Scotch Whisky Goes After American Distillery Over Naming Choices - The Whiskey Wash

Scotch Whisky Goes After American Distillery Over Naming Choices

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is the defender of all things Scotch for the various distilleries in this trade group out of the United Kingdom. Part of this defense includes going after those they may feel are making use of terminology that could potential confuse consumers over where the whisky is coming from. The latest example of this is now at hand, as the SWA filed a lawsuit in Delaware yesterday against American single malt producer Virginia Distilling Co. (VDC) primarily over the use of the term “Highland” in the latter’s product naming.

The flagship whisky Virginia Distilling Co. has at the moment is known specifically as “Virginia-Highland Whisky”. More specifically, it is described by the American distillery as marrying whisky made on-site in Virginia with whisky that’s been sourced from Scotland. Though it is not specifically clear from what region of Scotland this whisky comes from, the Highland area is considered by the SWA to be a defined Scotch making region.

Virginia Distillery Company

Whiskey aging at Virginia Distillery Company (image via Virginia Distillery Company)

In their reasoning for filing against VDC, the SWA provided us with the following statement around the decision for going to court (note their filing, as pointed out by WhiskyCast, also addresses, among other things, the spelling and use of “whisky” in the product title as well):

“The SWA works to protect the intellectual property of Scotch Whisky, and consistently takes action across the globe. This is vital to protecting Scotland’s national drink and is a deterrent to those who seek to take advantage of the quality reputation of Scotch Whisky.

“In this instance, we believe that Virginia Distillery’s products are being passed off as Scotch Whisky, particular on account of their use of the term ‘Highland’ which is reserved exclusively for Scotch Whisky under US Federal Regulations.

“These proceedings were not taken lightly, but only after more than 12 months of attempts by the SWA to resolve this issue privately with the company in question. The Association would still welcome a resolution of the matter without the need for Federal Court involvement.”

We reached out to VDC for their take on this dust up with the SWA. In a prepared statement they said that

“We are confident this complaint will be resolved, and we will be responding through the court system.  We stand behind our product and its labeling.

“Our independent distillery launched the Virginia-Highland Whisky series over three years ago. Our production process pays tribute to both old world and new world techniques while taking advantage of our location and the climate provided by Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Our label clearly indicates the source of our whisky, stating ‘Whisky from Scotland, Married with Virginia Whisky’, and we have always been upfront in descriptions to our customers.

“Our team invested countless hours and took the necessary and appropriate steps to design labeling for the series in conjunction with the federal TTB regulations and an additional inquiry from the Scotch Whisky Association. We’ve always been extremely transparent about our production process – from our labeling to the product’s marketing.

“As the largest independently owned American Single Malt distillery in the U.S. with the capacity to make over 120,000 9L cases of ultra-premium American Single Malt whiskey per year, we’re proud of our role in growing and championing the American Single Malt category. We plan to continue our expansion of the Virginia-Highland Whisky series line across the U.S. and look forward to the upcoming release of our Courage & Conviction American Single Malt line.”

Indeed, when one looks at the history of VDC, they’ve been making use of the term “Highland” for many years now (i.e. a list of American single malt producers we did back in 2014 showcases that word in one of their bottlings at the time). They, at one time, also worked with Dr. Jim Swan, a renowned Scotch industry veteran and consultant, on developing their product line. He certainly would have red flagged VDC on this were it an issue, one would think anyhow.

Virginia Distillery Company

outside the Virginia Distillery Company (image via Virginia Distillery Company)

The SWA has a long history of going after those they feel are violating their sector of the whisk(e)y industry in some regard. Not all of their lawsuits have been successful, however, as a battle with a tiny Canadian single malt producer some years ago over the use of the word “Glen” fell flat in the Canadian court system. A similar fight more recently over the word “Glen” with American distillery Proof Artisan Distillers out of North Dakota ended in a relatively peaceful settlement and survival of a trademark challenge that involved some minor wording modifications to what is now known as “Glen Fargo American Malt Whiskey.”

Whether a similar peaceful settlement can be reached between the SWA and VDC remains to be seen. A costly legal fight for the latter could end up distracting in a negative way the pending release next year of their 100% American single malt expression that is perhaps aptly named at this moment as Courage & Conviction.