WANT some hard-nosed facts about Scottish success? The only UK export sector in manufactured goods that performed better than Scotch whisky in 2022 – which increased sales by 25% last year – is aircraft parts (27%). Whisky exports swelled from £4.51 billion in 2021 to more than £6bn in 2022.

A world getting increasingly blootered on a product that’s legally mandated to come from Scotland is something of a challenge.

So who’s buying – and what are they really buying?

The first question is pretty straightforwardly answered. This week, the French-owned distiller Chivas Brothers, based in Dumbarton, reported an 11% increase in profits for its financial year. These came from sales rises in South Korea, Greater China and Taiwan, up by 21%. (Another report from the independent, Scots-owned malt maker GlenAllachie, breaking £20 million turnover for the first time, added Hong Kong and Singapore to the growth list.)

The report in our sister paper The Herald talks of the “uncanny knack” that Scotch whisky industries have of “cultivating new markets”, as traditional markets (like France and the US) mature.

Yet a fascinating article in The Conversation, by Glasgow University’s Niall G MacKenzie, reveals a long history. One that’s more canny than uncanny.

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It turns out that Scotch whisky has been expert in export from way back. MacKenzie has found adverts in New York newspapers from 1839, selling Ardbeg Scotch from Islay.

The industry has long experience of being taxed by governments of the day, which has inexorably pushed them outwards to the world.

Blended Scotch is currently 59% of the market, and rose last year by 43%. But this is rooted in legislation from the mid-19th century, when the UK Government allowed the blending of different producers (which improved the quality and consistency of its taste).

Yet when the market slumped in the 80s and 90s – partly because of tariffs imposed by importing countries – the whisky industry switched to a different product, with a refreshed story.

The single malt, rendered as arising from the natural resources (and history) of particular Scottish distilleries, was successfully sold to international consumers – at a premium price (even £60 a bottle isn’t so challenging to members of China’s rising middle class).

Read around the whisky marketing sites and reports, and you get glimmers of why the drink lands so successfully in Asia.

The National: Whisky

Whisky sellers make much of the importance of status in Chinese culture: the labelled bottle of Scotch placed in the middle of the table, illuminated by lights, is often cited. Whisky also lubricates the toasting element of Chinese social and business life.

There’s a lot of sophisticated analysis going on around the deep meaning of whisky. Indeed, in another research paper, Mackenzie calls it the Scotch whisky industry’s “dynamic capability” – turning on a dime to sniff out new markets.

For example, I found a Chivas presentation from 2019 (available on YouTube) that looks into the “semiotics” of consumers’ descriptions of whisky tastes. It’s intended to give marketers a sense of the visual and verbal cues they need to use on drinkers.

An early slide shows pictures of Connery’s James Bond, Don Draper in Mad Men, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and various other leathery, bearded patriarchs – all of them sipping away at the nectar in their tumblers.

In the presenter’s words, these demonstrate whisky’s traditional associations with “masculinity” and “competence”. No doubt this is what’s resonating when glasses of Scotch anoint business deals in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.

But then they go on to take the fusty language of whisky tasting, and see what its futures could be. “Fruity” is traditionally tied to particular fruits (“citrus”), but could instead evoke bold, bright colours and excitement. “Sweet” is usually rendered as intense, even overwhelming (“syrupy” and “toffee-like”), but maybe could open out a sense of “subtle artisanship”.

What popped out at the end of this process was a whole new Glenlivet mix, called “Caribbean Reserve”. This blend tries to evoke “red apple, zesty orange, marzipan and ripe bananas in syrup”. It’s also mixable with tea too (especially for the Chinese market).

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Am I dying to taste, let alone buy this concoction? Err, I’m not exactly sure. And this isn’t just my tension; it’s evident in the internal ruminations of the Scotch whisky sector itself.

Is locality, provenance and authenticity the most commercially solid (but maybe patriarchally stolid) basis from which to sell Scotch whisky to the wider world? Does it stand like an icon of consistency in an uncertain world, calmly waiting for the life stages of consumers to mesh with its gears? Does growth involve more inimitable distilleries, surrounded by eternal peat, barley fields and deep running water?

Or does Scotch try to take risks in shedding some of its historic baggage? Does it allow itself to become part of many different scenes, settings and entertainments? Especially given an overall global trend towards reduced alcohol drinking amongst the young (and maybe also, a post-patriarchal mindset)?

I’m up for more “dynamic capability” in Scottish life generally, so I welcome all experiments on the latter side. But I may as well confess, in closing, that my world of Scotch whisky is tightly meshed with the former strategy. And attached to very particular places and life stages indeed.

A marriage ago, indeed an adulthood ago, I often visited the isle of Islay, for fun with family and friends. Tiny but beautiful coastal villages. Skies darkened with Gruinart geese. Crashed cars like rusting modern sculptures at the side of long roads. The endless, Gulf-Stream-pummelled beach at the Oa, South American seed pods crunching underfoot. Yes, that Islay.

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This is also the Islay of nine working distilleries, with two more planned to open up in the coming years, and a dram implied in all hospitable moments with the Ileach (Gaelic for its residents). They got me with Caol Ila, and I’m still loyal.

In terms of the dichotomy previously mentioned, the following memory alone means I can’t be detached from Scotch as the spirit of community. One blustery night, we joined a blind whisky-tasting contest, in a crammed village hall.

I watched giant farmers topple like trees in the closing rounds. Meanwhile, a tiny wee old lady in a greatcoat took one decorous sideways step after another. She identified every whisky correctly, on her way to supreme victory.

A sense of community? At the very least. The whisky writer Dave Broom brought out a subtle and interesting book in 2022, titled A Sense of Place.

In it, Broom applies the concept of bioregionalism to the Scottish whisky scene. This is similar to the French notion of the “terroir” (or environment) that produces a wine.

But guided by the ideas of Patrick Geddes, bioregionalism includes the culture, the social traditions, and the many resources that are cultivated and generated by the production of whisky.

“There’s this completely forgotten history of Scotch whisky that isn’t a business history, it’s a social history”, says Broom in a recent interview. In places like Harris, Raasay, and Ardnamurchan, “building a distillery there is like dropping a pebble into a pool, and the resulting ripples help create or recreate a community.”

“It’s this social aspect of distilling which I think was to some extent lost or obscured in the 20th century when blends were more important.”

Broom’s book reports on a leading edge of the whisky industry. One that values the intensely local – pushing forward on the renewability of their distilling processes, keeping their organic supply chains as short as possible. Yet which is also able to find a global market for this product, and the (verifiable) story around it.

Such a story could link up ecological virtue, and biological vice, with great sophistication. Light on the planet, light in your head. It’s hardly eco-socialism. But it’s not aircraft parts, either.