Whisky war rages over Manx White

Scots say the Isle of Man tipple isn't the real thing. Glenda Cooper reports

"Freedom and Whisky gang thegither!" said Robert Burns. But his Scottish descendants believe that their near neighbours in the Isle of Man are taking this too literally.

The Manx islanders have always done things a little differently - whether keeping birching legal or breeding cats with no tails. The most recent case of the idiosyncratic Manx slant on life is their whisky - which the Scots claim is not really whisky at all.

The controversy stems from the way Glen Kella Manx White Whiskey (they use the Irish spelling) is made, at the only distillery on the island. Two whiskys are brought in from Scotland - a five-year-old blend and an eight-year-old malt - which are then redistilled removing all the non- volatile elements.

The resulting spirit is colourless but with the taste and aroma of whisky. Andrew Dixon, managing director of Glen Kella, says: "It's like a ladies' whisky, light and sweet without the bite or the burn. It is a real whisky."

The Scotch Whisky Association disagrees and on 10 February it will take the distillery to court. Campbell Evans of the SWA said: "We're going to court because we are objecting to the fact that it's called whisky. The essence of the argument is the redistillation after maturation.

"Our view is that there is a law in the UK and in the European Union that lays down what constitutes whisky, and we don't believe that redistillation after maturation is included in that definition."

Whisky as defined under EU rules is "a spirituous beverage produced by the distillation of a mash of cereals" which is converted into sugar, fermented, distilled at less than 94.8 per cent volume and matured for at least three years in wooden casks.

The controversy started in January 1995 but it has taken two years to reach court. Mr Dixon described SWA's argument as rubbish. "It is not the function of the EU to hold back development," he said. "We've been doing it this way for 20 years.

"We comply completely with the regulations as assessed by the Greater Manchester Port Area Health Authority and they found our description of 'Manx Whiskey' was correct."

Some 30,000 to 40,000 bottles of Glen Kella, which retails at between pounds 12.50 and pounds 16.50 a bottle, is sold on the island every year - the distillery doesn't have a UK distributor, yet. Analysts predict that 33 million litres of Scotch whisky will have been sold during 1996.

"We are very small," said Mr Dixon. "You don't know what this has taken out of us. Everything but the case is having to go by the board. It is a David and Goliath fight. We are probably the smallest distillery in the world and they've chosen to pick on us.

"I can't see that what we are doing devalues the name of whisky, particularly when you see some of the whisky-type products on the market."

But then, the island has always done things differently. In 1993, it decided to keep birching on the statute book. (As one Manx MP put it: "We are sending out a clear message to the world that we believe in law and order.") Hanging was abolished only in 1993 and homosexuality legalised in 1992.

The island does not have a great whisky-making tradition. Distilling was banned from 1827 for fear that it could be a cover for smuggling, and this remained the case until 1977 apart from a slight aberration in the late 19th century when it was repealed by mistake.

But there is some comfort for Mr Dixon. "There is still a law that states that a Manx man can shoot on sight any Scotsman wearing a kilt who is caught rustling sheep," he said. "I'm not sure whether the Scotch Whisky Association knows I'm also a sheep farmer."

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