PRIME Minister Theresa May may not have found much support for her soon-to-be voted on Brexit withdrawal agreement, but one organisation that was quick to give the deal its backing was the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

The day after the deal secured the reluctant backing of Mrs May’s cabinet, the trade organisation’s chief executive Karen Betts said it was a “positive step” towards avoiding the “considerable difficulties” a no-deal Brexit would create for Scotland’s scotch whisky producers.

With Parliament’s postponed meaningful vote on the deal now just days away, SWA legal director Alan Park said the association continues to believe it is the best way forward because “it delivers consistency and continuity for us until the end of the transition period”.

Specifically, the withdrawal agreement, if ratified, will ensure that the intellectual property rights scotch whisky enjoys from its geographical indication (GI) status continue to be protected in Europe, something that is seen as vital not just for the whisky businesses whose interests the SWA exists to promote, but for the wider Scottish economy too.

“Protecting scotch whisky from unfair competition is also about protecting our cultural heritage and employment in the rural areas where most of the producers are located,” Mr Park said. “We were pleased that the withdrawal agreement put GIs up there. It will ensure that EU GIs get the same level of protection post-Brexit [as they do now] and that we can expect the same in the EU.”

Although Mr Park and his team do get involved in other legal matters - such as the SWA’s ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the Scottish Government’s minimum alcohol pricing legislation - the vast majority of the work they do focuses on protecting scotch whisky’s intellectual property on a global scale.

On the one hand, this involves securing country-specific agreements to ensure that only products that meet the strict legal definition of scotch whisky can be marketed as such. On the other, it involves mounting legal challenges against producers who attempt to pass their products off as scotch.

“Most of our work is to reinforce the protection of the scotch whisky category around the world and we’ve now got specific protection for scotch whisky in more than 100 markets around the world,” Mr Park said.

“Some countries will provide domestic legislation, such as the US Federal code, while some will give GI or trade mark status, which we got in South Africa last year.”

How long this takes to achieve varies from country to country, with Thailand, for example, taking more than two years to grant GI status to scotch whisky while Malaysia awarded it after just six months of work.

Not that gaining protection is an end in itself, with Mr Park noting that his team is currently working on over 60 enforcement cases in courts as far afield as Germany and Australia aimed at forcing businesses to stop passing their products off as authentic scotches.

While the individual whisky makers that make up the SWA’s membership will take action themselves if their own trade marks are being infringed, Mr Park said a huge area of work for his legal team is opposing trade mark applications for products that could misleadingly be marketed as scotch.

“If someone applies to use an image of Edinburgh Castle on a Russian whisky we’ll oppose it,” he said, noting that successful oppositions have included Mac Whisky in Turkey and Angus Bay in China.

“We’re working on several hundred trademark oppositions at any one time and oppose about 300 new marks every year. Some can take a long time to resolve but we’re generally successful in coming to a settlement,” he added.

In the meantime, regardless of how the vote on Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement goes next week, Mr Park believes that Brexit will at least create some opportunities for scotch whisky firms to explore new markets.

“There’s the possibility for the UK to do independent trade deals with other countries, the best example being a free trade deal with India,” he said. “The Indian tariff on scotch whisky is currently 150 per cent and that’s before any state taxes so a £10 bottle becomes £25 as soon as it reaches the border. That makes it unattractive for many Indians.”