Scotch on the Rocks – Trump versus Scottish Whisky
The extraordinary story of how Trump tried to destroy the Scottish whisky industry – all because the public had voted for his neighbour, Farmer Forbes, as Glenfiddich’s ‘Scot of the Year’.
It is certainly welcome news from the briefing room that President Joe Biden is hosting a virtual summit on Climate change about now with other world leaders, though our Nicola has been left off the White House 40 strong invitee’s list, despite the fact that Joe’s little pow-wow will be a preparatory preamble for next November’s COP26 Conference in Glasgow at which the First Minister, one imagines, will be a speaker, if they let her in. Thankfully (irony alert!) Boris will be representing us, if he remembers to make himself available.
Yet look on the bright side. This is something the president’s predecessor, the Orange Cookie Monster, a golfing tee-totaller with Stornoway maternal roots, would never have done. As we know Donald always thought climate change a socialist hoax. Just wait till Mar-a-Lago sinks beneath the waves! Thirty years tops, according to The Guardian, if the storm surges don’t get it first.
Better still, there’s a curious back story which must not be overlooked here, and you’ll be delighted to know it concerns single malt Scotch whisky. Hark back to 2019, when Cookie decided to slam a 25% tariff on that same product, ostensibly because the EU had provided State-aid to the European Airbus project, that being largely in retaliation to the US government bankrolling Boeing first.
This was farcical for a number of reasons. The Airbus spoiler components were being manufactured at Prestwick by an American company which also makes military drones in Northern Ireland for the RAF. It received phased Scottish Enterprise subsidies which finally totaled £6.9 million for its operations in Prestwick. Much of this loot, needless to say, was finding its way to that company’s US corporate headquarters and the pockets of its shareholders.
As if that isn’t dark and creepy enough, we now must enter the malodorous mind of the golfing laird himself, for in those cavernous recesses of wild delusion something rankled which fair kindled his umbrage. In 2012 Glenfiddich Whisky had sponsored a ‘Scot of the Year’ award in which a less than helpful Scottish public had voted for his recalcitrant neighbour, a certain Farmer Forbes, whose simple rustic lifestyle deeply offended the flash’n cash one.
What was worse, the farmer refused utterly to sell the Cookie Monster his working farm, which ole sleaze-puss snarkily compared to a pigsty, causing the good farmer to raise a Mexican flag as an entertaining provocation. The fact that all this had been brilliantly captured on a 2011 award winning documentary You’ve Been Trumped which had its New York premiere in the famous screening room of the Bryant Park Hotel – a mere hop, skip, and jump from Trump Tower – can only have driven Cookie into one of his frequent apoplectic spasms.
Furious, he ordered all points of sale at his various hotels and not-yet-bankrupt casinos (if any) to pull Glenfiddich and other William Grant & Son brands from stock. Your writer, who was hanging his bunnet close to Cookie’s 5th Avenue parish at the time, recalls that his local liquor store just below 14th Street was suddenly selling Glenfiddich hand over fist – this was presumably some sort of reflection on the Orange one’s unpopularity in Greenwich Village.
Nursing his wrath to keep it warm, the opportunity to unleash his venom on the Scotch Whisky Industry came with his rise to the presidency. After biding his time a while he engaged the fiscal equivalent of the heavy artillery and set his sights on our whisky industry, Capow! At a swingeing 25%, this punitive imposition was soon wiping out 30% of exports to the US, the equivalent of half a billion pounds, and seriously threatening jobs in many rural areas. Some employment was sustained, as it happens, by switching production to alcohol based hand sanitiser, but with so much mature casked whisky being stuck in bonded warehouses the industry’s carefully planned revenue stream was interrupted, and its profitability threatened.
This was nothing more or less than a squalid revenge-fuelled grudge match on the part of President Nasty, so in January, when his successor was sworn in, it seemed not unreasonable to seek to have the tariff withdrawn. After all, Donald’s spiteful little wheeze hardly accorded with the rather more benign image of the Biden/Harris ticket whose stated purpose, in large part, was to undo the damage done by four years of rampaging Trumpery. The new administration had absolutely no reason to feel sore about the good Farmer Forbes’ anti-Donald slogans on the side of his barn. Quite the opposite.
