NICOLA Sturgeon has rowed back on the extent of any Scottish Government advertising ban on alcohol, effectively killing off suggestions that distilleries would need to stop selling branded merchandise or hide their identity.

The First Minister said the key element or any restriction would be about reducing the exposure of children to drinks promotion.

Earlier this week, we reported concerns from industry bosses who feared that the far-reaching proposals laid out in the Scottish Government’s consultation paper could decimate Scotland’s whisky tourism industry. 

Gordon Morrison, the CEO of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions told us it would force businesses to close and have a devastating impact on the wider Scottish economy.

READ MORE: Whisky tourism sector under threat from Scottish Government ad ban

The consultation, launched late last year, proposes a number of measures to try and tackle what it describes as Scotland’s “deep, longstanding and troubled relationship with alcohol”.

As well as banning adverts on billboards and in newspapers and magazines, it also proposes a ban on merchandise with alcohol branding, and an end to booze firms sponsoring sporting and cultural events.

Alison Douglas from the Alcohol Focus charity pushing for the change told the BBC that distilleries and visitor centres would still be able to open, but that they would just need to change their name. 

She suggested the £150m Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh could instead call itself "the Diageo experience". 

“Because Diageo isn’t a brand of whisky whereas Johnnie Walker is," she said.

In Holyrood, answering a question from Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, the First Minister said the consultation was about getting "a range of views on the most appropriate next steps in reducing alcohol related harm."

She said: "Considering restriction in promotion of alcohol is not unique to Scotland, for example, Ireland passed legislation to bring in a number of restrictions five years ago restrictions that were focused on reducing the exposure of children to alcohol promotion."

READ MORE: Isle of Harris distillery boss warns of ad ban impact

Mr Fraser asked her to rule out some of the more radical proposals in the consultation document.

"She will know that the whisky tourism sector is worth some £84 million annually to the Scottish economy and supports jobs in rural and remote communities where there are a few other opportunities. And yet, this sector, as leaders have been very clear about, is concerned about the threat from a ban on all alcohol advertising. 

“Now, I would agree with the First Minister, we do need to look at sensible measures to tackle alcohol abuse, but does she agree with me that it would be absurd if whisky distilleries, which are so important to our economy, had to cover up all their signage, close their shops, stop promoting tours, and the likes of the Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh, which is a tremendous tourism draw, had to rebrand itself and board up its windows, which is what people are concerned about?"

Ms Sturgeon was emphatic. "Yes. Yes, to be clear, Presiding Officer, I do agree with that.

"And I'll come back to that perhaps in a moment. But firstly, the whisky tourism sector is extremely important to Scotland's reputation as well as to Scotland's economy. The Johnnie Walker experience centre here in Edinburgh is a prime example of that.”

She added: “That the target would be painted signs on distilleries or visitor centres are not in our current thinking, and let me be very clear about that. 

“There is a world of difference between a billboard outside or in the vicinity of a school and for example, a Johnnie Walker baseball cap. So we've got to look pragmatically and seriously at this.”

Ms Sturgeon said she hoped the answer would help reassure the whisky tourism sector. 

Gordon Morrison told The Herald: "To say I am relieved at the First Minister’s comments in the Scottish Parliament today is an understatement.

"All I and my sector would ask for is that a common-sense approach is taken in drafting this legislation.

"As it is currently set out in the consultation, the proposed legislation would have a disastrous impact on Scottish tourism.

"It is therefore heartening to hear from the First Minister that our concerns are being listened to and I take her comments today to mean that there will be no introduction of draconian policies which would harm our world class distillery and brewery visitor attractions."

READ MORE: Alcohol could be 'hidden like tobacco' in marketing curbs

During question time, SNP MSP Natalie Don, said the real harm facing the industry was Brexit

"As this is still a live consultation on the restriction of alcohol advertising, and as no final proposals have been launched, will the First Minister agree with me that any potential harm is still hypothetical at this stage? Whereas the real harms being experienced by the hospitality and tourism sector as caused by Brexit are being felt right now. And the Tories should be pushing their Westminster leaders to address this."

Ms Sturgeon said her backbencher was right.

"The Conservatives don't like to talk about the difference between hypothetical harm -  and I understand the concerns that have been expressed, and hopefully what I've said today will allay those concerns on the part of the whisky tourism sector, for example,  - but there is very real harm being done today, right now, by Brexit.

"That loss of free movement is causing harm specifically to our hospitality and tourism sectors as well as to the wider economy.

"So we will continue to listen to the hospitality sector, the tourism sector, to the whisky tourism sector in particular in relation to this issue, and take on board reasonable points that they make.

"If only the UK Government would adopt a similar posture when it came to these industries expressing concern about the very real impact and the very real harm that Brexit is doing to them right now."