By Scott Wright

SCOTCH whisky veteran Billy Walker has backed the industry to thrive again on the world stage after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, as fellow distiller Vicky Miller of Eden Mill urged Scottish Development International to help companies prepare to hit the ground running when restrictions start to lift.

Billy Walker, owner of the GlenAllachie Distillery in Speyside, held out hopes of a recovery for whisky exports in the Far East, where there are positive signs that the virus epidemic is coming under control.

At the same time, Vicky Miller of St Andrews’ Eden Mill Distillery urged SDI to invest funds usually deployed to help companies break into export markets to equip businesses with advice to help them “kick-start” after the shutdown.

Mr Walker, who exports GlenAllachie whiskies to around 50 countries, said: “If the government decides we have to close down, we will close down, it is as simple as that. We will not risk anybody’s safety.

“What will be the consequences of that? The category is still quite strong. You can see there continues to be an appetite for alcohol, maybe even more so in these extremely trying times. It is just how quickly the markets can bounce back and recover, and how much money people actually have in their pockets to buy things, three or six months out.”

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Looking to the Far East, where China is one of the most important markets for GlenAllachie and other distillers, Mr Walker said there “does appear to be some kind of recovery happening in Asia”.

He observed: “They do tend to be extremely resilient peoples anyway – the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Hong Kong people. They have great resilience and they come back. So I am hopeful they will recover. Whenever that is, I’m not sure. But there are more important things happening.”

He added: “It will recover, it is just when.”

Mr Walker said some international trade is still continuing, although he noted it was “more of a trickle than a flood” in the current circumstances. He would like trade to continue, but only as long as government advice allows.

Meantime, St Andrews’ Eden Mill distillery is focusing on the parts of its business that can carry on amid the lockdown on commercial activities. The business has put duty free, retail and sampling operations on hold because of the pandemic. However, it is still maintaining an online sales operation.

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Head of marketing Vicky Miller said: “We’re trying to make the most of the environment we have got at the moment. We’re very fortunate that just recently we brought our online sales fulfilment back in house; it means we are not reliant on a third party. We are taking the relevant measures to make sure we are being responsible and keep that operating.”

She added: “From soft promotion online, we have probably got about six times the daily rate of sale coming in. That has really helped.”

Eden Mill continues to supply the supermarket and grocery sector, with products such as ready to drink canned gin products. But Ms Miller said the curb on export activities has been a blow. Exports and duty free sales account for around 10 per cent of the whisky and gin distiller’s turnover, which this year is on track to reach £10 million.

Ms Miller said the pandemic has put a halt to a planned launch for prestigious Japanese restaurant group Nobu in Monaco. Work to appoint a new distributor on China has also been put on ice. However, Ms Miller said some distribution partners being proactive, including Mitten International Wines, which plans to sell Eden Mill products in France.

While in normal times SDI has helps distillers such as Eden Mill to develop export markets, Ms Miller suggested its focus should be on making sure firms are ready to move quickly when the crisis eases.

With the value of Scotch exports rising to £4.9 billion in 2019, she said: “That’s a huge amount of business to retain in the country.”