Now, this writer is very fond of Dufftown, something of a whisky mecca, and much the same goes for Islay, where the cattle tend to lie down because they get fed on the mulch left over from the distilling process (at least that’s what a man in a Bowmore pub told me) so it seemed not unreasonable to express a few of these thoughts in a letter to The New York Times. After a little interval to allow the new man to get his feet under the Resolute desk and sort out some of his predecessor’s paperwork, I sent off this missive to the editor on February 4.
Letters to the Editor, New York Times
By re-engaging with the Paris climate accords President Biden has shown his stature as a statesman, yet there is another executive order he should sign before the COP26 conference in Scotland in November.
In your article ‘For the wine world, 2021 brings familiar problems’ (February 4) you might have mentioned Donald Trump’s 25% tariff on Scottish malt whisky, a third of which is exported to the USA. The pretext for this attack on an industry employing around 11,000 people was that the European Union had subsidized aircraft manufacturer Airbus, though some suggest that a whisky distiller’s ‘Scot of the Year’ award to a farmer who refused to sell the Trump Organization his land in 2012 had angered Mr Trump, and the tariff was his revenge.
In any event, Scotland is no longer part of the EU, and the major Scottish Airbus subsidy of around $3 million was provided to a US company, Spirit Aerospace, of Wichita, Kansas, so there is no logical justification for continuing with this destructive sanction.
Yours faithfully, etc.
The important thing to understand here is that no-one sends a letter to The New York Times with any realistic expectation that it might actually be published, given that it receives thousands every week from all sorts of people, including Nobel prizewinners. I did score once in 2014, when I compared George Osborne to Lord North, but that’s another story. It just doesn’t happen, as a rule. The point of the exercise is not to search for your name on the letters page, but to make sure you copy in the right people who were, in this case, the White House communications team, and the President’s special envoy for climate change, Mr John Forbes Kerry, who was destined to put in an appearance at Glasgow’s COP26 conference.
I had a chat about this with a well-connected media pal in New York, who agreed with me that it would be a terrible shame if Mr Kerry’s autumn holiday in the Dear Green Place was to be sullied by a demonstration of angry Strathspey and Hebridean distillers, not to mention a few high profile supporters which uninformed speculation suggested might include, at a guess, the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, Tilda Swinton, Alex Ferguson, and perhaps even Farmer Forbes (or of course, might not) but quite likely would feature our leading whisky aficionado, Charles MacLean.
I have no idea if my scribble ever made it to the printed page, but rather doubt it, for reasons above stated, however it certainly made it to those who mattered, including John Forbes Kerry. A few weeks later the offending tariff was struck out.
It would be silly to claim credit for anything, of course, given that this scrivener comes under the ‘mere busybody’ category of fighters for truth and justice. In any event I was to be unwittingly joined in the endeavour by others, including Gil Paterson, MSP for Clydebank, Milngavie, and Bearsden North – all very select whisky drinking areas, and the home of Auchentoshan Distillery.
Mr Paterson, now withdrawn from the Holyrood affray, wrote to the President almost a fortnight after my diatribe, and made no mention of Farmer Forbes (fair enough, Donald’s chuckling nemesis wasn’t actually a constituent) but he did make a serious plea for the Cookie monster’s evil whisky penalty to be revoked. The issue also just managed to make it to the tail end of First Minister’s Questions on February 22nd, though technically it was a matter reserved to UK Trade Minister Liz Truss, who informed the House on February 25th that she planned to have a chat with US Trade Secretary Katherine Tia and whisky was to get a mention. Cookie’s revenge tax finally bit the dust on March 4th.
There is little doubt of course that behind the scenes the wheels were already grinding, courtesy of the Scotch Whisky Association and others, and it would have happened anyway. Still it’s re-assuring to imagine that thanks to a letter which didn’t appear in The New York Times something marginal might have been achieved for the good folk of Strathspey and the cows of Islay. Like the wingbeats of a butterfly, I like to think.