A whisky war that harks all the way back to the 1870s is brewing over a modern-day trademark being claimed by both a giant Scottish spirits firm and a tiny New Zealand distiller.
The fascinating history to this spirit stoush has added extra layers to the simple exchange of polite lawyers' letters that has so far taken place.
Two companies have contentiously laid claim to use of the same compound term: The Balvenie DoubleWood is bottled by Scotland's William Grant & Sons, while Dunedin DoubleWood is the product of the New Zealand Whisky Collection.
“Double wood” is a term that refers to a barrel technique used during the ageing process by some whisky distillers.
The 21st-century tussle appears at first glance the sole, tenuous connection between a family-owned Scottish company that has become one of the world's largest spirits makers, and a tiny and relatively new boutique distillery on New Zealand's south island.
You have to look back five generations and around 140 years to discover that the great-great-great grandfather of Greg Ramsay – the Tasmanian-based CEO and co-owner of the NZ concern – and the original William Grant actually worked together at a Scottish distillery in the 1870s.
Not only that, but a photograph appears to show that Ramsay's forebear, John McGregor, was at one stage the head brewer at the Mortlach distillery while a young William Grant in the same image was dressed in the clothes of a clerk.
William Grant went on to manage the distillery before using his own savings to establish Glenfiddich, the cornerstone property of a family dynasty that has grown to become the world's third-largest whisky producer.
Meanwhile, McGregor's son, Gregor McGregor, emigrated to Australia. His bloodline leads to Ramsay, a Tasmanian who has also spent years based in Scotland. Living in St Andrews, the home of golf, he acquired a passion for the game but became a keen student of whisky at the same time.
Ramsay has since developed the highly-regarded Barnbougle golf course on Tasmania's north coast. He then purchased an abandoned stash of New Zealand whisky – left behind when Seagrams closed down and subsequent Australian owner Foster's mothballed the distillery - that has become the basis for the New Zealand Whisky Collection.
“Didn't our fortunes change a bit?” laughs Ramsay, who is happy to concede his own considerable successes pale by comparison to those of the all-conquering Grant family.
Ironically, in recent years Ramsay met the great-great-great grand-daughter of William Grant, and the two of them were photographed holding the 1870s-era picture featuring their respective forebears.
William Grant & Sons has claimed there is potential for confusion between its own The Balvenie DoubleWood and Dunedin DoubleWood of the New Zealand Whisky Collection.
A statement issued on behalf of William Grant & Sons by New Zealand-based solicitor Simpson Grierson said the Scottish company was “working towards resolving a dispute over the use of the DoubleWood trademark”.
“William Grant & Sons has used its DoubleWood trademark, which is distinctive when used in relation to alcoholic beverages, in New Zealand since 1994. This use significantly predates the New Zealand Whisky Company's comparatively recent use,” the statement says.
Ramsay is adamant there is “no risk at all” of confusion between the products. “Our bottle has a map of New Zealand on it, prominently says 'New Zealand Whisky Collection' and has a black box. It could not possibly be confused with Balvenie which has a white box, white label, and to my knowledge doesn't refer to New Zealand at all,” he says.
Ramsay concedes William Grant & Sons began using the name first – the New Zealand Whisky Collection first used it in 2006 – but says neither company registered the compound version of the name until William Grant & Sons did so just after Dunedin DoubleWood won a string of awards in international competitions.
“Technically you shouldn't be able to register as a name something that refers to a common process,” he says. “We'd prefer not to go down the legal path but we'll do what we have to do to defend Dunedin DoubleWood.”
The name was originally chosen for William Grant & Sons by The Balvenie's “Malt Master” David Stewart, who has been with the distillery since 1962 and developed the DoubleWood variety.
“William Grant & Sons is therefore simply seeking to protect the craftsmanship, artistry and expertise associated with David's work and the goodwill and respect associated with him and the trademark,” the company's statement says.
“William Grant & Sons has approached the New Zealand Whisky Company on numerous occasions in an attempt to draw the matter to a close but without response since September 2013. It will continue in its efforts to seek a solution that both parties agree on.”
Ramsay says he has enormous respect for the Grant family's achievements, but feels compelled to defend his own product.
“Anyone and everyone I've talked to about their legal threat thinks its laughable and legally weak, but sadly we have to take it very seriously and I am still hoping we can resolve this amicably,” he says.
“They're a great company and Balvenie DoubleWood is actually a rather nice dram, and (William Grant & Sons is) the kind of company that might want to invest in New Zealand whisky one day.”
Maybe, or maybe not, because there's a further sting in the history of this whisky-soaked tale.
It's believed that in the 1870s – around the same time William Grant and John McGregor were probably sharing a Scottish distillery office – the New Zealand railways sought financial backing from Scottish banks. The funding is said to have been approved on the basis that the New Zealand government close down the local whisky industry.
It seems tensions have been simmering between the two disparate whisky-producing nations a long, long time before these two modern-day protagonists drew their own battle lines.