Hard times for men who make the hard stuff

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The Independent Online
JOHN ARLIDGE

Scotland Correspondent

At the Glengoyne distillery, near the Trossachs, little has changed since whisky distilling began there in 1833.

The burn, which provides the pure unpeated water for producing whiskies, still runs down a waterfall outside the granite stillhouse. Inside, the latest generation of mashmen and stillmen shuffle from washback to still checking the quality of the distillate, which will mature for up to 10 years in oak casks before being bottled.

But behind this quiet tradition, workers at Glengoyne, like many in Scotland's 87 distilleries, are worried. Kenneth Clarke's decision to levy an extra 26p duty on a bottle of whisky in his mini- Budget last December has led to a sharp decline in whisky sales.

Figures based on returns from Customs and Excise reveal that clearances from bond, the warehouses where the spirit must mature for at least three years to meet the legal requirement to become Scotch, have fallen by around 20 per cent since January.

Distillers insist that with whisky taxed at pounds 7 a bottle, compared with just over pounds 1 for wine, Britain is pricing one of its finest products out of the domestic market. And sales on the Continent, which have been rising in recent years, are beginning to level off as foreign governments, taking their cue from the Chancellor, begin to tax whisky more heavily.

Jim Turle has worked at Glengoyne for 20 years. He describes the dramatic changes in the industry. "In the Seventies distilleries were selling around 13 million cases of Scotch in the UK and around 22 million in the US. Now the figures are around 10 million cases in each market. The figures speak for themselves. One of Britain's best products is at risk and unfair taxation is largely to blame."

Mr Turle argues that if whisky was cheaper, sales would rise and the Government's tax take would grow. Mr Clarke, he says, should cut 50p off the price of a bottle of Scotch. He acknowledges criticism distillers have been slow to market Scotch to a "lost generation" of drinkers under 30 who now prefer vodka and white rum. But he points to a series of ground-breaking television adverts as evidence the industry is putting its stillhouse in order. "We are doing our bit. It is time for the Government to do its."

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