts?

What does this mean then, for Tobermory and Ledaig – both products of the Tobermory Distillery on Mull. Will these become Tobermory Single Malt and Ledaig Malt? Is that an accurate representation of the contents?

What about old supplies from dismantled distilleries? As soon as the distillery is dismantled, does this mean that the Whisky changes from Single Malt to Malt?

2. “Pure Malts: Should be banned as a definition”

I have 4 Vatted Malts in my collection – Johnnie Walker, Sheep Dip, Hogshead and Famous Grouse – 3 of these are labeled as “Pure”. Why change?

3. “Vatted Malt: Any amalgamation of malt whiskies from more than one distillery.”
Nothing wrong with this. But why cannot it also apply to “Pure Malt”

4. “Malt Whisky: Any other single malt carrying the name of a fictitious distillery (supermarket own labels etc)”.

Is this not snobbery? And what of distilleries producing multiple malts?

5. “A Hallmark Device should be created which can be sported ONLY by Single Malt Whiskies. This would be a consumer guarantee.”

Why would this be necessary? – Unless to pump up the price?

To my mind, this labeling scheme is more complicated than the existing conventions and particularly unfair to supermarket own labels. What also of Independent Bottlers?

I agree that the information on whisky labels is often “embellished” and misleading to a point. But no more than any other consumer good. (That is what whisky is, after all!) Buyer Beware is old advice. Does anyone buy a new pair of trousers without looking in a mirror – or does he just take the salesperson’s word that their ass doesn’t look big in them?

I particularly enjoy the more extreme embellishments on labels, often having nothing to do with the whisky inside. Read a Balblair label for a good laugh – (The whisky is so good because the air is the purest in Scotland). Or look at Clontarf from Ireland using the date 1016 as a badge.

Please don’t start to treat consumers like school-children. They have common sense – let them use it.

And let the marketing people do their job. Chances are, that without the absolutely fantastic job done for malt whiskies by Marketers, our choice today would be severely limited.

And if the thought is that distillers need to be controlled about what the put on the labels, in full view of the buying and professional public, surely, there is a far greater need to control what they do behind closed doors? How do we really know that 12 years is 12 years?

My fourth point has to do with what should, perhaps, be on labels.

This can be viewed in two ways – a wish list and an absolute list.
An absolute list would cover:
· The origin distillery (or distilleries).
· The age, regardless of the distiller’s desire to include an age or not (it need not be prominent – just there)
· The presence of Caramel.

A wish list would include:
· Types of casks used for maturation, and the proportions
· Bottling Location and source of water used for diluting.
· An independent taste assessment
· A breakdown of component whiskies in the case of Pure, sorry, Vatted whiskies.
· The source of the water used for diluting the whisk(e)y to drinking strength.

This to me is far more relevant to informing the customer than bickering over “Pure Malt” “Vatted Malt”, “A Blend or Pure Malt Wiskies”.

Sourcing whisky in Germany is a wonderful experience, because the label must contain any additives in the product. “Mit Farbstoff” is on more whiskies than you would expect!
And to those who say that caramel does not influence the taste of whisky, I suggest a blind tasting. It has been proved that what the eye expects to taste, the mouth will often deliver.

If you want to seriously consider labeling, consider the Scottish regions. As I understand, the original regions (Highland / Lowland) came about due to different tax regimes, not the whisky in the bottle.
Is the new Arran Malt an Island whisky or a Lowland whisky? What about A’bunadh Single Speyside Malt and Aberlour Single Highland Malt. Same distillery – different regions. Is Orkeny in the Highlands, Islands or both? Is that not confusing to consumers?

And to my final point. I am prepared to be burnt as a heretic for this – but here goes anyway!
Why is it that Single Malts are considered to be so superior to Pure/Vatted Malts.
If we are judging on exclusivity then that is probably the case – Singles are more exclusive. But as I always tell my customers, its what’s in the bottle that counts, not what’s on the label. If this is so, surely, given a number of distilleries, each producing good quality malt, the sum of the parts will often exceed the individual parts?

