Business

'Big Scotch' is going after this Canadian distiller for naming his whisky after himself

The Scotch Whisky Association filed a lawsuit alleging Graeme Macaloney's distillery was illegally branding its whisky as though it were Scotch, with his use of words like 'island' and even his surname, 'Macaloney'

Graeme Macaloney’s introduction to the spirits industry took place back in his native Scotland when, as a high-schooler, he got a summer job bottling at the Black & White Scotch whisky factory in the town of Stepps, outside Glasgow.

He immediately wanted to learn everything he could about the “water of life,” as the Scots call it, studying biochemical engineering and fermentation in university, getting a bachelor’s, a master’s and finally a Ph.D.

Macaloney wound up overqualified for most whisky jobs, but he found a good fallback, working for pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and Eli Lilly in the U.K., before moving to Alberta and transitioning into biotech.

As the decades went by, though, he never forgot his teenage dream of making and selling his own whisky. So he put together a business plan, moved to Victoria, and in 2016 launched his own brewery and distillery: Macaloney’s Caledonian Distillery and Twa Dogs Brewery. With a team of Scottish-born experts at his side, Macaloney was soon taking home top prizes at the World Whiskies Awards, including “World’s Best New Make” and “Best Canadian Single Cask Single Malt” in 2020.

Then, less than a year later, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) filed a lawsuit against Macaloney’s distillery, alleging his B.C.-based distillery was illegally branding its whisky as though it were Scotch, with his use of words like “island,” “Caledonian” and even his surname, “Macaloney.”

“Can’t use Macaloney? Really?” the whisky-maker marvels. “That’s my bloody name.”

The SWA is known and feared for the lengths it goes to protect its share of the multi-billion-dollar global whisky industry, often using geographic indication (GI) protections recognized in laws like Canada’s Trademarks Act. GIs identify products where a reputation for quality is linked to a particular region or country; they’re the reason a bottle of Champagne can only come from a particular part of France. The rest are just sparkling wines.

In a statement sent to Maclean’s, the association said its frequent actions to prevent the use of Scottish indications of origin on other whiskies are “vital to protecting Scotland’s national drink and to ensuring that consumers across the world are clear about whether or not they are buying whisky that is produced in Scotland.”

Over the decades, the SWA’s list of offending words has expanded. It has taken court action against, among many others, a Japanese company using the word “tartan”; a proposed Indian whisky named Scotia Imperial; and a distillery in Germany over the use of the word “glen” in the branding of its single malt, Glen Buchenbach. “Sometimes it will be very subtle indeed,” the SWA’s former director of legal affairs, Magnus Cormack, acknowledged in a 2015 BBC interview. “It may just be the use of an English-language brand name in a country where English is not the main language spoken. In those countries, people assume that a whisky labelled in English must be a Scotch whisky.”

Some small distillers have tried to protect themselves by providing more information on their labelling. But this too can rouse Big Scotch.

When a Virginia distillery blended one of its own single malts with a malt sourced from the Highlands of Scotland, the company was upfront about the product, describing it as “whisky from Scotland, married with Virginia whisky.” They called it their “Virginia-Highland whisky.”

But the Scotch Whisky Association sued, claiming the labelling was “false, misleading and deceptive.” The use of the word “highland,” they argued, implied the product was Scotch; and they complained that the distillery had spelled “whiskey” without an “e,” unlike most American whiskies. (The two sides came to an “amicable resolution,” according to both parties, and the U.S. company dropped the term “Virginia-Highland whisky.”)

“With these smaller firms, they basically say, ‘You know what? We’re going to inundate you with legal costs,’ ” says Lauchlin Maclean, president of Glenora Distillers, based in Mabou, N.S. (The SWA says it “never takes legal proceedings lightly” and is always open to quicker resolutions that “protect both the Scotch whisky trade and consumers.”) He still hasn’t recouped the costs of his legal battle against the SWA in the early 2000s.

It was portrayed as a David-versus-Goliath affair: a tiny Maritime distillery versus the mammoth SWA, warring over the word “glen” in a whisky called “Glen Breton.” “We came upon the name ‘Glen Breton’ very honestly: we’re in the glen, and we’re in Cape Breton,” says Maclean. “It wasn’t anything nefarious. It was Marketing 101.”

The distillery stood its ground against the SWA, which contended the word “glen”—Gaelic for “valley”—would deceive customers. The legal costs piled up for nine years until the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in Glenora’s favour and, in 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal. To celebrate, Glenora unveiled a whisky called “Battle of the Glen.”

Macaloney took note of the Glenora story before labelling whiskies like his award-winning Glenloy Canadian Island Single Malt Whisky. But it hasn’t spared him a legal battle. The SWA objected to the use of the terms “island whisky” and “glenloy.”

Macaloney notes that his distillery is on Vancouver Island, a map of which is on the carton packaging. What’s more, he says, there are plenty of islands outside of Scotland. As for “glenloy,” he thought the SWA had already lost that fight over “glen” in Nova Scotia.

To hear Macaloney, you’d think he had an open-and-shut case. But as a legal battle ensues over whether he can name his whisky company after himself, he’s learning a hard truth: if things in his industry were ever black and white, those days are long gone.


This article appears in print in the August 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “It’s his name, for peat’s sake.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.