THE Scotch whisky industry may be buffeted by another bumpy year in the global economy in 2016 but its long-term prospects remain very strong, according to senior industry figures.

Economic tribulations around the world, ranging from the austerity drive in China to ongoing low growth levels in Europe and recession in parts of South America, slowed sales of Scotch during 2015.

Although some in the sector are prepared for another 12 months at the mercy of economic headwinds, others are forecasting solid growth across a number of international markets.

In particular single malt is expected to perform strongly while in a measure of the prospects for the industry the number of new distilleries springing up is also anticipated to gather pace.

David Frost, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “After a decade of record-breaking growth in exports we did see a slowdown and slight decline in the last year or so, but there are clear signs of improvement.”

The value of whisky exports in the first six months of last year2015 dropped three per cent but was still worth £1.7 billion.

Even though volumes fell by a similar percentage, there were 517 million bottles shipped in the period.

The picture by country was mixed with the US still well out in front with sales there relatively flat at £327 million but exports to China grew strongly, up 46 per cent to £22m.

Consumption in other places suffered as a result of wider economic factors with the recession in Brazil surely a factor in the 30 per cent fall in value there, while ongoing sanctions against Russia saw it fall out of the top 20 markets for Scotch. Mexico and Japan were among the countries where growth was accelerating.

Edrington Group’s Ian Curle acknowledged last year2015 had been a challenging year but said he has been encouraged by performance in south-east Asia and the US, while parts of Africa offer lots of potential.

Edrington makes The Macallan, Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Highland Park.

Mr Curle said: “The Scotch Whisky industry is an export-led business and its success is generally influenced by the performance of the world’s economies and the political relationships between them. In 2015 growth has been difficult to achieve against a backdrop of continuing competitive pressure and global economic and political uncertainty.

“We expect that trend to continue through 2016. However the medium and long-term prospects for Scotch whisky remain very positive with global economies forecast to improve and a consequent rise in the number of consumers who are attracted to the quality and provenance of Scotch whisky.”

Billy Walker from BenRiach, which also owns the GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries, said: “In spite of some weak currencies and geopolitical problems we are seeing strong growth in US, Europe and south-east Asia.”

Mr Walker highlighted the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Taiwan and China as among some of the countries where the business he runs is seeing strongest growth.

Speaking about what factors would help to drive growth in the sector, Mr Walker said: “The UK and Scottish governments need to strive to continue to break down barriers to market entry in a number of countries and particularly India.”

Mr Curle echoed those sentiments and said: “A big driver of our success is free trade, the ability to enter a market where the playing field is level. Currently the industry faces over 450 trade barriers in 186 countries ranging from tariffs to in-market tax discrimination.

“Support for free trade deals, closing out those that have been negotiated, and collaboration across all governments and agencies can make a big difference to the fortunes of the industry.”

Mr Frost pointed to the number of new distillers entering the market as an indication of the confidence in the long-term potential of the sector.

Between 30 and 40 new facilities are planned to come into production over the next few years along with the eight which started operating in the past 12 months.

That is along with hundreds of millions of pounds of investment to boost production by existing large players such as Pernod Ricard, Edrington and Diageo.

He said: “A couple of billion pounds of investment in infrastructure is planned over the next few years. This is from existing, larger players in the market and new entrants.

“New distilleries are planned across Scotland, many in areas not recently associated with Scotch malt whisky production, such as the Borders and the centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh.”