THE prospects for Scotch whisky in emerging markets are so exciting the risks posed by Brexit will not dampen its potential, one of the industry’s most respected figures has declared.

But Billy Walker, the veteran distiller who spearheaded a consortium which acquired Speyside’s GlenAllachie Distillery in July, fears the introduction of minimum unit pricing in Scotland may damage industry efforts to make the case for trade tariffs being lowered elsewhere.

Mr Walker, whose family sold the BenRiach Distillery Company to Brown Forman for £285 million in 2016, is hugely optimistic about the prospects for Scotch whisky exports in 2018 and beyond - even though uncertainty continues to hang over future trading relationships with the European Union (EU), its biggest market.

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“I’m always a guy where the glass is half-full,” said Mr Walker, who will release the first malts under the revamped GlenAllachie brand in the spring. “We tend to view the world through a local lens. [But] the world is always changing. Markets are emerging from everywhere; there are aspirational markets who want to indulge themselves with Scotch.

“We need to embrace that kind of challenge, and we will.”

Asked to name markets which are providing the most cause for optimism, Mr Walker said that Asia “continues to excite”. He said China, where the industry saw a 45 per cent increase in exports to last year, is “going to be huge”, adding that he has high hopes for South Korea in the near future. He also said Japan is “showing interest again”.

Mr Walker said: “There is such an economic momentum going on there (Asia); there is going to be lots of things happening there.”

Backing that optimism, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) chief executive Karen Betts said there were signs of exports picking up in both value and volume in the second half of 2017. This came after after some markets, “notably Brazil”, declined “in the face of economic and political headwinds” in the first half.

Ms Betts said India “undoubtedly” holds the “greatest potential” for the Scotch. While the country is currently the third biggest export market for Scotch, and 10th by value, its share of the local spirits market is just one per cent. “Post-Brexit, an ambitious UK-India Free Trade Agreement, that at the very least brought down the current 150 per cent import on Scotch, could make a massive difference to exports,” she said.

Mr Walker highlighted the recovery of Scotch exports in the US and Canada. And closer to home the distiller, who across four decades in the industry has worked for companies such as Ballantine’s, Burn Stewart Distillers and Inver House Distillers, said “Europe has never faltered”.

While he acknowledged that the movement of goods between the UK and Europe may be subject to a trade tariff after Brexit, he said this is likely to be offset by the dramatic plunge in the pound seen since the vote to leave the bloc. “Unless the pound suddenly becomes an amazingly attractive currency, right now the value of the pound is significantly less than it was 18 months, so the market could take anything,” he said. “The issue would be the movement of goods, how effectively you can manage it.” He also believes that the two biggest economies in the EU outside the UK, France and Germany, have a strong interest in ensuring a mutually-beneficial trade deal is struck.

Mr Walker, meanwhile, agrees with the position taken by SWA that minimum alcohol pricing in the UK will make it harder for the industry to argue against trade barriers elsewhere, saying it “sends a particularly bad signal to other markets”.

He said: “The Scotch Whisky Association were always principled in that regard. I don’t think it was just defending their own position. There were other ways of managing this – they could have changed the duty and in the process they wouldn’t have been filling the coffers of the retailers, they would have been putting money into the system.”