Donald Trump’s trade war has hit Scotland whisky industry, as Scotch single malt exports fall and revenues dip

Donald Trump’s tariff war had a lasting impact on Scotland’s whisky distilleries – skimming off significantly more than the angels’ share.

The latest figures show the tariff spat between the US and the EU, combined with the pandemic and supply chain problems resulted in a 9 per cent hit to independent distilleries’ revenues last year.

Revenues of the UK’s top 20 distilleries by turnover for the 2020-21 financial year fell to £1.35bn, from the previous year’s total of £1.5bn, according to accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young.

The 25 per cent trade tariff imposed by the Trump administration – a punitive measure in a long-running dispute over state support for rival aerospace engineers Boeing and Airbus – is cited as one of the main factors behind this decrease.

Figures published last year by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) suggest it reduced exports of single malt whisky by more than a third, amounting to more than £500m of lost trade.

Another issue that weighed heavily on the industry was the impact of the pandemic on travel, which hit higher-margin whisky sales in airport duty-free shops, and the number of tourists visiting distilleries.

Some distilleries also cite the cost of living crisis, slowing economic growth, and supply chain problems, inculding lack of availability of shipping containers. Many of these issues could last into next year.

However, UHY Hacker Young found that independent distillers of gin, rum and diversified spirits had an easier time, logging 12 per cent rises in revenue to reach £245m in the same period.

Unlike whisky distilleries, which are required to age their brew for at least three years, those who make other spirits can grow more quickly as they are able to reach the market quicker.

They were also not affected by Trump’s trade tariff, which was suspended for five years from June 2021 after Joe Biden became US President.

The US is the largest export market for Scotch whisky: UHY Hacker Young estimated the country accounts for a third of overseas shipments of the spirit.

The SWA’s data, which covers both independent and larger distillers, suggests that while total sales to the US are still behind pre-pandemic levels, they recovered by a moderate 8 per cent in 2021, compared to a 32 per cent drop in the previous year.

“While the suspension of the tariffs is welcome, the industry is still bouncing back from the damage done,” he added. “The industry needs Chancellor Rishi Sunak to support the whisky trade, and the tens of thousands of jobs the industry supports across the UK, in the autumn budget as economic pressures begin to bite.”

The industry employs more than 11,000 people throughout Scotland, mostly in rural areas, the SWA reports.

The top 20 independent distilleries had an average revenue of between £6 and £10m, according to UHY. The largest one covered by its research, The Edrington Group, which distils The Macallan, Highland Park and The Glenrothes whiskies, suffered a 21 per cent fall in profits for the year ended 31 March 2021, bringing in £178.4m. The company’s overall revenues dipped 15 per cent to £576.2m for the year.

Scott McCroskie, Edrington’s chief executive, cited the pandemic and tariffs on single malt in the US as being a consistent factor behind the firm’s “decline in profitability”.

Martin Jones, a partner at UHY, said: “For someone looking to start a distillery, now is probably not a good time” due to slowing economies and the difficulty of predicting future demand.

However, there is hope for the future. Scotch “is an excellent brand for Scotland. It’s clearly popular and there is a big market for it in the US,” he added.

Mark Kent, SWA’s chief executive, said he believed the industry was “resilient”, adding: “[The industry] has survived through world wars, recessions…and even prohibition,” he said. “So, I am confident we can get through this one too.”

Though the industry is yet to recover to its £5bn of export revenues as enjoyed pre-pandemic, the revival is under way: global exports grew to £4.51bn in 2021, the SWA said, while the value of exports – driven by those premium bottles – was up 19 per cent.