By Bill Heaney
Dumbarton used to be the whisky capital of the world. Lord McFall, Speaker in the House of Lords, made that crystal clear as the water that runs off Scotland’s mountains when he made his maiden speech in the House of Commons 25 years ago.
Since then the largest Scotch whisky distillery of them all, the landmark red brick built Ballantine’s may have, like the Scotch Watch geese that guarded the product, drifted off to pastures new, and Strathleven Bonded Warehouses may have closed to become the set for BBC Scotland’s River City soap opera.
But West Dunbartonshire is still a major player in the whisky and brewery business with units from Auchentoshan to Alexandria and Loch Lomondside.
And that is why, with nearly 1,000 local jobs involved, mainly at the Chivas plant at Kilmalid, it is important that we monitor closely what’s happening in the drinks industry.
“The point of the consultation is to get a range of views on the most appropriate next steps in reducing alcohol-related harm, which I hope we can all recognise is one of the most pressing public health challenges that we face.
“Considering restriction on the promotion of alcohol is not unique to Scotland. For example, five years ago, Ireland passed legislation to bring in a number of restrictions, which were focused on reducing the exposure of children to alcohol promotion. I think that reducing the exposure of children to that is key.
“Ministers have met a range of stakeholders, including representatives of the alcohol and advertising industries, during the consultation period to hear directly from them. Of course, we will take seriously and consider properly all representations that are made.”
Murdo Fraser said: “The whisky tourism sector is worth some £84 million annually to the Scottish economy and that it supports jobs in rural and remote communities where there are few other opportunities. As the sector’s leaders have made clear, the sector is concerned about the threat of a ban on all alcohol advertising.
“We need to look at sensible measures to tackle alcohol abuse, but does she agree that it would be absurd if whisky distilleries, which are so important to our economy, had to cover up all their signage, close their shops and stop promoting tours, and the likes of the Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh, which is a tremendous tourism draw, had to re-brand itself and board up its windows? That is what people are concerned about.”
The First Minister replied: “The whisky tourism sector is extremely important to Scotland’s reputation, as well as to its economy. The Johnnie Walker experience centre here in Edinburgh is a prime example of that.
“In relation to the suggestion that we have heard in recent weeks that painted signs on distilleries or visitor centres would be the target, I make it very clear that those are not in our current thinking.
“I mentioned the exposure of children to alcohol advertising. There is a world of difference between a billboard outside or in the vicinity of a school and, for example, a Johnnie Walker baseball cap.
“We must look at the issue pragmatically and seriously. I am glad that Murdo Fraser recognised that we have a public health issue—a problem—with alcohol misuse.
“As countries such as Ireland have done, we need to look at how we sensibly restrict promotion and advertising to try to deal with the problem. We need to do that properly and pragmatically. I hope that my answer reassures those who are in the whisky tourism sector about some of the supposed things that we have heard about in recent days and weeks.”
The debate then turned to public houses with Craig Hoy asking Ms Sturgeon if she recognises that hundreds of pubs around Scotland are likely to close their doors for good this winter?
He added: “To prevent last orders from being called across Scotland’s hospitality sector, will the First Minister remove pubs, restaurants and cafes from the chaotic deposit return scheme, replicate the UK Government’s 75 per cent rates relief for hospitality businesses and halt the alcohol advertising and sponsorship review, which will inevitably put further pressure on Scotland’s hard-pressed publicans?”
The First Minister told parliament: “Like many businesses, pubs are struggling right now with high inflation and high energy costs. We will come shortly to a question about Deposit Return Scheme [for bottles and cans].
“Such businesses benefit from the Scottish Government’s approach to business rates. We have the most competitive business rates regime, including reliefs for businesses from business rates, of any country in the UK.
“We will continue to do everything that we can to support businesses in these very difficult times. Much of that is down to economic mismanagement by the Conservative Government at Westminster.”
Whisky and the folk who produced it in Scotland’s precious distilleries.
Brexit has already gravely impacted whisky sales. Bottling, printing labels, transporting was added value to the industry. But Brexit and a trade war with the USA stuffed loads of jobs.
Like shipbuilding, whisky in Dumbarton and further afield are at risk. Ah, Dumbarton, once built ships. Come to think of it, once distilled whisky too.
Ah who’s like us!