IT was a little surprising this week to see the Scotch Whisky Association greet news of a continued year-on-year rise in the value of the sector’s exports during the first half with considerable caution.

An analysis of HM Revenue & Customs data published on Monday by the SWA highlighted the part played by the key US market in a 3.4 per cent rise in first-half Scotch whisky exports, by value, to £1.78 billion. Given 2016 had been the first calendar year since 2012 in which the value of Scotch exports had risen – showing an increase of £153 million to more than £4 billion – a continuation of this growth into the first half of 2017 is on the face of it most welcome.

And it was heartening to see the £479m figure for single-malt Scotch whisky exports in the first half of this year, which was up by seven per cent on the same period of 2016.

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Edrington, distiller of The Macallan and Highland Park, has put a great deal of effort behind its single malts. So too have the likes of Pernod Ricard, which produces The Glenlivet, and William Grant & Sons, which makes Glenfiddich. It is good to see such investment paying off in export markets. The rise of single malts over recent years also looks to be a very good thing in the context of the growth of the broader luxury goods market around the globe.

The key part that can be played by single malts in driving up the value of Scotch exports is evident in the fact that Taiwan was, in the first half, the industry’s fifth-largest overseas market by value but only the 17th-biggest by volume. In Taiwan, the Scotch market has long been dominated by single malts. It is a market in which well-heeled and educated connoisseurs figure prominently.

Scotch exports to Taiwan in the first half were down by 5.5 per cent on the same period of last year at £70.6m. The SWA has cited slower economic growth and pressure on household incomes in this hi-tech east Asian economy as factors in the recent fall in exports to this key market. Taiwan had been the fourth-largest export market for Scotch in 2016. However, even though it has slipped to fifth-biggest, the SWA has highlighted its faith in the prospects for exports to Taiwan.

Scotch whisky exports to the US in the first half of 2017, at £388m, were up by 8.6 per cent on the opening six months of last year. The US remains, by a long way, the largest overseas market for Scotch by value.

Single malts have enjoyed major success in the US, which proved an extremely resilient market even through the global financial crisis and ensuing recession.

First-half exports of Scotch to Singapore, a major distribution hub for Asian markets including China, were up by 12.9 per cent at £112m. Direct Scotch exports to China were, in the first half, up by 45 per cent on the opening six months of 2016 at £26.9m.

Scotch exports to Japan in the first half were up by 19.4 per cent on the same period of last year at £42.9m. And first-half exports to Germany were up by 5.1 per cent at £77.4m, making it the fourth-biggest overseas market for Scotch during the six months to June.

There were some falls in first-half exports of Scotch to other markets, notably the United Arab Emirates in which there was a 17.4 per cent tumble to £52.2m, and South Korea, which saw a 26.5 per cent drop to £30.9m. There were also falls in first-half exports of Scotch to Spain, India, South Africa, Turkey and Brazil.

SWA chief executive Karen Betts did hail the 3.4 per cent rise in first-half Scotch whisky exports as “great news”. The SWA highlighted the fact Scotch remains the UK’s biggest food and drink export, making up nearly one-fifth of overseas shipments from this broader sector.

However, Ms Betts warned the export value figures “mask more concerning underlying trends”.

The SWA noted in the spring that last year had been the first calendar year since 2011 in which there had been growth in both the value and volume of Scotch whisky exports.

However, in the first half of 2017, the volume of Scotch whisky exports was down by 2.2 per cent on the same period of 2016 at 528 million bottles, in terms of 70-centilitre equivalents. This was influenced heavily by France, Scotch’s largest export market by volume.

The SWA analysis shows 85.9 million bottles of Scotch were exported to France in the first half of this year. This was down by 6.8 per cent on the same period of 2016.

It is worth observing the value of Scotch whisky exports to France in the first half was down only 0.2 per cent at £198m, in spite of the drop in volume. France remains comfortably the second-largest overseas market for Scotch by value, ahead of Singapore.

But it is important to remember the value of Scotch whisky exports almost certainly showed year-on-year growth in the first half in large measure because of sterling’s woes since the Brexit vote in June 2016.

If Scotch distillers hold their prices in overseas markets in local currency terms when the pound weakens, the sterling value of such sales will be greater. And the weak pound offers scope for Scotch producers to reduce their prices in local currency terms in overseas markets, if they want to try to boost demand this way, without reducing the sterling value of such sales.

Ms Betts also highlighted the looming shadow of Brexit.

She said: “With the changes Brexit will bring to the way the industry operates and trades, we need the support of the UK Government at home and overseas.”

Ahead of Budgets, the industry always tries to fight its corner in submissions to the Chancellor. Ms Betts called on Philip Hammond to “take a step in the right direction in next month’s Budget by cutting the tax on an average-priced bottle of Scotch from the staggering level of 80 per cent”.

Given the major challenges around Brexit and the short-term boost to Scotch exports from sterling woes, the SWA’s caution is understandable.

However, we should not lose sight of the growing value of single malt exports over recent years. And we should remember that, in a global market-place where demand for luxury goods is ever-more important to the Scotch whisky industry, value is more important than volume.