How Scottish whisky distillery owners feel about the proposed alcohol marketing ban

As details of the proposed alcohol marketing ban have made headlines, Rosalind Erskine speaks to owners and those working at smaller and remote whisky distilleries to find out how these measures may impact business and tourism.

In November last year, the Scottish Government released information on a proposed marketing and advertising ban on alcohol in Scotland. This current consultation (which ends in March), is looking at further restrictions on alcohol marketing in order to reduce the appeal to young people and reduce alcohol-related hospitalisations and deaths - a restriction of in-store promotion of alcohol is also part of trying to tackle this. The proposals could also see drinks marketing banned on outdoor billboards and phased out of sports and cultural sponsorship in Scotland. They could also see a ban on branded items, such as glasses, clothing and accessories - things that smaller businesses often rely on selling in their visitor centres.

In recent weeks the proposals have faced backlash from the whisky industry and enthusiasts. One of those banging the drum on social media is whisky author and consultant Blair Bowman. Bowman has said that the proposals would be so damaging to tourism in Scotland, it just wouldn't make any sense (to go ahead with them). He also highlighted wording in the proposal which states that “without marketing and other branding strategies, alcohol products in each beverage sub-sector are essentially the same thing.” Given Scotland’s rich history, and economic success with telling the stories of, and selling, whisky, many are angry at this statement alone, let alone what the proposals may mean for their businesses.

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Speaking to the Scotsman, Bowman said: “We have these incredible assets, whisky in particular, but it seems that the government is trying to do everything to prohibit and penalise the most successful brands Scotland has ever created. Any other country in the world would be jealous of having this product. There's this slight hypocrisy, too, as around the world, they (the government) will shout about how amazing Scotch whisky is, and the growth that it has brought and the value of exports. But then why in its home market would they appear to be doing everything they could to stifle it?”

The Glen Moray distillery

Cameron McCann, owner of Stirling Distillery is concerned how the far reaching elements will impact his business, saying: “As a small distillery, who are just breaking into the whisky world, we rely on footfall to support our business and help it grow. If the consultation is to look at banning alcohol advertising, where does it start and finish?”

Businesses are aware of problems that alcohol can cause in Scotland, but many are calling for support and funding to services to be offered, rather than the entire industry being put under ‘draconian measures.’ Anne O’lone, visitor centre manager at Torabhaig on Skye said: “In my opinion hiding alcohol from sight is not the correct tack to take. On the contrary, education, understanding and appreciation of alcohol is where I would like to see my pound being spent. Therefore, rather than restricting exposure to alcohol we could be encouraging young people and children to respect and embrace it with pride, as the great success story it is for our country.”

Cameron McCann added: “There is an issue with alcoholism in Scotland, but the issues are deep and will not be solved with this approach. After all, prohibition in the US in the 1920s-1930s seemed to be effective on the surface but actually it created new problems.”

Glen Moray brand ambassador Iain Allan acknowledges that there are issues within society in Scotland but doesn’t think the correct way to tackle this is a full on marketing ban. He said: “One of the things I picked up was there was a comment from a report that said that poor mental health and wellbeing are likely to lead to people having a drink. It feels like the drinks industry is getting blamed for bigger societal issues that we should look at addressing first before coming after important Scottish businesses.”

Impact on local communities and charities

A part of the proposal is looking at the effects of alcohol sponsorship on sports and events and one of the recommendations is to prohibit alcohol-branded sports merchandise, including sponsorship on replica kits.

Iain Allan explained why this is of concern for the Elgin-based distillery: “From our point of view, with Glen Moray, we’re involved with sports sponsorship with Edinburgh Rugby. We also get involved with the local community as we have a budget for local sponsorship which we use to help local clubs. We’re the sponsors of Elgin City Football Club, and we like to use our standing in the community to be involved within the community so it’s a bit worrying if there’s a move to stop sponsorship like this.”

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Simon Erlanger, managing director of the Isle of Harris Distillers, also shares Iain’s concerns about how they could support the local community in the future, if these plans are successful. He said: “I've been in the industry for nearly 40 years, and never seen anything quite like this. We work very closely with the community, the Isle of Harris Distillery was set up to support the community. Whenever there’s an event or local initiative that we feel is good to support, we will support it. Whether that’s a music event or supporting a local football team which survives on next to nothing. The thought of not being able to do that seems extraordinary and I think a lot of local events would struggle if they didn’t have the support of us, or other distilleries.”

