MSP fails to make case over whisky barley

A MOTION that only home-grown barley should be used to make Scotch whisky found no support in parliament last night.

Holyrood’s newest MSP, Liberal Democrat Andrew Arbuckle, made the proposal the cornerstone of his first member’s motion, arguing that the move would give Scotch whisky protected geographical indicator (PGI) status.

No questions are allowed and no vote taken in such a debate, but Conservative, Labour and SNP speakers in a thinly-attended session all argued that there was no need for a home-grown restriction.

Arbuckle’s argument was that it was inconceivable the French would allow champagne to be made with anything other than home-grown grapes or that Parma ham might be made with imported pig meat. He went on: "But Scottish whisky makers can, and do, use imported grain to make Scotland’s national drink."

Not a lot, he agreed - the figure generally accepted during the debate was that, in a normal year, 95 per cent of whisky is made using home-grown grain - but any at all was wrong.

One hundred per cent home-grown barley would be a unique selling point, he said and some enlightened whisky makers had realised that.

More should. A more certain market would also help cereal farmers, who were selling malting barley at barely half the 140 per tonne of 20 years ago and were losing money.

He said: "Everyone knows that the cost of primary ingredients are only a small fraction [a few pence] of the end price of whisky; this motion will not affect the price of your dram."

He said that the Scotch Whisky Association had exaggerated claims of problems and job losses if they "were handcuffed to the home-grown crop" and the potential disaster of a poor-quality Scottish harvest. Successive speakers from other parties expressed some sympathy with his view - but then proceeded to try and dismantle it.

That included Allan Wilson, the deputy minister for enterprise, who said that the motion to use only home-grown grain and give Scotch whisky PGI status would actually dilute existing legal protection for the product under European Union rules.

What was essential was that the product was made and bottled in Scotland, not its grain content.

Insisting on home-grown grain would put whisky makers at the mercy of the Scottish weather and an industry providing 40,000 jobs and spending more than 700 million a year - including more than 90m on barley - did its best to use only home-grown, he suggested.

"I can see how the use of Scottish-only grain might seem superficially attractive ... but there is a cross-party consensus against it," said Wilson.

Murdo Fraser, Conservative, Jackie Baillie, Labour, and Tricia Marwick and Jim Mather, both SNP, confirmed that view. They emphasised the value of jobs, industry spending and more than 2 billion of annual exports (Britain’s fifth biggest overseas earner) generated by the whisky trade.

Fraser said that imposing the home-grown restriction might put Scottish whisky makers at the mercy of competitors, adding: "It would be absurd to tie their hands in that way."

Arbuckle suggested that the Scotch Whisky Association had lobbied extremely effectively against his motion, pointing out that "half the current Scottish whisky industry is owned by foreign companies".

He added: "There is nothing wrong with that, but it may give an inkling that support for the Scottish economy is not a priority for some whisky makers."

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