Scotch Watch Interlude: Trouble in the Highlands

Scotch drinkers may know this already, but there's a little distillery in Cape Breton called Glenora, and there they make the only Canadian "Single Malt Whisky". You probably didn't know this, or possibly even care, but no whisky can be labelled scotch unless it's been aged for at least 3 years in Scotland (which isn't too much to ask for, is it?). I often refer to the Glen Breton product as scotch, even though I shouldn't. To be fair, I've never tried the stuff; I can't seem to convince myself to shell out $85 for a bottle that could be a risky prospect. Anyway, Glenora doesn't market itself as scotch, but it's still not getting off scot (ha) free.

The Glenora distillery has been dogged since it started operations in 1990, first by The Scotch Whisky Association and those who would challenge even the word "whisky", fearing the nice Cape Bretoners would try to pass it off in the scotch market (would have worked on me), and now for the word "Glen" in its name (for much the same reasons). To me, this sounds a little like the fight over the word Champagne, wherein no sparkling wine produced in France (and many other countries) can adopt the name unless it's produced in France's Champagne Region.

Glen Breton, on the other hand, claims that the word Glen is completely relevant given its geographic location:

The company countered that the firm’s award-winning whisky is distilled in Glenville, Inverness County, and the use of the word Glen is geographically inspired, not an intent to ride of the coattails of the Scotch whisky tradition.
The company makes no references to Scotch anywhere in its marketing... (Source: Canadian Press)

This week it's in the courts, a culmination of a five-year legal battle. The Canadian Trademark Commission has heard arguments from both sides. Naturally, if the SWA wins and Glen Breton is forced to change their name. The results of the court case are clear: if Glen Breton wins, they will continue to market their specialised brand of whisky, periodically duping (but hopefully nto disappointing) unsuspecting scotch drinkers. They will continue to be the only Canadian Single Malt distillery, but perhaps not for forever. The SWA has vowed they will appeal any decision allowing Glen Breton to continue to use the word "Glen".

My guess is that they'll be lodging their appeal shortly.

Should the SWA be successful, you can bet I'll go out and purchase the nearest bottle of Glen Breton Rare for posterity (and maye one for eBay). After all, it sounds like it's a pretty good product:
Apparently, the controversy isn’t getting in the way of successful distilling. The company’s flagship product, Glen Breton Rare, was selected this week as one of the Top 50 Spirits worldwide for 2006 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine of New York. It is one of only two spirits from Canada named to this prestigious list. (Source: Canadian Press)

And hey, if the Canadian Trademark Commission won't side with the SWA, maybe they take their beef to the WTO. More ranting over Glenora here and here.

Slainte mhath!

(Maybe this should have been the first entry in the new Whisky Watch series? Oh dear. Is that the smell of intervention?)

UPDATE: Read about Part II to this court case here.

Posted bythemikestand at 9:15 AM  

16 stepped up to the mike:

Anonymous said... 10:26 AM, December 19, 2006  

Glen Breton is quite nice, and they do have a booth at the Halifax Farmer's Market if you're so inclined to try it. And the distillery is gorgeous, I wanted to pitch a tent and never leave.

Anonymous said... 11:55 AM, December 19, 2006  

All of this "we own the name" whining seems a bit like a pathetic attempt to sell potentially inferior products under a fancy brand name. The truth is that California sparkling wine IS Champagne and Parmesan cheese made in Vermont has just as much potential to taste good as the variety made in Italy regardless of the label. I honestly don't understand why governments are willing to preoccupy themselves with enforcing such arbitrary distinctions or why consumers are so easily led to believe that branding actually influences product quality. I know nothing about scotch but I hope this Glen Brenton places rebels and starts opening calling their spade a scotch -- guys in kilts be damned.

Anonymous said... 2:04 PM, December 19, 2006  

I've had it--filled with tasty delciousness. No matter what it's called.

