The recent release of export numbers for Scotch whisky appeared to be cause to celebrate for the category. But, as Ian Buxton warns, the devil is in the detail.

According to figures unveiled late last month by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), Scotch exports continued to grow last year, hitting a record GBP4.2bn (US$6.66bn) in shipment value, up 23% on 2010. 

Rising demand in both emerging and more mature markets has resulted in export values increasing by an average of 10% a year over the last five years. Scotch now contributes GBP134 per second to the UK balance of trade, says the SWA.

Exports to the US, the biggest market by value, broke the GBP600m barrier for the first time in 2011 to reach GBP654.9m – up 31% on 2010. France, the second biggest market, saw exports grow by 27% to GBP535.4m.

This time last year, we heard a similar story: SWA statistics for 2010 show an increase in export value of around 10% on 2009. The good news was accounted for by a variety of factors, the trade body said at the time: tariff reductions, increasing interest from younger professionals in newer markets in Asia and Latin America, and rising demand in both emerging and more mature markets.

On the face of it, both sets of figures are fantastic. To achieve growth of close to a quarter on top of a 10% jump is quite remarkable. Trebles all round are surely in order.

But, wait a moment. These are value figures we’re happily patting ourselves on the back about. They take no account of inflation, which you may have noticed recently has been quietly growing. And then, let’s not forget that most whisky isn’t sold in British Pounds Sterling anyway.

Is that an echo of Harold Wilson’s infamous “the pound in your pocket has not been devalued” that I can hear?

As economic correspondents such as Jeremy Warner of The Daily Telegraph have pointed out: “It's not generally realised, but over the past four years, the pound has experienced its sharpest depreciation since Britain left the gold standard in 1931 – much bigger than more memorable devaluation episodes such as the deceit of Harold Wilson's pound in your pocket or the UK's ignominious exit from the ERM.”

If you doubt that, just think of how much your pound bought you (or rather, didn’t buy you) on your last overseas trip. Perhaps we should remember that a (un)healthy chunk of the gains are accounted for by this 'hidden’ devaluation. In other words, a paper gain that means little or nothing.

Overall volume might be a better guide. Sadly there isn’t as much comfort there. The SWA’s 2009/2010 figures reveal a 2% drop (we don’t yet have the equivalent data for 2011) and a cumulative decline of almost 7% (over 6.8m 12-bottle cases) since 2007. 

Let’s not enquire how Irish, American and Japanese whiskies have performed over a similar period. And, being polite, I won’t mention global vodka sales.

The Prince of Morocco was taken in by a gold casket but instead of a lady’s portrait and the promise of marriage he found Death and the sombre motto “Gilded tombs do worms enfold.” All that glisters is not gold.

I’m sure there’s plenty to celebrate in the world of Scotch. Distilleries are being expanded and re-opened – only last week we read of the Ian Macleod Distillers' plans to reopen the Tamdhu plant next year – and younger consumers are rediscovering the category.

So, please don’t, despair – but let’s concentrate on real shipments of real cases of real whisky and not get carried away by the illusory gains of financial engineering.