Scottish leader sees growth for whisky sales in China

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With Scotch whisky exports to China soaring, Scottish leader Alex Salmond said Friday his country's most iconic product is poised to become the next big thing in China's luxury market.

The first minister visited the mainland and Hong Kong this week to promote Scotland's famous malts and its largest export, fresh farmed salmon, to China's rapidly expanding fine dining industry.

He said Scotland could better France's Bordeaux region, which saw a 92 percent surge in wine export volumes to China in the 12 months to July, as China's rising affluence creates new markets for Western luxury goods.

"Whisky sales are up 35 percent this year to China," Salmond told AFP in an interview in the southern city of Hong Kong, the last stop of his China trip.

"If you take a couple of our iconic products together, Scotch whisky and Scottish salmon, then it's a billion RMB ($157 million) this year, an increase of well over a third for the two products together."

Wine imports to China are poised to set a new record after surging nearly 60 percent year-on-year in the first nine months of 2011 to US$940 million.

In the world of fine malt liquor, Salmond said Scotland had an unbeatable advantage -- its single malt Scotch whisky was unique, respected for the finest quality and simply the best product of its kind on the market.

"I think we've got a great platform to advance to the growing quality market in China," he said.

"People look for quality and authenticity and Scotch whisky and Scottish salmon are iconic products which offer that."

Strengthening trade with the Asian region in general is a key focus of his government, he said.

The economy looms large over discussions about an independent Scotland, which have stepped up a gear after the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in May's election to the devolved Edinburgh parliament.

The triumph of the pro-independence SNP, which won the first overall majority in the legislature since it opened in 1999, has paved the way for a referendum on a split from Britain which had previously seemed unlikely.

Salmond gave little away about his intentions for the plebiscite, repeating his stock response that a vote would take place in the second half of the parliament's five-year term.

The nationalists view the economy as one of their strong cards, arguing that Scotland can only flourish with independent control over its main industries, notably North Sea oil and gas but also whisky and fine foods.

The first minister said his government's huge majority freed him up to travel more and promote Scottish products around the world, particularly Asia.

"Not just in China but across Asia, Scottish products across the range are having great success and great growth and we expect that to continue. This is a big economic boost for Scotland," he said.

The Chinese rank about 16th on the list of biggest Scotch drinkers, but are "coming up very very fast," Salmond said.

"Initially of course the great blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal were the dominant ones (in China), but there does seem to be a real appetite for the single malt whiskies," he said.

The Scotch Whisky Association said in September sales to Asia increased 33 percent to £423 million ($660 million) in the first six months of the year, well ahead of overall export growth of 22 percent.

China bought £57 million worth of the stuff in the 12 months to June 2011, according to Scottish government figures.

Salmond said the Chinese government's decision last year to give Geographical Indication of Origin (GI) status to Scotch whisky was of "enormous value" to distillers.

In a country of counterfeit goods from iPhones to French Champagne, the designation guarantees that products labelled as "Scotch Whisky" actually come from Scotland.

"It's vital when you're selling a quality product that the consumer across Asia knows they are getting the absolute authentic product, not some cheap imitation whisky from America or other producers," Salmond said.

"The Chinese have been very cooperative and very wise in introducing that because they understand the importance for the Chinese consumer, particularly the new emerging Chinese consumer, in being able to get the right products."

He said more work needed to be done on enforcement but expressed confidence the Chinese would continue to work with their Scottish counterparts to ensure Chinese Scotch whisky lovers get the real thing.

© 2011 AFP

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