But I have to say, too, that I'm traditional enough to respect the protectionistic attitudes regarding both the word 'Scotch' and the word 'Glen'. I'm a big supporter of champagne coming only from France--and Digby Scallops only coming from Digby. :)

jenny said... 5:38 PM, December 19, 2006  

I tend to agree with anonymous #3 on the purist front - if it's not from the Champagne region, then it's sparkling wine. If it's not from Scotland, it's still whisky, just not scotch whisky. Couldn't they still call it single malt whisky?

cronznet said... 9:55 PM, December 19, 2006  

I'll have to try Glen Breton. The case reminds me of trying to get folks to understand Bushmill's is a single malt Irish whiskey (and a damned fine one), not a single malt scotch. The Scots have so dominated the market that they are like...well, the kleenex of spirits, if you will.
Thanks for the info!

mike said... 9:58 PM, December 19, 2006  

Apologies for making nearly everyone anonymous... one of the bonuses of switching to blogger in beta, i assume.

Megan said... 1:50 AM, December 20, 2006  

The AOC of whiskey. Haha. I must say I can't drink the stuff. Bad whiskey experience once. When we toured the distilleries in scotland, I gave my free sample to my dad.
Oh, and RE your comment: there are signs, but that doesn't mean people obey them.

themikestand said... 9:34 AM, December 20, 2006  

jenny: they do call it single malt whisky. it's the Glen part that the SWA's got a problem with, but to me, that's like outlawing the word "hill".

Ramzi said... 10:28 AM, December 20, 2006  

We know what Stuart Rankin (Mike Myers) would have to say about this: if it's not Scottish it's crap!

That said, while I'm sure they're riding on the Glen of Scotch Whiskey lore, the bottle proudly says right on the front that it is "Canada's Only Single Malt Whiskey" and the label's only graphic (I think) is a maple leaf. I think that makes it pretty clear that the bottle isn't Scottish. This lawsuit is the great publicity for Glenora.

On a side note, I heard once that the man who started the distillery died before he ever got to taste a drop of the finished product, which makes for an interesting addition to romance of the story.

SRH said... 11:11 AM, December 20, 2006  

My best friend's name is Glen (with only 1 "n") is he infringing on a copyright?

themikestand said... 3:20 PM, December 20, 2006  

srh: Only if Glen wishes to sell himself, based on a possible apparent link to whisky.

SRH said... 4:32 PM, December 20, 2006  

If I could get Glen to stop trying to sell himself, that would be a major improvement.

Andrew said... 4:10 PM, February 01, 2007  

What other words are "owned" by the SWA.

themikestand said... 4:15 PM, February 01, 2007  

Andrew: I'm not entirely sure -- but I would think they're only concerned with "glen" and "scotch" at this point. Maybe "whisky" (without the "e") -- but you'd have to go ask the SWA about that.

Anonymous said... 1:14 PM, December 01, 2007  

I'm appalled by all the comments on here. There's no real way to know if consumers are confused about whether they're drinking scotch without scientific testing!

To further human scientific progress, I purchased Glen Breton and began consuming it immediately, keeping detailed notes in a lab book. My study reveals that, after one ounce, there is no confusion. You can still see the label with the word "Canadian" in large letters.

After two ounces, some confusion is evident, and the location of the label is no longer clear, although I am able to keep a firm grip on the tumbler.

After three ounces, I have to admit that the Scotch Marketing Ass. is right! I'm completely confused! What am I drinking again?

After four ounces, I'm not really even sure whether I'm still drinking at all or why I have this lab book ... science is a harsh mistress, but I must soldier on.

Finally, after five ounces, I remembered that I'm only one data point, even though I can't remember anything else. In order to advance the cause of science, I'll have to repeat the experiment many, many times. Even then, it may never be a certainty that the name of this whiskey confuses consumers into believing that they are drinking scotch. But our investigations must proceed, regardless of our confidence in the outcome. Progress!

themikestand said... 6:38 PM, December 14, 2007  

anonymous: This is perhaps the best comment / experiment I have ever heard (of).

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