THE latest export figures for the Scotch whisky industry released last week provided a welcome boost at a time when positive news around the economy is thin on the ground.

And there were some very revealing points in the bulletin issued by the Scotch Whisky Association, which represents the bulk of the industry.

The value of Scotch whisky exports reached £6.2 billion in 2022, an increase of 37 per cent on the year before. It was the first time the figure had exceeded £6bn, with the landmark occurring in a year which saw the volume of 70cl bottles exported rise by 21% to the equivalent of 1.67 billion.

And it was not only the surge in the value of exports in 2022– which underlined the industry’s recovery from the pandemic as society reopened following Covid restrictions – that caught the eye.

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France had been the second biggest overseas market for Scotch whisky in terms of the volume of bottles shipped by distillers since 2001. However, France was usurped on that front in 2022 by India, a market that has long been held up as one of enormous potential for the industry.

Some 219 million bottles of Scotch were exported to India last year, a rise of 60% on the year before, as distillers began to realise the opportunity in one of the world’s biggest markets for dark spirits. Remarkably, Scotch whisky still accounts for just 2% of the Indian spirits market, even though exports to the country have surged by around 200% in the last decade.

Given that Scotch exports to India currently face an import tariff of 150%, it is no surprise that the industry is so keen for the UK Government to secure freer access to the market as it negotiates a post-Brexit, free trade deal with India in the months ahead.

Indeed, the SWA estimates that the value of whisky exports to India could rise to £1 billion over the next five years should those import tariffs be gradually reduced. Last year the industry exported £282m of Scotch to India, a jump of 93% on 2021.

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“By reducing tariffs through the UK-India free trade agreement, continuing the duty freeze in the March Budget, and ensuring the industry’s continued ability to advertise our world-class product in our home market, the Scottish and UK governments can count on the Scotch whisky industry to reinvest its success across the UK,” said Mark Kent, chief executive of the SWA. That the wares of the whisky industry, which directly employs 11,000 people in Scotland, are so sought after internationally is good for the economy and for the reputation of the country.

Yet new proposals tabled by the Scottish Government, as referred to by Mr Kent, give the impression that the industry is not quite as valued in its home market.

As has widely been reported, ministers have launched a consultation on measures that would ban advertising on alcohol and severely restrict the way in which it can be promoted, for example on billboards and signage or through sport sponsorship, in a bid to tackle alcohol-related harm.

The consultation draws a link between the way alcohol is marketed and the impression it has on children, and suggests that it could also have a “triggering effect” on those who are in recovery or are being treated for alcohol problems.

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While on the face of it the desire to reduce alcohol-related harm can be lauded, the side-effects of such radical proposals would not appear to have been fully thought through by the authors of the consultation.

Indeed, the proposals sparked a furious response from the drinks, tourism and hospitality industries, which were quick to highlight the damage the plans could unwittingly inflict on jobs and the economy. At one end of the drinks industry, fears were expressed that spirits giant Diageo would be forced to remove all branding from its Johnnie Walker Experience, a hugely successful tourism attraction on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

At the other, emerging craft player Shipyard Gin of Inverclyde warned that being prevented from sponsoring local football teams or advertising would drive it out of business.

The boss of The Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile feared the tourism business would have to close when she first read the document.

Chief executive Susan Morrison told The Herald: “When it (consultation) first came out and I read through it, I thought: ‘well that shuts us down’. If that goes through, there is no way that the likes of the Johnnie Walker [Experience] and SWE can exist anymore. It looked like we would have to change our name, we wouldn’t have been able to have a website that sold tickets. It was just ridiculous. I know there are noises being made about a bit of U-turn.

“Bearing in mind that 95% of our audience is international and English – we only have a 5% Scottish market – our whole remit from the beginning has been to educate people on the appreciation of Scotch whisky and to talk about enjoying it and not abusing it. That is why we are here. I know the industry are all behind looking at how Scotland can have a better relationship with alcohol. I’m just not convinced that this is the way to go about it.”

As Ms Morrison alluded to, Scotland’s now outgoing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon did give some hope to the business community in comments last week, when she appeared to rule out distilleries having to hide their identities or stop the sale of branded merchandise. That came after Alison Douglas of Alcohol Focus Scotland had said distilleries could remain open but would have to change their names.

As far as the whisky industry is concerned, though, danger still lurks in the plans. The consultation closes on March 9.

“We welcome the First Minister’s recognition of the importance of the Scotch whisky industry, making clear that stopping the use of brand names in marketing is not in Scottish Government plans,” a spokeswoman for the SWA said.

“It remains the case that the consultation on marketing and advertising contains sweeping proposals that have the potential to damage the industry’s ability to generate growth, jobs, and prosperity. We look forward to continued discussions of the proposals with the Scottish Government and will formally respond to the consultation in due course.”