Branding dispute claims award-winning whisky 'not well known'
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The developer behind a £12 million development "jumped at the chance" to buy the location close to the village of Tomatin.
Simon Bath, a hospitality consultant for Tomatin Trading Company (TTC), the company behind the proposed hotel, food and retail development just off the A9, was speaking on the final day of evidence at a Court of Session hearing held online before judge Lady Wolffe.
TTC, owned by William Frame of Braemore Estates, is being challenged over its use of Tomatin in its name by near neighbour Tomatin Distillery, which says it has lodged the civil action in order to protect its brand.
The development, which has already received planning permission from Highland Council, will feature a 97-bedroom hotel, restaurant and "grab-and-go" food facilities, four retail units and a petrol filling station. Work is expected to begin later this year at the site, which was previously occupied by the Freeburn Hotel, which latterly became a Little Chef restaurant.
Mr Bath, who was being cross-examined by Tomatin Distillery Company QC Jonathan Lake, was responding to a suggestion by Mr Lake that "the location of Tomatin adds nothing to the development".
Mr Bath answered: "It adds location. It was a well known stopping point. For William to have bought a site 40 minutes south or 20 minutes north, commercially it would just not happen. So when the site came up for sale, William jumped at it.
"I recall going up the road as a boy in the 1970s and we would stop off there after driving up the old A9 through the village of Tomatin. It was a very well known trading post."
Mr Bath went on to say that the location also provided the development with a huge advantage, being close to Cairngorm National Park, Inverness and Loch Ness, and only 15 miles from the start of the North Coast 500 touring route.
He earlier described the development as providing a showcase for local producers, both of food and drink and of other products.
"It's about highlighting all the good things that the Highlands produce," he said.
Mr Bath also revealed that TTC was having discussions internally about running the retail units itself after the Covid-19 crisis resulted in a lack of serious interest from potential operators.
"That said, the building process will take some time and there may be a richer hunting ground by the time the work is completed," he said.
Also giving evidence for TTC was former VisitScotland chairman and former managing director and chairman of Gleneagles Hotel, Peter Lederer, who said that if members of the public were asked to name their top 20 malt whiskies, he did not know if they would include Tomatin.
"Not that it isn't a good product," he added.
"If you know your whiskies well and especially if you are interested in Highland whiskies, you would certainly know Tomatin."
However, Mr Lederer confirmed to Mr Lake that Gleneagles had also taken legal steps to protect its brand by raising actions against a mineral water business and a conservatory business who used the Gleneagles name.
The final witness was Iain Russell, who is retired from a 30 year career in the whisky industry as a researcher, archivist and brands heritage manager.
Mr Russell, who has worked on trademark related projects for Highland Distillers, Allied Distillers and William Lawson distillers, also wrote a report for Tomatin Trading Company, which suggested that Tomatin Distillery's UK marketing was tightly focussed on two groups – single malt explorers and single malt aficionados – rather than the general public.
He also found no evidence of Tomatin attempting to increase brand awareness beyond the north of Scotland comparable with other whisky distillers, such as Haig Club had through its advertising campaign with former England and Manchester United star David Beckham, Johnnie Walker with its involvement with Formula 1 or Famous Grouse's sponsorship of Scottish Rugby.
After being show a number of the distillery's marketing initiatives by Mr Lake, including sponsorship of Inverness Thistle Highland League side, a pop-up bar at Belladrum music festival, Maggie's Highland charity golf day and a trade stand at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, TTC advocate Usman Tariq asked if this had led Mr Russell to change his opinion.
"No," Mr Russell answered.
"The only event I have seen outside the north of Scotland is the trade show in Birmingham.
"There are so many different brands on the market it is very difficult to elbow your way to prominence."
Asked by Mr Tariq how well known Tomatin was in the UK single malt market, Mr Russell replied: "I haven't seen any market research, so I have to go by sales figures. I think Tomatin is number 37 in the UK in terms of sales. That would indicate they are not particularly well known. I wouldn't say they are in the top 20 best known single malts.
"It takes a huge investment to become well known in Scotch whisky market."
The hearing will resume on Friday, May 7.