I was somewhat surprised this week to hear that the company behind black grouse whisky (and the Famous Grouse) is ambivalent towards shooting. The publishers of my black grouse book sent a representative of Edrington Group a PDF of the text and images in the hope that some sort of a tie-in would work to the advantage of both parties. They received a reply containing words to the effect that the Edrington Group needs to be viewed as “neutral” on the subject of shooting (and moorland management) and does not endorse the practice in any way. They added that their close relationship with the RSPB would make their association with my book a definite “no”.
I wonder how many shooting parties have raised a glass of Famous Grouse on the morning of the 12th or how many guns who have received bottles as gifts. I suppose that we infer the link between grouse and shooting because the two go hand in hand for us – it was certainly a link that the first “Grouse distiller” Matthew Gloag would have been aware of when he blended whisky for Queen Victoria. It just seems like what was once a convenient marketing angle faded out alongside shooting’s popular public image, leaving the Famous Grouse and its subsidiary the Black Grouse with the faint overtone of being an affluent middle class sportsman’s drink but without any of the actual substance associated with that link.
Shooting doesn’t own black or red grouse and we have no right to complain that our iconic gamebirds have been recast for a wider commercial audience. My problem is that the distillers claim to be neutral by supporting the RSPB – surely neutrality would imply that they have no association with grouse or habitat management in any way? There is an enormous amount of controversy when it comes to grouse conservation, and taking any side in that debate is the antithesis of “neutrality”. By tying their drink in with the RSPB campaign, they have made a conscious decision to endorse a charity that not only fails across the board to boost black grouse numbers but which also spends its time and money attacking those who do. In addition, by supporting the RSPB and claiming to be neutral, there is also the misleading implication that the RSPB is neutral, and that the only problem in the peaceful world of conservation is those rabid, fanatical shooters.
Edrington would never deliberately quash the link between shooting and whisky because God knows it’s a profitable one, but when it actually comes to the crunch, they are unable to recognise the sport which must have kept that brand afloat for much of its 115 years of existence. Edrington’s stated refusal to endorse “moorland management” is simple stupidity, since all moorland requires management. However, it is quite entertaining to imagine that they have deliberately taken this line from their RSPB partners, who, judging by the condition of RSPB Geltsdale, also see little value in management.
You would think that if they had wanted to cast off links with shooting, Edrington could have created a brand of whisky which ties in with the theme of grouse conservation but which no longer has connotations with shooting – but the only protected British member of the grouse family which doesn’t have a Edrington branded drink named after it is the capercaillie… Ptarmigan (renamed Snow Grouse, presumably because of the tricky pronunciation), black grouse and red (famous) grouse are all whiskies named after legal quarry species, but the most endangered British grouse species of all gets none of the attention generated by widespread publicity and a 50p donation with every bottle sold. Would it be cynical to suggest that a big percentage of these “grouse whiskies” are, if not aimed at then gently nudged towards a shooting community (in Britain and abroad) known for its affluence? Is the reason that we don’t see a whisky called capercaillie (which, if ptarmigan was too much of a mouthful, would probably be renamed Muckle Grouse) on the shelves at Tesco because that great cock of the woods is no longer a gamebird? Or is it because capercaillie are a bad news story, and nobody wants to be associated with bad news?
Perhaps it sounds like sour grapes because they refused to promote my book, but the issue is more complicated than that. If it hadn’t been for my book, I would have never received an email to tell me precisely where the Edrington Group stands on shooting. In my mind, the association between Famous Grouse and shooting is so strong that it would never have occurred to me that the distillers would not be backing the sport in some way. This is what Edrington are trading on, because they know how popular “grouse” is amongst the shooting community and are able to sell bottles of whisky to people who would never buy them if they knew the political situation behind the branding. The link between the whisky and the sport is strong enough (even endorsed with the artwork of Rodger McPhail, “sporting artist”) that we don’t need to be told that a bottle of “grouse” is part of the fabric of a day’s shooting. However, when you look carefully at the link, you find that there is nothing to back it up anymore. Edrington has never been publicly pressed into revealing its “neutral” position on shooting, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they never will. That would be kissing goodbye to quite a big pay cheque.
Fortunately, there are lots of other very nice whiskies in the world, and while not many will publicly endorse shooting, few will have the dull cynicism to imply false backing.