Taking a stand

Taking a stand

The Scotch Whisky Association is one of the most powerful bodies in the whisky industry. But what does it actually do? Dominic Roskrow went to find out.

People 24 Jul 2009 | Interviews | By Dominic Roskrow

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Venezuela is an important market but it's virtually impossible at the moment. Hugo Chavez has a problem with Scotch whisky. We are trying to change attitudes but it is just one of many countries we are dealing with and you have to be realistic. You have to prioritise."

A pretty Georgian house in Edinburgh's Haymarket district isn't the sort of place you'd expect to find conversation about how to combat a South American Socialist president. Nor for that matter would you expect to find the walls adorned with the communist symbols of the Chinese government. But number 20 Atholl Crescent is home to the Scotch Whisky Association and looks can be deceptive. Calm and sedate it might be on the outside but within it's a power house of quiet but intense international activity.

Normally Atholl Crescent is part of a tranquil leafy suburb comprising church spires, war memorials, and stylish period houses though for the next year or so it's also a major building site and any semblance of normality has been shattered by pneumatic drills and heavy machinery as the streets of the capital are ripped up and a new tram system is installed. The noise of the building work is constant and intrusive, and over recent weeks has made access to the Association difficult.

But the people who work here have dealt with the inconvenience in exactly the same way they have dealt with a myriad of world problems including feisty South American presidents, with stoic resolution and calm determination. You get the feeling that nothing rattles them.

So why are we here? The truth be told, there's nothing very sexy about The Scotch Whisky Association. When I mentioned that I was planning to spend some time with the Association, three different people said 'good luck'. Why? The answer probably lies in the fact that the SWA represents the least glamorous end of the world of whisky. If the industry is a gleaming pub packed with exciting drink offerings, this is the cellar - cold and a little sterile, all concrete and piping. But it's the engine room that keeps the offerings on the bar flowing and without it there would be few drinks for us to choose between and what there were would taste vastly inferior to the current choice.

The public perception of the Association is of an organisation that pops up at British Budget time to decry the latest round of tax increases on whisky, at party political conference season, and occasionally to hammer some poor unfortunate foreign distillery that has a name that sounds vaguely Scottish. Occasionally a journalist gets interested in the Association's 'wall of shame', a collection of counterfeit whiskies bearing Scottish names and imagery and sold by cowboys in a any number of countries across the world . Most of the time, though, the Association is out of the public eye.

But these are trying and testing times for the Association and it faces a number of challenges. The alcohol industry is under intense scrutiny in general and the pressure is mounting on all related parties to monitor themselves or face censure; the worldwide demand for Scotch and the on going recession increase the likelihood of counterfeiting; the number of emerging and potentially lucrative markets have yet to even define what whisky is, let alone Scotch; and environmental issues demand a focused and positive industry response.

All of this makes up what happens on a daily basis in Atholl Crescent.

Number 20 is actually two former residential premises knocked into one. The reception area and meeting room are smart and business-like, but venture further in to the property's heart and you'll find a rabbit warren of scruffy lived-in offices, walls covered in world maps, desks strewn with documents. Thirty two people work here in all and even a cursory tour gives you a sense of the enormity of the work they are undertaking. At the moment, for instance, the SWA is involved with 70 different legal actions around the world. It is up against more than 600 trade barriers in more than 150 different markets.

And in an era when the transfer of capital has become relatively easy, it seems the movement of physical goods is anything but. Want to sell whisky in Venezuela? No problem - that's once you've got past the import tariffs, excise tax, import surcharges, alcoholic beverage sales tax and value added tax. And if you're bored just reading that sentence, then imagine what it's like dealing with such issues every day, every week, every year, and not just in one market but in several.

Welcome to the world of the SWA - it's a dull as dishwater job, but someone's got to do it. Often maligned for its role as industry bully picking on small time distilleries who dare to suggest they are linked to Scotland in reality the Association has an essential role in protecting and supporting Scotch whisky.

Its job is a complex and difficult one, patiently working alongside governments and trade bodies across the world often in territories where whisky is a completely new entity. Its job is to define the meaning of the word 'whisky' in each territory, to get that territory to recognise the unique qualities that define Scotch whisky, and to ensure that within that market Scotch whisky gets a fair chance to compete on a level trading playing field. The Association is the modern day equivalent of the pioneers who went to new frontiers and laid the road and rail systems to ensure a smooth flow of future trade. Its main weapon is patience, a reed bending in the economic and political wind rather than oak standing up to the elements and risking getting blown over by them.

"Much of what we do is for the long term," says director of Government and consumer affairs Campbell Evans. "Look at a market such as Spain, which is now one of the biggest markets in the world for Scotch whisky. But we did a great deal of work there when Spain wanted to join the European Union 20 years ago. What we achieved in Spain then can be compared to what we're doing today in emerging markets such as Estonia. It's all about the long term.

" Dealing with so many countries is a little like putting billiard balls into a box - squeeze an extra one in at one end and one pops out at the other. Some countries are more troublesome than others, and sometimes problems come from unexpected quarters.

"Australia is a problem at the moment," says Evans. "Although the Australian Distillers' Association is keeping its standards high the Australian Government scrapped its definition of what whisky is and there have been a number of poor products coming out designed to look like they're from Scotland. It's important to stop this because it is very possible that someone's first experience of what they think is Scotch is actually a flavoured industrial alcohol and it's likely to put them off for life.

"What we're after is the sort of attitude we get in America where they say that Scotch whisky is whatever we say it is. We have had tremendous support in China where they have public destruction ceremonies. They collect up the fake goods and then the local dignitaries turn out to watch the goods being destroyed by a steam roller."

There are other serial offenders when it comes to passing off. The challenges of the world's biggest market, India, for instance, are well documented.

"It's like dealing with 28 different markets because each state is different and has different local taxes and regulations," says Peter Wilkinson, director of International Affairs. "We've come a long way in two to three years but there's a lot more to do. We continue to work at it but it takes a lot of time. Local events play a part. We hope that the recent election result will help."

While the Association is fully engaged on the international front, it has domestic issues to address, too. It published its extensive response to the challenges of the environment in June, for instance, and with investment in the industry in recent years running in to hundreds of millions of pounds, it has put a great deal of time and effort in formulating a plan to ensure that the industry meets all its commitments to carbon reductions. Its recent successes in ensuring that distilleries are exempted from the Display of Alcohol regulations which would have restricted their right to sell non-whisky items in their gift shops is a further example of the Association's work. With alcohol very much under scrutiny and the prospect of a change in British government in the next year, a busy party political conference season looms.

"It is important we're at these events because over the years we've got to know the politicians and they know us," says Evans. "When it comes to them representing British interests at any level we have to have done everything to ensure we're top or close to top of their priority list."

And with that he disappears back in to the bowels of the building. After lunch, public affairs manager David Williamson takes me to an exhibition that is part of Scotland's Homecoming celebrations. On display is the original document with the first reference to whisky making, the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494 and the pay books showing where Rabbie Burns signed for his wages as an excise man. The last signature, from a week before his death, is an all but illegible scribble, reflecting his poor health. It brings a lump to the throat.

"I wanted you to see this because it's all part of Scotch whisky's heritage," says Williamson afterwards. "It's an important part of its history and provenance."

The same could be said for the Scotch Whisky Association. The future of our beloved drink is in the safest of hands.
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