It is a global icon of Scotland, known the world over as our national drink.

Now the growing importance of whisky to the economy can be revealed as figures show it makes up three-quarters of Scottish produce sold around the world, as the country’s overseas food and drink exports reach a record high of £6.3 billion.

They increased by £293 million in 2018, a 4.9 per cent rise, according to the HMRC figures.

And the amber nectar accounted for 75% of the total food and drink exports, up by £338 million to £4.7 billion.

The 7.8% rise in whisky exports made up for a slight decrease across other sectors, although food exports have grown by 125% since 2007.

The “strength of Scotland’s brand” has been heralded as a key reason for the record high. James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said: “The collaborative effort of industry, Scottish Development International and Scottish Government to transform our sector’s export performance continues to pay off.

“The strength of Scotland’s brand, the quality of our products and our investment in overseas staff has driven this export success.

“The latest figures demonstrate how valuable the EU market is. It remains the destination for two-thirds of our food exports. Our future strategy must rest on building our trade with Europe even further. That will strengthen the platform from which we can then continue the remarkable export growth momentum across North America, Asia and the Middle East.”

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday said that food and drink is “one of Scotland’s brightest economic success stories”, before warning of the threat of Brexit.

He added: “These statistics highlight the importance of the sector’s growth in recent years and are testament to the unique collaboration between government and industry and the hard work and enterprise of businesses all over Scotland.

“In challenging circumstances, a record high in exports has been achieved – that is great news.

“The numbers also highlight the risks that Brexit poses to this success. They show that our single biggest trading partner for exports – by some distance – is the EU.

“Any form of Brexit represents a major threat to the cost and quality of produce exported from Scotland. This government wants our food and drink sector to continue to flourish, at home and in international markets. That is why we will keep on making the case for Scotland to remain in the EU. It is our most important market for so many Scottish food and drink products, and we want that to continue into the future.”

Apart from Scotland’s’s meat exports rising by £10m to £109m, a slight decrease in the sector saw fish and seafood sales fall back from £947m, but still reaching £916m.

Fruit and vegetables rose from £62m to £67m. As March marks Scottish Tourism Month 2019, industry experts have hailed the dual force of Scotch whisky tourism and the manufacture and export of the produce working in tandem.

Ian Smith, head of corporate relations for Diageo Scotland, said: “The manufacture and export of Scotch whisky will remain the core of the industry, generating £4.697 billion in export value and supporting the vast majority of the 10,000 direct and 40,000 indirect jobs in the economy.

“But tourism is no longer an add-on to the primary business of making and exporting Scotch whisky, it has truly emerged as a major commercial opportunity in its own right.

“And the beauty of Scotch is that export manufacturing and global tourism are two sides of the same coin. Every one of the 1.276 billion bottles of Scotch sold around the world in 2018 was an advert for Scotland and an invitation to come and visit. And, in turn, every visitor we welcome to a distillery is a potential lifelong devotee of Scotch and Scotland.”

In 2018, the number of 70cl whisky bottles exported also reached record levels, growing to the equivalent of 1.28 billion, up 3.6%, while the United States became the first billion pound export market for Scotch Whisky, growing to £1.04bn last year. The EU remains the largest region for exports, accounting for 30% of global value and 36% of global volume. Graeme Littlejohn, Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) Director of Strategy and Communications, said: “These figures show that Scotch Whisky continues to lead the way for Scotland’s world-class produce – 41 bottles of Scotch Whisky are shipped from Scotland each second to around 180 countries. The industry does not take continued growth for granted.

“We operate in a competitive global marketplace and so a competitive business environment in Scotland and across the UK is vital to future growth.”