SCOTLAND'S whisky industry received a significant boost yesterday when it was given official legal protection in China.
The trade mark office in the country, which is expected to become the fourth-largest blended whisky market in the world, ruled that the phrase "Scotch whisky" would now be defined in law.
Last night the legal recognition – which will allow distillers to pursue imitation whisky in China's courts – was welcomed by some of the biggest whisky makers in Scotland, including Diageo and the Edrington group.
But patent experts warned distillers to build on the new protection by also registering their individual whisky trademarks in China. The deal to register a "collective trade mark" and protect Scotch whisky as a geographical identification followed an application by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
The SWA said the protection – the highest granted by the Chinese state – would cover the words "Scottish whisky" and its Chinese translation.
Lindesay Low, a legal advisor to the SWA who specialises in the Chinese market, said: "Over a number of years, we have welcomed the commitment and co-operation of the Chinese authorities in tackling imitation products 'passed off' as Scotch whisky in China.
"This positive decision to grant stronger 'collective trademark' protection to Scotch is an important advance and will help to ensure Chinese consumers and Scottish distillers are protected from fake products."
According to the SWA, the equivalent of 17 million bottles of Scotch whisky were shipped to China in 2007.
The association added that, in 2006, it worked with the Chinese authorities to investigate 50 counterfeiting cases.
Campbell Newell, patent attorney and managing partner in Marks & Clerk's Edinburgh office, said: "The concept of these geographical indications is a very useful thing.
"Companies also need to register the trademarks in the countries in which they do business to protect their brands and also to help take action against counterfeiters."
Peter Smith, director of international affairs at Diageo, which makes Johnnie Walker, said: "China is one of the biggest emerging market for whisky and getting these definitions and protections is really important.
"To get the generic phrase 'Scotch whisky' protected in this way is a step forward."
Ken Grier, director of malts at Edrington, said: "From an industry perspective, I think this is fantastic news because it puts us at the apex, with geographical indications such as Champagne and Parma ham. It gives us a high degree of protection and recognition.
"The Macallan is the No 1 brand in the Chinese market and this ruling will help us. It's great news all round."