King William fortified wine falls foul of industry watchdog

KING William Fortified Wine, touted as a challenger to Buckfast Tonic Wine’s popularity in Scotland, has fallen foul of the alcohol industry’s Independent Complaints Panel, the Portman Group.

Following a complaint by a member of the public, the Panel investigated the brand and concluded that the use of King William of Orange on the labelling, in tandem with no less than five mentions of its 16.90% ABV, was indeed ‘playing to the sectarian elements which cause societal division particularly in the West of Scotland & Northern Ireland’.

As such, the product’s packaging was likely to cause ‘serious offence’ to some members of the public, and was thus in breach of the drinks industry Code paragraph 3.3 that a ‘drink’s name, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not cause serious or widespread offence.’

(Read the full Portman Group ruling here.)

The drink is produced by the Jersey registered company Belcondie (Marketing & Product Sourcing) Limited, which has been instructed to make amendments to the product.

In its deliberations, the Panel noted that King William of Orange was a historical British monarch and that in some communities, his image and certain events associated with him, could be intrinsically linked to sectarianism, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Panel discussed the meaning of symbolism and noted that in this particular instance, there would be some individuals who would celebrate King William of Orange and others who would find reference to him offensive, meaning that the overall impression conveyed by the packaging was very important.

Defending the unusual notation of the ABV – 16.90% as opposed to the single decimal place 16.9% – and its multiple appearances on the packaging, the producer asserted that it was a reference to the 1690 Distilling Act, which King William had introduced to Parliament, liberalising the production of gin to raise extra revenue for his government’s overseas military campaigns.

The same company markets a King William Gin brand, first released by London’s Gravity Drinks in 2019, and publicised at the time as a ‘surprise’ success in Scotland and Northern Ireland having also made a feature of King William’s association with the 1690 Distilling Act.

However, in the context of the fortified wine labelling, the Portman Panel considered it would be far more likely to be understood by consumers as a reference to the year when the Battle of the Boyne took place; a significant event in British history that was a key turning point in terms of its ramifications for religious and political views, particularly in relation to sectarianism.

Commenting on the decision, the Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel, Nicola Williams, said: “The overall impression of a product should always be considered carefully and in this instance, it was a combination of elements that when considered together, created a clear link to sectarianism in a manner that could still be considered divisive and inflammatory today.

“I welcome the producer’s intention to make changes to the product packaging and encourage other producers to note how a combination of factors can lead to a breach of the Code.”

Following the ruling, the brand’s social media page uploaded imagery encouraging consumers to buy the ’16.90%’ labelled bottles before the packaging amendments are made.