When Scotch whisky was being made by monks in abbeys in 15th Century Scotland, they couldn’t have begun to imagine that one day it would be a drink that’s enjoyed all around the world. It would have seemed even less likely over the following centuries when monasteries were dissolved and whisky production had to continue underground, before coming into its own in the 19th Century by which time over 4 million gallons were being produced each year.
Today there are around 128 distilleries in Scotland, which is the highest concentration of whisky production in any country in the world. Not only that, but it’s also a hugely popular drink on a global scale, sold and enjoyed in almost any country you could think of. And the good news for distilleries and distributors alike is that its popularity keeps on growing.
The recent export figures for 2019 from HM Revenue and Customs, released by The Scotch Whisky Association show that there’s been worldwide growth of 4.4%. Scotch whisky is currently worth £4.91 billion a year as an industry, and saw growth in 106 global markets, with Asia and Africa showing value increases of 9.8% and 11.3% respectively.
Scotch whisky is the world’s most internationally-traded spirit, with 42 bottles shipped every single second, so it’s no wonder that it represents around 75% of Scotland’s food and drink exports. Markets like Brazil, India and South Africa are all showing signs of growth in 2020 despite the impact Covid-19 has had on trade in general.
The figures show particularly good news for the Scottish Single Malts market, which grew by over 14% from 2016 to 2017 while exports are predicted to have grown by 11.4% from 2018 to 2022. Meanwhile there was also a jump in the number of 70cl bottles exported last year, up 2.4% to 1.31bn.
The largest areas showing growth in Scotch whisky exports in 2019 were:
USA: £ 1,069m (up 2.8%)
Taiwan: £205m (up 22%)
Germany: £184m (up 5.6%)
Spain: £180m (up 4.8%)
India: £166m (up 19.7%)
Japan: £147m (up 16.1%)
Latvia: £142m (up 8.1%)
Investments in Scotch whisky have continued to grow in 2020 despite the turbulence in global markets in general, but does that mean that it’s Covid-proof? The global pandemic has certainly had an impact on the market. For one thing, earlier in the year when the country went into lockdown for the first time, that affected distilleries’ ability to work.
Many then pivoted to using their ingredients to produce hand sanitiser for essential services, using denatured alcohol. Some provided denatured alcohol for other firms to produce sanitiser, while others did the whole process themselves, playing an important role in protecting their communities in a time of real trouble.
Once production got back to normal levels, uncertainties around trade and global and local restrictions brought in around the world saw a 30% drop in exports for Scotch whisky in the first half of 2020. This is understandable in the circumstances, but still represents the first real bump in the road for a market much more used to growth.
As Covid-19 restrictions gradually ease and trading conditions return to normal, we can expect to see numbers picking up again for the second half of the year. The overall sales figures are likely to be lower than 2019, but this is a situation that will be reflected in all other asset classes as the pandemic will have impacted all exports.
Of more concern is the tariff brought in by the USA in October 2019 on the import of single malt Scotch whisky and Scotch whisky liqueurs. The immediate impact of that could be seen in the results for the final quarter of 2019, which saw a 25% drop and is expected to impact particularly on smaller distilleries who only produce single malt Scotch and rely on the US market for exports. However, with notable growth in various other global markets, that reliance could become less important in time.
Another cloud on the horizon is the uncertainty about the impact of Brexit, which will see trading conditions change in ways as yet unclear from the start of 2021. However, Scotch whisky investment has largely remained resilient so far through the chaos of 2020, continuing to grow in value up by 564% in the last 10 years according to Knight Frank’s Wealth Report, despite Covid-19, so there are still plenty of reasons for optimism, whatever challenges the pandemic, tariffs and Brexit may yet create in the export markets.
After all, if Scotch whisky could flourish despite the best efforts of King Henry VIII in the 16th Century, these challenges are not likely to hold up its continued global growth in the 21st Century.