From the Mailbag: FOIPOPs & Single Malt

Editor’s Note: I had to read the book, conduct and transcribe an interview and write the story about Maxwell Hartt’s Quietly Shrinking Cities this week, which left me very little time for other reporting but I would like to note a couple of interesting items that popped up in my inbox.


Somebody else’s FOIPOP

For obvious reasons, I generally feel solidarity with anyone who has appealed an access-to-information response in this province and been vindicated by Information and Privacy Commissioner Tricia Ralph. I hear about these people in the reports the commissioner’s office releases when it’s made a decision, one of which arrived in my inbox this morning.

Tricia Ralph

Tricia Ralph (CBC photo)

The applicant in question requested “all publicly releasable contact and salary information about employees of the Nova Scotia Government from the Public Service Commission (public body).” The list of fields the applicant wanted filled was extensive:

First Name
Last Name
Job Title or Job Classification
Office Name (working office name – eg: Branch, Division, Section etc)
Main Department
Office Address
Office City
Office Postal
Grade level

So much so, they added that they understood that “some of the fields listed above may not be available.” The applicant also explained why they wanted the information:

The purpose of my request is to be able to notify applicable employees regarding specific government focused conferences and education related programs. I am also prepared to pay any costs required to prepare this information.

In other words, “I wish to spam your province’s employees.”

The Public Service Commission refused to process the request for a number of reasons, one of which was that the information was “a matter of public record.” The department directed the applicant to two sources for the information, one of which was the NS Government employee directory. But, as the privacy commissioner points out, this is not a list of all employees:

Rather, it is a search engine. In order to access the information on the search engine, you first need to already know the government employee’s name…

Plus, it contains only five of the 14 information fields requested.

The second source was a Public Accounts supplementary information document (which the report notes is no longer active, although it seems to be the equivalent of this link):

This document alphabetically lists accumulative payments of employee salaries over $25,000 annually organized by department. The information is published once per year, for the previous year, which means it is not current information.

It contained only two of the 14 information fields.

The Public Service Commission argued the information was a matter of public record because the applicant could go to the Public Accounts document, find a public servant’s name, punch it into the NS Government employee directory and produce a phone number — albeit no email or mailing address. But the Commission had the answer to that: the applicant could just go to each provincial department website, find the “Contact us” page and copy the mailing address for the department. The applicant could then call the department and ask for each employee’s email address.

The Privacy Commissioner, with a level of restraint I will never attain, said:

The problem with this argument is that it does not meet the test set out in the common law for establishing that a record is a matter of public record.

The Public Service Commission also refused to comply with the request on the grounds that creating such a record would have interfered with its operations. The Privacy Commissioner made short work of this, saying the record could be “created from a machine-readable record using the public body’s normal hardware, software, and technical expertise.”

The Commission made other arguments, including that releasing the information would be an invasion of the employees’ privacy but as the Privacy Commissioner pointed out, none of the information requested was personal — it was all work related — therefore, there could be no invasion of privacy.

The Commission argued that it didn’t have the necessary staff to handle the request. I particularly appreciated the commissioner’s response to this:

In terms of having few staff to conduct this work, as the Supreme Court of British Columbia and many other decision-makers have long said, a public body cannot defeat the access to information regime by having insufficient resources.

It’s a long decision with lots more detail but the end result is that the Privacy Commissioner recommended that the Public Service Commission create the requested record containing “as many of the 14 fields as possible” within 30 days.

Of course, the Public Service Commission is under no obligation to follow the commissioner’s recommendation — a situation the new premier has promised to at least consider addressing by giving the commissioner order-making powers. (In the meantime, couldn’t he just instruct all government departments to accept her recommendations? I’m just spit-balling here.)

I will have to watch the “completed FOIPOPs” list to see if this request is actually answered.


Slainte, Ivan!

Whisky 73, Soviet Whisky Label

Whisky 73

Glenora Falls Distillery sent me a press release announcing they’d “shipped another container of their Glen Breton Single malt whisky to Russia.”

Russia, it seems, is:

…Glenora’s number one international market by sales volume. The company’s partner in Russia is a large retail chain, and Glen Breton has been very pleased with their ongoing relationship with them.

This particular shipment went to Somelie Wines & Spirits Distribution Centre Ltd, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth-largest city.

I was curious about Russians’ relation to whisky so did a bit of googling and discovered that there was such a thing as Soviet whisky, although the first reference I found to it was taken from a novel in which a character referred to it as, “Barley cat piss.”

Anastasia Orlova, who wrote the piece from which that reference was taken, says:

Soviet Whiskey went into production after World War II. As with whiskeys from elsewhere, it was made out of rye and dry barley malt and produced by Glavspirt—the main alcohol enterprise in the Soviet Union. Its makers described it as a “light-brown alcohol with a soft, slightly burning taste and a specific odor.”

One brand, called “Whisky 73,” was initially popular because:

…people thought 73 stood for the strength of alcohol. However, sales fell quickly once people realized that the number just represented the year the brand was created—1973.

Writing in Russia Beyond in 2011, Roland Oliphant noted that the party elite could enjoy “imported Ballantines,” but says Russians “really only  discovered whiskey en masse after Boris Yeltsin lifted the state monopoly on alcohol in 1992.”

According to this 2015 report from the US Department of Agriculture, production “all grain spirits in Russia, including whisky” only became legal in 2015 due to a change in Russian regulations.  The USDA said the “leading the Russian company Soyuzplodoimport, manufacturer of Stolichnaya vodka” planned to “produce whiskey made entirely of Russian ingredients under the Stoli brand.” This was supposed to hit the shelves by 2019, but I can’t find any further references to it.

The USDA also said that the largest producer of Russian cognac, Alliance-1892, planned to build “Russia’s first whisky distillery” in Kaliningrad, with a capacity of 5 million liters per year. It was expected to be operational by 2018 and shipping whisky by 2021 but again, I can’t find any follow-up stories. (Of course, I can’t read Russian, which is undoubtedly limiting my research capabilities.)

This 2019 blog post on Whisky Tours (“you drink we drive”) says about 95% of all whisky sold in Russia is imported — although it is bottled in Russia.

As of 2015, blend whiskies were more popular — because cheaper — than single malts and the list of blends by market share looked like this:

Russian whisky market, brand share, 2015

I’m curious about the market for Glen Breton in Russian — and impressed, frankly that there is one —  but the press release was light on details, other than that Russia is “getting an early Christmas present,” which it most certainly is, considering Russian Orthodox Christmas is January 7.

Although, apparently, it’s New Year’s, not Christmas, that is Russia’s “super holiday.” Gotta work on that culturally sensitive marketing…