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Gaelic political football

Published:  23 July, 2008

Just when the Scotch Whisky Association thought its work on defining the different categories of Scotch was over, along comes Sir Iain Noble.

As founder and chairman of Prban Na Linne, the Gaelic whisky company on the Isle of Skye, he does not like the idea of 'Blended Malt Scotch Whisky' one little bit. This cumbersome term is what the SWA wants all vatted malts to use. Sir Iain, and one can't help sympathising, believes it will simply confuse the punter who, if he or she knows anything about whisky, knows it comes as a blend or a malt.

As a result his own brand Poit Dhubh (pronounced 'potch ghoo') simply calls itself 'Malt Scotch Whisky' on the label of its smart new, dark-green, tapered bottle. To be honest he would rather not call it 'Scotch' either preferring the original 'uisge beatha' ('ooshga beha'), the Gaelic name from which the word 'whisky' derives. This presents an interesting conundrum for the SWA, whose lawyers trawl the world in pursuit of foreigners calling their whisky Scotch. They have never had to face the issue from the other way.

Of course, Gavin Hewitt, the SWA's chief executive, probably doesn't lose too much sleep over Prban. First, because it is a maverick, niche player with limited distribution, and second, because it is not even a member of the Association. Prban says it would join up if the SWA agrees to approve 'Gaelic Whisky' as a new regional sub-category for Skye and the Outer Isles, to add to 'Highland', 'Lowland' and 'Island'. Apparently, you can be a 'whisky region' if you have two distilleries there, which will be the case if Prban finally joins Talisker and starts producing whisky on Skye. Whether Talisker would ever accept an entirely Gaelic label is another matter.

Sir Iain believes the new definitions are an attempt to fossilise whisky as it is now, and that they symbolise what's wrong with the category that it is stuck in a rut and too standardised for its own good. Yet if the whisky establishment has become fossilised and the industry increasingly dominated by 'industrial giants', this could be just what Prban needs. As the independent bottler and blender Leonard Russell once put it: 'As the big guys get bigger, the crumbs that they drop are bits of toast by the time they hit us.'

Premium malt whisky has a lot to do with discoverability, with letting the consumer stumble upon you almost by accident or word of mouth. Shouting about it through advertising can be a quick way to kill whatever credibility the brand has. And the same goes for price-slashing, which many supermarkets see as the only way to shift stock.

Here Prban could have an advantage over its bigger rivals. The company's blend, T Bheag ('chey vek') and, more recently, Poit Dbubh have been selling reasonably well through Oddbins for a number of years. They have done so without discounting. Big suppliers may often tell buyers they don't have the means for too much price promotion, but they do it so often it must be hard to believe them. If you are the size of Prban, however, it is probably true.

These are issues facing the company's new commercial director, Douglas Smith, as he tries to break into the supermarkets. The timing could be good, as premium-priced spirits led by vodka are proving that price-slashing is not the only way. If it was, Prban would not have a hope. But with its small base of loyal fans, its collection of awards and its smart new bottle, at least one of the big buyers is close to signing a deal. Overseas, the target markets are Thailand, Taiwan and the US as well as Greece and Spain.

The aim is to double the company's current sales of around 15,000 cases. If Smith and his team can succeed, then Prban will move to its most exciting stage yet. Planning permission has just been submitted for the new Torabhaig distillery on the south of Skye.

Only by ramping up sales now, can the cost estimated at around 3 million be justified. But, with a bit of luck, the company's long-held dream might just become reality some time in the summer of 2007. We will have to wait even longer for the first dram of course, but it would be a giant step on the way to giving Talisker a rival on its doorstep. And by providing local jobs in an industry that is not seasonal like tourism, it would also do something to give the island some degree of economic self-sufficiency.