Scotch whisky exports to Asia rising so fast that supplies may run short

15-year production time lag may mean temporary scarcity - Distillers lobbying hard to stop minimum alcohol pricing

By Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent December 1, 2011
The Guardian
The scotch whisky industry is on track to break another export record, with executives warning that the surge in sales could lead to supply shortages.

The latest quarterly figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that in the last nine months its sales overseas climbed by 23% compared with last year. That is before Christmas and New Year sales are taken into account, putting the industry on course to shatter last year's 3.4bn export record.

SWA executives said this surge in popularity, built on the growth of an affluent, image-conscious middle class in emerging markets in South America and Asia, could mean that some distilleries and producers might temporarily run short of supplies, as whisky production has a "lag time" of 10 to years or more. The association calculated that this rate of sales meant the whisky industry was earning 125 every second for Britain's balance of payments, making it the "stellar" export performer and the most successful of all "fast moving" products made in the UK.

Ian Curle, the SWA's newly appointed chairman, and chief executive of the Edrington group, producers of The Famous Grouse, said much of scotch whisky's recent success overseas had been driven by the growth in consumers who see the drink as a prestigious symbol of their wealth and status, in preference to indigenous spirits. The final overseas sales value of whisky, which helps support 10,300 direct jobs and 35,000 suppliers' jobs, could be as much as 10bn. The best-selling brand is Johnnie Walker, made by Diageo, with 20% of the market.

However, the SWA warned that whisky's success was threatened by the Scottish government's proposals to introduce a minimum price for alcohol next year, which could be set at 50p a unit, leading the SWA to consider supporting court action to prevent it becoming law. Curle said minimum pricing in Scotland would make it far harder for the industry to argue against high tariffs and price controls in its overseas markets.

Curle said the association's export success gave him "great joy" but said it had been driven largely by challenging and dismantling tariffs in its fastest-growing markets, such as India and Brazil, and by vigorously promoting free trade.

He claimed there were several countries, including France and South Korea, where parliamentarians were proposing price controls on alcohol, often to protect their domestic producers, while others, such as Mexico, retained hefty import tariffs. He said: "Many of these countries have large domestic industries which are under threat by this premium category and they don't all play fair. If they're given an opportunity to introduce a new level of tax and point at something happening in our own backyard, we wouldn't put it past them to use those mechanisms."

Gavin Hewitt, the SWA's chief executive, said the association had not ruled out taking part or supporting a legal challenge to the measure. Experts believe the Scottish government will be open to challenge on several fronts - for acting outside its strictly limited powers on taxation, but also over European and global competition laws. Curle said there was a "big question mark" over Holyrood's legal competence on drinks pricing.

That would leave Westminster facing a significant predicament, since it would be the UK government, as the EU member state, that would face prosecution in Strasbourg rather than Alex Salmond's administration.

UK ministers would be presented with that challenge as soon as Holyrood passed a minimum pricing law - a move now seen as inevitable after the Scottish National party won a majority at Holyrood in May - because ministers in London would have to give the act a legal bill of health before it became law.

The SWA is pressing the UK government to completely revise its alcohol tax regime across all parts of the UK, with excise duties based on a drink's alcohol content. That would increase revenues but not fall foul of competition law, the association says.