Martin McAdam, CEO of Ardgowan Distillery is also concerned about the limits on sponsorship, as his business has a real and personal link to a local hospice - something that may have to change if these proposals go ahead: He said: “The proposed limits on alcohol sponsorships are not only an issue for sport, but for charitable causes. We are currently providing support to Ardgowan Hospice, sponsoring the hospice's annual ball, with plans to increase our involvement as our distillery progresses. The hospice supports people at the end of their life with personalised care and is very personal to me after my wife died at 46 after a long battle with cancer. Supporting people when their loved ones are dying is essential. It would be a real shame if we were prevented from supporting a really important community resource to the fullest extent as a result of the proposed restrictions on sponsorship”.

Branded items and visitor centre impacts

The proposals on branded items state: “One way we could seek to reduce the visibility of alcohol brands would be to prohibit the sale or distribution of alcohol-branded merchandise including T-shirts, jackets and baseball caps as well as branded glasses and mugs. These increase brand visibility and have more permanence than alcohol adverts on TV or on billboards. They are often reused over time within our homes or, in the case of clothing, can become walking billboards in themselves.”

Anne O'lone finds this part of the proposals one of the most concerning, saying: “I am particularly concerned about the proposed restrictions on the sale of branded items. Branded clothing, glassware and other items go hand-in-hand with the sales of the whisky itself and are the basic souvenirs our visitors take home to remember the experience they enjoyed during their visit. The spend on branded items from our overseas visitors, particularly, right now when the pound is so weak, and when you think of the fact there are over 140 distilleries in Scotland, is quite significant. Not to mention the effect on all our suppliers both local and across Scotland who employ teams of people to produce and brand these items for us. Surely, we need more, not less, production in Scotland. Then, of course, there would be a crucial missing link to the whisky. i.e. The enthusiast, who knows and cares about the whisky we make. They want to express this and can do so with pride by wearing their T-shirt or adding to their collection of branded glasses, etc. This, in my opinion, is all satiating, healthy stuff. Removing this form of expression would to a certain extent remove the thrust of what drives whisky tourism.”

There’s no doubt that, if acted up in full, these restrictions will impact communities and businesses at the heart of them particularly in rural areas. While the proposals have may data-led pieces, one thing Simon Erlanger is keen to highlight is the lack of evidence that these measures will work. He said: “There's no evidence in this paper to suggest that a blanket ban on advertising and promoting would actually have the desired effect. But what we do know is that it absolutely would severely impact a vibrant part of the Scottish economy - the spirits industry. I think it needs a significant amount of scrutiny if it is going ahead.”

Alex MacDonald, Co-Founder and Commercial Direct at North Point Distillery in Thurso agrees that the proposals need scrutiny, as the industry feels under threat, “As schemes continue to be developed, policymakers cannot continue to turn a deaf ear to industry and experts. Whilst the Scottish Government regularly plays up the role of Scottish Food and Drink as a job creator, export success story and globally iconic industry, we feel continually under threat.”

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Scotch Whisky Association

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regulates the industry and has a code of practice for the responsible marketing and promotion of Scotch whisky. They impose restrictions in respect of descriptions used by members, to ensure a fair and responsible approach across the industry. Simon Erlanger thinks that the phrase that all alcohol is essentially the same thing, shows a lack of understanding of why businesses need to market their products. He said of the SWA and marketing, “My understanding is the Scotch whisky industry works incredibly responsibly. Anyone who is, like us, a member of the SWA follows the marketing code of conduct. Most of us are members of the Portman group. I think the marketing and advertising of scotch whisky brands, in general, is essential to be able to help the consumer to differentiate them. Because they are different, we need to be able to advertise and promote in order to be able to thrive and survive.”

The Scottish government has said it would speak to those in the industry before introducing any legislation.

To find out more, and have your say, the consultation can be viewed on the Scottish government’s website. https://www.gov.scot/publications/consultation-restricting-alcohol-advertising-promotion/pages/20/

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