The dark side of whisky
First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).
An aside: The opinion I express is this column is somewhat contentious. In a recent twitter exchange on the subject I was informed by an esteemed whisky writer that I was “just plain wrong”. The why was, and still is, not as clear. In the interim thus this presumably snot-nosed, impudent upstart of a whisky blogger stands by his opinion.
I’m often guilty of looking at the whisky world through rose-tinted glasses. I am after all a self-professed whiskyphile, so a certain extolling of the virtues is part of the job description. My natural inclination is to be mostly positive. The reality however is that whisky is a human endeavour, and, like any other, is prone to human failings. A cast which includes moonshiners, bootleggers, smugglers, gangsters, and all manner of dodgy bastards, have featured prominently in its story, a story whose aspect has been transformed – by the passage of time, and by subsequent regulation and legitimisation – from criminal to colourful. Today a few huge conglomerates dominate production. The industry is seen as venerable, and its members as responsible corporate citizens. But are things really as proper as they appear? I wouldn’t be self-respecting if I didn’t blend my admiration with a dash of scrutiny.
Marketing – if one was to adopt a cynical stance – is akin to commercial propaganda. The discipline, in somewhat Goebbels-esque fashion, is no stranger to large-scale institutionalized deception. In the marketing of whisky one of the more insidious examples, in my opinion, is the so-called No Age Statement (NAS) whisky. The age, or to be more accurate (and lyrical) the duration of maturation, of whisky is a subject of lengthy debate. To avoid labouring the point, let’s just conclude for our purposes that age is of distinct importance to the whisky drinking public. Research published by Chivas Brothers last year revealed the following actualities: “94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality” and “93% believe that older whiskies are better quality”.
It follows then that people expect expensive whiskies to be old – since one expects to pay for quality. As the whisky market has boomed beyond forecast over the last three decades, suppliers have struggled to keep up with the demand for older stock. This crisis has been to some extent remedied by the proliferation of the multi-vintage whisky – a blending of old and young whiskies. In itself this was a tidy “innovation” (these had existed before but as an exception) presenting whisky lovers with an extensive new diversity of flavour and style, and stretching the dwindling quantities of older liquid. There was however an accompanying dilemma – Scotch Whisky regulations require that any age claim must refer to the youngest component in a whisky. This nagging inconvenience – upon which the integrity of Scotch whisky is largely built – would potentially motivate a cap on pricing and/or the expensive need to re-educate the market…or maybe not.
The low road was and is an option to withhold disclosing the age, creating a situation where the average whisky buyer automatically assumes these whiskies to be older than they are in reality. There is no doubt in my mind that multi-vintage NAS whiskies have been designed to foster this misconception. Witness Johnnie Walker Double Black in particular (in the context of Black Label): a derivative and misleading name, similar packaging, higher pricing, and no age statement. Is this whisky 12 years old – or even older – as one might reasonably be led to assume? I think not.
This example and others like it I believe are lies of omission, occurring when an important fact (and we know that age is undisputedly important) is deliberately withheld, or not made explicit, in order to perpetuate deception. Despite the obvious moral dubiousness these lies have become common practice. There’s a glimmer of hope though that this may soon change.
Last year the new Consumer Protection Act came into effect. Here’s a little snippet:
False, misleading or deceptive representations
41. (1) In relation to the marketing of any goods or services, the supplier must not, by words or conduct—
(a) directly or indirectly express or imply a false, misleading or deceptive representation concerning a material fact to a consumer;
(b) use exaggeration, innuendo or ambiguity as to a material fact, or fail to disclose a material fact if that failure amounts to a deception; or
(c) fail to correct an apparent misapprehension on the part of a consumer, amounting to a false, misleading or deceptive representation,
I don’t lay claim to any striking legal insight, but it seems clear to me that were a challenge to be made this piece of legislation could terminate the existence of the NAS whisky in South Africa. The veil would be lifted and we would be able to appreciate the real Double Black, ostensibly at a reduced price. Law aside, isn’t it just basic ethics that all material elements to a transaction be disclosed?
Perhaps I’m being optimistic. This is an entrenched agenda which will take some shifting. Nonetheless it’s encouraging to hear industry voices seemingly supporting this position, whether out of self-interest or not. Christian Porta, head of Chivas Brothers, was quoted as follows: “In an age when consumers of luxury goods increasingly demand transparency and authenticity from brands, it is vital that we empower consumers with knowledge so that they fully understand the value of what they are buying.” Mr Porta, I salute you; you renew my faith. May the dram be with you!