And what of the case where a distillery produces 2 different malts and prior to sale vats them. This is a “Single Malt” whereas 2 neighbouring distilleries doing the same produce a “vatted malt”.

Wouldn’t it be great if distillers released widely available vatted malts of some interesting combinations rather than ever more rare (and expensive) single casks, finishes etc?

But after the treatment of Diageo, who would want to?

I find it highly ironic that a trade publication such as yours carries an article about the unclear labeling of whisk(e)y when your own website continues to display totally incorrect information about whisk(e)y in the whiskies of the world section. Jameson Single Malt? Please!!!!
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Postby old rarity » Sat Jan 10, 2004 4:06 pm

My own view is there are many valid points in this last message. I agree that any consumer who takes minimal steps to inform himself will learn that "pure malt" does not mean necessarily (if ever) "single malt". This is accepted trade usage and was explained years ago in Michael Jackson's first editions. The Cardhu labelling matter is one for the company. Things change over time; if the company considers that a vatting delivers the same quality as the single malt, why should it not have the right to issue Cardhu as a vatted malt only? I cannot understand why a fuss was raised about this. I cannot see the real difference between converting to a vatted version (provided the label indicates this, which clearly it did) and, say, continuing to issue a malt from one distillery but changing the type of malting barley used, or replacing the still with one of a different design, or ... The variables are infinite, are we going to say a distillery should not do any of these things and still release their malt under the same name as before?

Beyond all this, while people (of course) have the right to express their opinion and the companies will (of course) take notice to the extent they feel it is in their commercial interest, I have never understood why emotions run high in such matters. Indeed it seems in particular a British phenomenon (one sees it as well in the periodic lobbying efforts made to preserve certain breweries from takeover or closure). It is a good thing to want to preserve the best, or what is perceived as the best, of "one's" heritage, but at the same time, one must recall that brands of beer and whiskey belong to their owners. Over-regulation can be a disincentive to innovation and creativity. Single malt, as was stated in the previous message, is a fine product but it is not inherently better than a vatted malt. It has certain traits resulting from history and (I suggest) the efforts of a series of writers in the last genertion pointing out that these products should be valued. Fine. But nothing is cast in stone, who can say that single malt whisky from Scotland will exist in its present form in 100 or even 50 years? Surely it did not exist in its present form 200 years ago. Life is (ultimately) all about change, and it mystified me to see the brou-ha-ha raised by the Cardhu vatted malt issue. I say, let Diageo try to sell whatever it wants. (It has done a pretty good job to date!). As long as it keeps within the letter of existing labelling laws, which clearly it has done, it should be up to the consumer to decide if the Cardhu of today is as good as that of yesterday. IMHO.
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Postby Rudolph Hucker » Wed Jan 14, 2004 10:43 am


Why not just two categories?

1. Single Malt Whisky

2. Malt Whisky

with the individual malts contained within the bottle listed clearly on the label.


Joe Bloggs Single Malt Whisky

contains Joe Bloggs Single Malt Whisky

Fred Smith Malt Whisky

contains ABC Malt Whisky
DEF Malt Whisky
XYZ Malt Whisky

No need for hallmarks and descriptions like Pure and Vatted which may mean something to the likes of those who read Whisky Magazine and use this website, but mean nothing to the person who buys a Malt maybe once of twice a year ( which adds up to an awful lot of Malt ). The important thing, surely, is for the customer to know precisely what is in the bottle they are thinking of buying.

As the great George Dubya is prone to say Keep it Stupid, Simple


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Postby old rarity » Sat Jan 17, 2004 12:52 am

Well, Rudolph, I am persuaded to a point, but if the casual buyer of malt whisky cannot appreciate (as you say) trade details of "pure malt" or "vatted malt", why would it matter to him (or her) whether the annual or semi-annual malt he buys comes from a single distillery or two or more? Is not the flavour, associated to a brand name (trade mark) such as Cardhu, all that matters to such (or really any) purchaser?

