THE centrepiece event of Scotland's Homecoming celebrations is under fire after being forced to ban whisky products from its food and drink showcase.
Independent producers and distilleries have been frozen out of The Gathering, being held in Edinburgh in July, despite organisers promising to promote small companies and home-grown products.
But a sponsorship deal with the world's biggest whisky company, Diageo, which is running its own showcase tent for its products, has led to the ban.
One whisky producer which had signed a deal to take space at the event has condemned the move as "a complete nonsense".
It has also been described as "unfortunate" by the leading industry body Scotland Food and Drink, which is helping to organise the Scottish Produce Market. Officials insisted it was unprecedented for whisky to be banned from such an event.
Organisers at The Gathering were last night forced to apologise after a number of whisky firms had to be turned away, but blamed a breakdown in communications. Instead, products like cheese, shortbread, ice cream, oysters and chocolate will be available to sample.
However, one firm forced out of The Gathering has accused Diageo of trying to "monopolise" the event. Alex Nicol, managing director of Spencerfield, an independent producer in Inverkeithing, Fife, whose brands include Sheep Dip and Pig's Nose, said: "It's a complete stitch-up. We are a small, independent company and now find we've been bulldozed out of one of the biggest cultural dates in Scotland's events calendar.
"We were recently informed by Scotland Food and Drink that our application to be part of the Scottish Produce Market had been rejected due to a conflict with Diageo, one of the event sponsors.
"But The Gathering's website clearly states that 'traders can sell a wide variety of high-quality Scottish fare produced by themselves'. We do not present any threat to Diageo, but this action is typical of big companies."
Fiona Richmond, project manager at Scotland Food and Drink, said: "We did have interest from a number of whisky companies in taking space, and although we wouldn't have been able to accommodate them all, it is a bit unfortunate that whisky products will not be available.
"It's a critical part of the food and drink industry and we need to keep alive small independent producers."
Diageo's sponsorship deal with The Gathering, which is understood to be worth up to 50,000, will see it run two days of taster sessions and master classes inside a huge marquee. People will be able to sample some of its best-known malt whisky brands, including Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore and Glenkinchie.
Jamie Sempill, director of The Gathering, said: "There will not be any whisky products at all available at the Scottish Produce Market, simply because we will have a separate whisky fair.
"It would be completely going against the spirit of our agreement with Diageo, who have been superb sponsors, if we were to allow other whisky producers to take space."
No-one at Diageo was available to comment last night.
Exports hit 3bn for first time
WHISKY has long been one of the UK's leading exports, and overseas sales broke the 3 billion barrier for the first time last year.
In China alone, the whisky market is worth 44 million a year to Scottish distillers. It is one of the fastest growing in the world.
This month is seeing the biggest ever celebration of the national drink to coincide with the Year of Homecoming, with dozens of events being held all over the country.
Diageo, which sells about 8 billion worth of whisky every year, employs about 4,500 workers in Scotland alone.
The company, whose other brands include Guinness, Baileys, Smirnoff and Tanqueray, trades in some 180 countries. In contrast Spencerfield has three employees and a turnover of about 500,000.