Helmer: The Whisky Years

With Paul Walsh, CEO of Diageo


As I love to say, I used to have a real job for thirty years — then I became a politician!  It was a varied career, and a high point was the very happy period, four years or so, that I spent working in the early Nineties (seems like a lifetime ago) for what was then United Distillers/Guinness plc, but is now Diageo.  But never mind the fancy corporate names, think Johnnie Walker, Dewars, White Horse, Gordon’s Gin, and so on.  That was first in Korea, and later with a regional rôle in Singapore.

During the Korea period (and I still sit on the EU parliament’s Korea Interparliamentary delegation), the big issue was market access.  The Koreans had huge and discriminatory import duties on foreign spirits, plus a range of non-tariff barriers.  I worked closely with our then British Ambassador David (now Sir David) Wright, who did a wonderful job for the spirits industry (unlike the EU head of delegation, Giles Anouilh, who was more concerned with selling the Koreans a French or German high-speed train for the Seoul/Pusan route, and didn’t want to rock the boat on market access for spirits).

Naturally I have continued to take an interest in the business, and I am delighted that the Korea free trade deal with we recently voted through the parliament should finally solve the market access issue.

So why should anyone in the UK care about whisky in Korea?

We in the UK are desperately looking for export-led growth, to re-balance our trade and lead us out of our current difficulties.  Scotch Whisky remains one of the UK’s top exports, accounting for almost 25% of all UK food & drink exports.  Shipments in 2010 reached over £3.4 billion, which represents sales at a rate of over £107 per second.  This record export performance is up some 10% on last year. All this is in the face of a 100% increase in cereal prices, and 30% increase in energy prices (one of my hobby-horses!) not to mention international economic challenges. There has been strong growth for the industry in Latin America, Asia Pacific and Africa, but even a traditional, developed market such as the United States was up almost 20% in value.

In recently-developed countries like Korea, and developing countries like China and India, there is a huge emerging middle-class with a rapidly increasing level of disposable income and a taste for Western branded products, so the prospects for future export growth are very promising indeed.

The industry is always telling us to drink responsibly, and I often look forward to a small, responsible glass of a single malt before bedtime.  My favourite is Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, but there’s a big range to choose from.  Enjoy!

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4 Responses to Helmer: The Whisky Years

  1. Russellw says:

    Echo the Talisker, Roger!!

  2. Peter Hulme Cross says:

    Yes, indeed!

    I wonder if you are familiar with the Whiskies from the Island of Islay – among them Islay Mist, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich – and whether they are popular in places like Korea? I would imagine they are less well known than some of the others?

    • I’m very keen on Islay malts as well — even the ones I can’t pronounce or spell, like Bruccladich (?). They say that Lagavulin tastes like melted-down wellies, but it works for me! But Asian markets tend to be big on branded blends, like Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas.

  3. Another interesting and informative read, thankyou!

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