E-pistle 2008/13 – Responsible Drinking

By Dominic Roskrow, UK

Is there anyone else out there who has noticed a significant shift in British media attitudes to alcohol? Or who has started to feel uneasy at what appears to be a concerted campaign to attack drinking habits in the United Kingdom? And senses a move from a position of ‘moderate’ or ‘sensible’ alcohol consumption towards the start of a zero tolerance campaign?

Am I being unduly paranoid, or is Britain in the grip of a media frenzy that seems intent on condemning drinking alcohol to the same fate as smoking? And am I alone in thinking that the drinks trade is sleepwalking its way towards a draconian crack down by a Nanny state? The most recent example is that of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who has been accused of drinking a single glass of whisky before midday. A television station has, it claims, got
scientific proof that it was whisky. This, apparently, is enough to raise doubts about his suitability to run England’s capital.

Did he trip over in public, slur his way through a speech and then burst in to a loud version of ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’? No. Indeed, there isn’t the slightest suggestion that he was in any way as pissed as the newts that he has always liked to keep and nurture.

Admittedly the attack is part of a concerted campaign to undermine ‘Red’ Ken politically, but one whisky!
The mere fact that anyone would even consider using the incident as an example of what might be construed as the Mayor’s wayward behaviour provides a worrying indicator as to where we’re headed. This is just the latest example of an increasingly intolerant attitude to drinking in Britain. And if you’ve any doubts how things have changed, then consider how it was once seen as a virtue that Margaret Thatcher worked through the night while drinking Scotch – and that was Bell’s.

I appreciate that the drinks companies are keen to portray themselves as responsible, and are worried that if they don’t police themselves adequately someone else will do it for them, and with a far bigger truncheon. But shouldn’t someone be trying to make the distinction between the hordes of inebriated teenagers fighting and fornicating on the high streets of Britain every weekend and the consumers of premium malt whisky? Isn’t there a danger that we innocent malt drinkers, already bracing ourselves for substantial price increases as the cost of barley, wood and oil catches up with whisky, are clobbered still further? The calls for punitive taxes on high strength spirits is becoming a roar in Britain , just as it once did with cigarettes; and look where that ended up.

And what is the whisky industry doing about it? It’s siding with the anti-drink lobby.
A few years ago when Richard Burrows of Chivas became chairman of the Scotch Whisky Association and Paul Walsh of Diageo became deputy, I attended a business briefing attended by them. It took place on the day the Government announced an English smoking ban.
So I asked them what would prevent a similar fate awaiting alcohol, given that every time you conceded ground to the anti lobby they took it and asked for more. “Nobody has every argued that a cigarette or two a day was good for you.” said Mr Walsh in reply. But they did didn’t they? There were all sorts of positive images put on cigarettes in the 60s before attitudes changed. Is it really so very far-fetched to fear a change in attitude towards even moderate consumption of alcohol when you hear about Ken Livingstone’s one glass of whisky?

The industry isn’t helping itself. Take those stupid disclaimers you find at the entrance to any distillery website, for instance, when you are asked to state your age before entering. What’s that about? Is the assumption that there are hordes of impressionable under-age internet surfers who might stumble on to a whisky website by mistake and be driven to drink by it, and that they have been saved by the warning notice? Is it that there are scores of enthusiastic violin pupils who would today be chronic alcoholics had it not been for the warning at the gateway to the Bowmore site?  Wombles fans narrowly saved from the temptation of Tobermory? Marathon canoeists saved from the evils of Longrow? And have these people never been teenagers? What’s the first thing a teenager does when he or she is told that they are not allowed to do something?

Fair enough,” you can hear them say in bedrooms across the UK, “I could lie about my age but I’m clearly not meant to enter the site because it’s not good for me so I won’t. Thank you whisky people for pointing out the dangers that might lie ahead!” It’s total nonsense of course, tokenism that is potentially doing more harm than good. Has anyone got the nerve to stand up against all this? After all, in my experience drinking whisky is all about independence and non-conformity.

It’s all about personal choice.
I know I don’t drink responsibly by most people’s standards, but I am prepared to take responsibility for my drinking.
Ken Livingstone should admit to drinking whisky but state in mitigation that it wasn’t any old whisky, it was a Talisker 18.

He should extol the health benefits of malt and launch an offensive on the style fascists who want to impose their dull puritanical view of the world on the rest of us. And in response every London-based whisky drinker should vote for him as a matter of principle while the rest of us should start a loud and active campaign to stop this drift to prohibition, before it’s too late. Or perhaps redirect the campaign to focus where it really should be aimed – at those companies providing high strength beer, cider and alcopops by the crate-load to kids only just old enough to go to the pub.