The Scotch Whisky Assocation (SWA) branded Australia as one of the worst offenders in the world in dealing in counterfeit spirits, estimating that as many as two million imitation bottles of whisky have been sold there since 2005.
But now, after a lengthy battle, Scotch whisky has been registered as a certification trademark in the country.
SWA, which has a team of lawyers working to protect the industry, which exports over £4 billion worth of drink a year, has already identified 40 fake brands in Australia, and claim that the number may just be the tip of the iceberg.
SWA claim Australian companies dilute Scotch with other spirits and then try to pass it off as whisky, while others take cheap whiskies and add oak staves to make them taste older than they are.
The SWA had applied for, and has now succeeded in gaining, the certification trademark with Australian authorities, and the industry says this will make civil proceedings against offenders easier.
Issue raised by Foreign Secretary and EC
“Scotch whisky” had been defined under Australian law up until 2000, when its food standards code was replaced with joint legislation enacted with New Zealand.
Under the changes, responsibility for policing the market was transferred to the drinks trade.
The SWA sought assistance from the UK Government and the European Commission in winning the certification trademark.
Foreign Secretary William Hague had even raised the issue on a visit to Australia, and the EC drew it to the attention of the Australian Government in bilateral meetings.
Alan Park, legal adviser at the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “I have been involved in actions against many fake ‘Scotch whisky’ products in Australia in recent years.
“Registration of Scotch whisky as a certification trade mark is a major breakthrough and will make it easier to crack down on fakes and therefore protect consumers, although the onus to prevent the sale of fakes still rests on the industry.
“It has taken time and effort to achieve this result and we would like to thank the UK Government and European Commission for their support. Scotch Whisky exports are of immense value to the economy so overseas protection is vital.
“We will be monitoring the market and will use our new protection for Scotch Whisky to take decisive action against fakes.”
Scotch Whisky exports to Australia were worth £84 million in 2013, up 7 per cent from £79m in 2012, making it the twelfth largest overseas market by value.
Moray’s parliamentarians Angus Robertson MP and Richard Lochhead MSP, whose constituencies have the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland, have welcomed the development.
The pair represent the region which is home to almost 50 distilleries, with thousands of jobs directly and indirectly related to whisky production.
Mr Robertson, an SNP MP who is vice-chair of the House of Commons All-Party Parliamentary Scotch Whisky and Spirits Group, said: “Cracking down on fake whisky is hugely important to the continuing and growing health of this iconic Scottish product.”
He said the move would not only help exports but help to ensure that Scotch consumers in Australia were getting “the genuine, high quality product” produced across Scotland.
He added: “There is massive investment in Moray in the hundreds of millions of pounds in the whisky sector and protecting brands and boosting exports can only increase the possibilities of even more investment, providing high quality product and high quality employment.”
Mr Lochhead, the Scottish Government’s Food and Drink Minister, said: “The whisky industry is a massive contributor to Scotland’s food and drink economy, as well as a massive tourist draw and an iconic image of Scotland around the world.
“Ensuring that the product is of the highest quality and protected from criminals who want to undermine these premium world brands is hugely important and this news from Australia is very welcome indeed.
“Fake product is not only criminal, it can also be dangerous, whereas the genuine product is world-class and produced using cutting edge technology combined with traditional techniques to make unique and highly desirable products that people must be able to trust.
“That is why protection of the brand is so critical.”
1,000 cases taken up globally
The SWA has been dealing with “fake whisky” cases in China, India, Italy, Thailand and the Dutch territory of Curacao in the Caribbean.
The SWA has been pursuing legal cases globally since the 1950s and has taken action against more than 1,000 brands and opposed the registration of some 3,000 trademarks.
At any one time, the association can be involved in up to 70 legal actions globally.
The trade body spends around £1.5million a year to pursue the culprits.
In the UK the Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme was set up by the government to help consumers identify genuine UK-made products.
Producers have to sign up for the scheme if they want to sell within the European Union. Scotch whisky was the first drink to be covered.
It is estimated that Scotch whisky accounts for a quarter of all UK food and drink exports, earning £135 every second. It employs around 10,000 people in the country.