On Friday, the Swedish distillery Box issued a press release (in Swedish). The gist of it is: Box Distillery and Box single malt whisky will change names during the course of 2018. The new name of the distillery will be High Coast Distillery, and their whiskies will be called High Coast single malt whisky.
Now, for those who know their whisky history, changes in names are neither new nor particularly rare. Witness Brora which for most of its life was called Clynelish, or Glenesk/Hillside, or how Glengoyne was Burnfoot in its infancy. (A funny modern example only concerns spelling, with Billy Walker showing his penchant for the use of an extra capital letter in distilleries he buys. It’s no longer Glenallachie, people, it’s GlenAllachie. Let’s see if he ever buys JuRa, LaPhroaig or BunnaHabhain… But I’m digressing.) It’s rare, however, that such new distilleries and in our own time – Box/High Coast only came on stream in 2010 – change names. After all, creating a brand takes a whole lot of time and effort. So what’s behind the name change? The central piece of information is in the press release (my rather rough translation):
Last summer, the British/American whisky corporation Compass Box made us aware that they think there is a problem with our names being possible to confuse, above all on a product level and above all in international markets. We agreed that the risk of confusion is unfortunate and that it is not good to have insecurity with customers and the market. Their message was clear: you should do something about this.
In order to analyse our situation, a period of contacts with brand consultans and legal expertise followed. Is this an issue where we should take battle for our brand? What is our position like, and what are our chances of success? When the board summed up the situation later in the fall, it was clear that a conflict concerning the brand would be very costly and would also immediately and significantly slow down our international expansion in the meantime. Compass Box has been on the market longer, is well established and furthermore has powerful owners in Bacardi.
And so the team behind the smallish (tiny, by Scottish standards, but big enough to compare with for example Kilchoman and Edradour) distillery, which is just beginning an ambitious launch of their products to international markets, finally settled on the decision to change their name.
It might be argued that Box was never a very good name, or that confusion between brands is never a good thing. Then again, it might also be argued that Compass Box, which was founded in 2000 by John Glaser, while being very successful, is after all something else entirely. Compass Box is a whisky making company, creating more or less small-batch blended whiskies. They don’t run a distillery; they don’t do single malt. Theirs is the domain of high-quality blended malts and blended whiskies. Plus, their packaging is a very far cry indeed from the designs put forward by Box. However, what interests me here is not if a name change is good or bad, if it makes sense or doesn’t. Something else gnaws at me. It is the bewildering lack of congruence between the ethos behind Compass Box and the company’s current behaviour which just doesn’t sit well with me.
After all, Compass Box is a company which stands for, or likes to stand for, transparency, increased information about the contents of released whiskies, and being generally a little rebellious and stick-it-to-the-whisky-business-like. Their successful transparency campaign in 2015–2016 had thousands of whisky enthusiasts nod in agreement in their legal armwrestling with the Scotch whisky association. The story had everything us aficionados love, making one want to go all-in on the use of capital letters: Small Company driven by Passion and Integrity fights for the Soul of Whisky in the cluthes of Evil Big-Name Corporations working hard to Defraud the Poor Customers. I also wrote with great joy about the transparency campaign. For many, the Compass Box whiskies Flaming Heart and This is not a luxury whisky became examples of how a closed and secretive whisky business continued to actively worked to hide information from customers.
Now, if any whisky maker on the planet has been and continues to be the uncrowned absolute masters of transparency, it’s Box/High Coast distillery. They reveal everything about every whisky they have released. We are not just talking what yeast strains are used, the ingoing barley varieties, fermentation times, the exact cut points and what cask types and cask sizes they have used. They reveal from where their casks have been sourced; which warehouse they have been matured in and when the casks were moved to another warehouse; the exact cask strength (or vatting strength) prior to dilution; the cask filling strength of each cask; the exact amount of bottles each batch contains; and so on and so on and so on. Here’s the list of casks used for the first batch of their only core range bottling to date, Dálvve:
No one in the whisky business comes even close to revealing that much information.
When the name Box was decided upon, at some point just prior to 2010, Compass Box was a very young company which had not made the kind of waves they have since achieved. No one is suspecting that the Swedish team behind Box chose it to steal thunder from John Glaser’s company. And yet, using the powerful legal backing they now have since Bacardi bought in to Compass Box in 2015, Compass Box have threatened to use legal measures against a small, independently owned distillery? A distillery which has continuosly worked along just such lines of transparency which Compass Box claim to fight for, and which Box did well before Compass Box even launched their transparency campaign?
The steps taken by Compass Box are a far cry indeed from their own ethos. I don’t mind when brands or distilleries change names. What I do mind is when a company has built a reputation of being fair and square and open about information, and then wield their power against another company beset with similar ethos. It kind of stinks to high heaven.