In other words, are you not begging the question?
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Postby Rudolph Hucker » Sat Jan 17, 2004 10:49 am

8) Yes, Old Rarity , you are right. What really matters is what is in the bottle.

The point I was trying - and clearly failing - to make is that to my mind the proposed clarifications are more likely to add confusion rather than reduce it. Since the essential question is what terminology can be used to differentiate on the label between a single malt and a (blend) of malts, I think that listing the individual malts is a straight forward, honest and simple way of doing so.

Granted people will buy - and repeat buy - for the taste. People may not be concerned by having pure or vatted on the label, even if they do not understand what the words mean. But it will cost the producers no more to use the categories I suggest, and it will be a true and easily understood statement of fact.

And surely the producers have no reason not to make true and easily understood information about their products available to purchasers, have they?


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Postby old rarity » Sat Jan 17, 2004 3:09 pm

Well, you, and I no less by the way, want to know what the malt whiskies are in a vatting (and their percentages?), no question. But I guess I am wondering why any regulation (whether self-imposed by an industry accord, or by a change to public labelling laws) is needed beyond the existing trade and fair description laws that regulate whisky labelling in the U.K. and other countries. If I did support such changes it would be for the reason, if such can be shown, that the measure is likely to promote more interest in the category overall, more sales, and provided the rules did not cause particular producers any trade disadvantage.

The ability of producers to call mixed grain column distillate "whisky" was brought in before World War One through (I believe it was) judicial fiat after a public inquiry. That was a case where, as in the current discussion, there were different viewpoints, but ultimately that measure helped the scotch whisky industry to grow enormously and as a sidewind benefitted production and distribution of the single malts as separate products themselves. Their original producers feared they would lose sales through competitors selling something that should not be called "whisky" but in the end did everyone not benefit? The appreciation by the world-wide market today of single malts and their greatness as being amongst the finest drinks in the world likely would not exist had the industry not been big and rich enough (through sales of blended whisky) to invest in refurbishing old malt distilleries and building new ones and bottling, shipping and promoting these specialties on a wide scale. In my opinion, asking a producer to list the constituent malts in a vatting of whiskies likely would not do much for the category of whisky as a whole. And there is the question of whether a producer who decides (necessarily) what is in the bottle should be required to disclose that particular trade information (as opposed, say, to other production details, e.g. whether it uses peated malt, all copper stills, and so on). I don't think it would be proper to ask producers to do that when their competitors can use, say for argument's sake, production "shortcuts" of various kinds and don't have to list those! I don't think we would want to get into requiring the listing of how long a whisky was "finished" in a sherry cask, for example, or how "juicy" the cask was, never mind the percentage of all-sherry aging vs. ex-bourbon and so on.

We in this forum are (I no less) fixed on single malts vs. other kinds of whisky due to historical circumstance and how single malts have been written about and lauded in recent years (and rightly so from a consumer standpoint) but this should not colour I think the overall question of whether the existing trade description laws should be extended. The brou-a-ha about Cardhu was essentially a cultural issue (importance of single malts and their heritage in British whisky production and history, mostly concerning connoisseurs or others with specialised knowledge). I have no problem with people making their views known to Diageo (that is their right as consumers) although as I said earlier the extent of the controversy surprised me. It is rather the suggestions that some kind of new labelling code should be adopted (see e.g. Dave Broome's suggestions in the current WM) which strike me as ... a reaction too far..
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Postby JUERG GLUTZ-KURMANN » Fri Jan 23, 2004 12:23 pm

There should be indicated in which type of wood the whisky was matured in (bourbon/sherry etc.) The odd wording "matured in an oak cask" isn't very helpful as all whiskies are matured in oak. Further on the label should be written if the whisky was finished in a second cask, e.g. 10 1/2 years matured in bourbon wood / 1 1/2 years matured (or, rather "finished") in sherry wood. This example for a 12yo whisky. And if possible the ppm-degree, so that you can probably guess how smoky a whisky could be and should you not like heavily peated whisky you better keep your hand from it then.

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