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21-04-2017, 11:02
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From time to time, the authorities have a go at trying to single out categories of alcoholic drinks that they think are consumed disproportionately by “problem drinkers”. A few years ago, it was high-strength “super” lagers, which gave rise to the additional “Old Tom tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV. It doesn’t seem to have done much to eradicate them, though, and in my local corner shop you can buy still four cans for £6, which equates to 37.5p per unit. It seems that the additional tax is largely absorbed in lower margins rather than being passed on to the consumer.
Most of them do seem to have been reformulated to 8% ABV rather than 9%, but that’s basically to avoid falling foul of the alcohol nannies by having more units in a single-use can than the daily recommendation. And, of course, many high-quality “craft” products such as the aforementioned Old Tom fell into the net of the tax, underlining the point that it’s impossible to distinguish in law between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” drinks.
The latest product to hove into their sights is “white cider”, with the government currently consulting on ways of increasing the tax level on this product, which benefits from the much lower duty rate attached to cider rather than beer. A few years back, a requirement was introduced that any product classified as cider for duty purposes had to contain at least 35% apple juice amongst the fermentable materials. However, it seems that white ciders still fall within this definition, despite reputedly being mainly composed of high-fructose corn syrup.
I can’t say I’ve ever tried any white cider, as my student days were well before it had been invented, and I have no plans to change that. And it’s hard to argue that it falls even within the broadest definition of connoisseurship. But we have to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of categorising some alcoholic drinks as “bad” and others as “good”, purely because the latter are more expensive. If you’re swigging cheap gutrot, you’re a pisshead, if I’m sipping expensive craft beer, malt whisky or claret, I’m a discerning connoisseur. As this Daily Mash article says (http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/middle-class-alcohol-less-alcoholic-than-all-other-alcohol-20170418126160):

GETTING drunk while looking after your children is fine if you are drinking Chablis rather than WKD, it has been confirmed.
Middle class mother Eleanor Shaw and her friends regularly drink ‘some’ bottles of Chablis during their children’s play dates, insisting it is a civilised approach to parenting and ‘something French people probably do’.
Shaw said: “Chablis is a cultivated drink filled with interesting ‘notes’. It’s not like we’re just getting shitfaced.
“Sometimes we describe it using words like ‘biscuity’.”
She added: “Of course, if one of my friends turned up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand vodka I would confiscate it and then report the bitch to social services. Chablis is barely alcohol at all, really.
“It’s also very nice if you mix it with half a pint of artisan gin and then stand on the kitchen table singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”This is an attitude that is sadly very common amongst beer-lovers. But, at the end of the day, however much we may savour the taste and character, nobody can ignore that fact that alcohol has an effect on you. Not necessarily an instant road to oblivion, but certainly a gentle warm glow or a lubricant of sociality. You wouldn’t drink it in the same way if it didn’t.
And I would expect that most of the drinkers of white ciders, like those of super lagers, are not derelicts or hopeless alcoholics, but simply generally responsible people who prefer to go a bit higher on the volume/strength trade-off. In general, they’re no cheaper per unit than weaker drinks in the same category, so they can’t be regarded simply as being chosen on the bangs-per-buck ratio. People just don’t want to have to drink large quantities of liquid to achieve the desired effect.
So it’s good to see Gordon Johncox of Frosty Jack’s maker Aston Manor having the courage of his convictions to challenge the attempts by anti-alcohol campaigners to single out white cider (http://offlicencenews.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/16543/Cider_producer_in_challenge_to_anti-alcohol_lobby.html).

“There is a constant barrage of criticism and unsubstantiated points made around white cider, who drinks it and why they drink it, from all sorts of bodies.
“We got frustrated with the headlines that were being achieved by some of these well-intentioned but ultimately misguided bodies, and we have actually written to some challenging them.
“The research shows that the typical white cider drinker is very different to the demon presented by some of the bodies. We have written to the Alcohol Health Alliance. They have not replied yet.
“We are going to be far more robust in our challenges than we have been in the past. It’s just wrong that these bodies should be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims.”It’s a pity other producers of alcoholic drinks aren’t willing to make a similarly robust response rather than just quietly appeasing the neo-Prohibitionists and hoping they will go away.
As Chris Snowdon argues in the article, if you tax white cider off the shelves, problem drinkers will simply move on to something else. And one of the most obvious destinations is normal “amber” cider where, as I’ve argued before (http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/a-crafty-tramp.html), the line between high-quality craft product and cheap, high-strength booze can be a very fine one.

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.In my local Home Bargains, you can buy a four-pack of 500ml cans of 7.5% ABV HCC Black cider for £2.99, which is a mere 20p per unit. But that’s proper cider, not white cider, so it would escape any crackdown that focused solely on the latter.
Of course, you can simply use a big hammer and indiscriminately apply a minimum unit price to everything. But that, as I’ve pointed out before (http://pubcurmudgeon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/save-our-scrumpy.html), would kill small farmhouse cidermakers stone dead, or at least ensure that they stopped selling any commercially.
At the end of the day, any legislative attempts to single out “bad” alcoholic drinks are likely to be fraught with problems of definition and end up bringing within the net all kinds of products that weren’t intended. Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.

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