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Whisky Business

An outfit called the Scotch Whisky Association filed a heavy-handed lawsuit in Delaware federal court earlier this month.

The target? An independent distillery in Lovingston, Virginia, called the Virginia Distillery Company LLC.

The reason? They produce a drink called “Virginia-Highland Whisky.” The association, based in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, claims that Virginia Distillery is misleading the public into thinking this beverage is “Scotch whisky, when it is not, and/or that it is whisky that originates in Scotland, which it does not.”

One of Virginia Distillery’s alleged sins is use of the term “Highland.” Think of the Highlands, and you hear bagpipes in your head as that region of Scotland comes to mind. Another alleged sin is spelling the drink as “whisky,” without the “e.” American and Irish distillers cook in the extra “e” to make “whiskey,” but not the Scots.

Virginia Distillery’s actions are “false, misleading and deceptive,” calculated to fool the public, according to the suit. The requested remedy? The association wants a permanent injunction forbidding Virginia Distillery from using the terms “Scotch” and “Highland.” And, oh, the company would have to recall every single bottle of Virginia-Highland that has been made or sold to anyone.

Talk about serving a whisky sour.

The association, according to its suit, represents manufacturers who make more than 90% of the Scotch whisky in the world. Some of the member names dropped in the complaint include Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Famous Grouse, The Macallan and Glenfiddich. That’s a pretty top-shelf list.

Whiskycast.com, a whisky industry news website, notes that the association has a history of filing bigfoot lawsuits like this one. The group no doubt would tell you it merely seeks to preserve the good name and “intellectual property” of Scotch whisky. Go to their website, scotch-whisky.org.uk, and you can download an 83-page document that provides the rules and regulations for making “Scotch whisky.” You also can sign up to be a “DRAM Buster,” someone who reports would-be fakers to the association’s legal team.

Cross the association, and you likely will find yourself on the rocks. You know the group has the money and resolve to wage a fight that would threaten to bankrupt a little-guy distillery.

The Scotch Whisky Association isn’t the only trade group that is blue-nosed about preserving and protecting its chosen drink or food. In France, for example, there is a group called the CIVC that is zealous about preserving the name “Champagne” for sparkling wines produced in that region of France. They too are prone to pop suit on perceived offenders; they once sued (and ultimately lost to) an Australian wine commentator who wanted to call herself “Champagne Jayne.” CIVC made loud noises threatening a suit against Apple (itself a bigfoot with a cadre of hair-trigger lawyers) when that company was contemplating an iPhone that was “champagne-colored.” Really.

Back to the association’s lawsuit. While whisky is often served with a measure of two fingers, you might think that Virginia Distillery would need only one finger to respond to their claims.

Virginia Distillery CEO Gareth Moore wouldn’t talk about the suit on the advice of his lawyers, but he issued a statement as mellow as an aged single malt.

“We are confident this complaint will be resolved, and we will be responding through the court system.  We stand behind our product and its labeling,” he said.

Virginia Distillery takes whisky from Scotland and blends it with local product. “Our label clearly indicates the source of our whisky, stating, ‘Whisky from Scotland, Married with Virginia Whisky,’ and we have always been upfront in descriptions to our customers,” Moore said. The company took the appropriate steps to try to do things right, including answering questions from the Scotch Whisky Association, he added.

Stay tuned.

One thing I find puzzling about this lawsuit is that an association, based in Scotland, refers to the drink as “Scotch” whisky. I remember talking to a gnarled whisky-shop owner during a trip to Edinburgh some years ago. He was giving precise instructions on how to “open up” whisky by adding some pure water, and he was adamant: Never, ever call the nectar “Scotch.” It’s whisky, no “e.”

In fact, all over the auld country, you’ll hear “Scots” or “Scottish” used as adjectives.

But Scotch?  I can imagine the old shop owner’s voice even now. He’d say something like, “Nae, laddie, that’s a kind of tape.”

— Paul Fletcher