As the Scotch whisky industry en masse breathes a long - if discreet - sigh of relief that the Scottish National Party failed to carry the day in the country's independence referendum last month, it will be pondering how to return what is one of the country's key export earners swiftly back to growth.

According to sales data in a new report from just-drinks and The IWSR, published this week, global sales of Scotch whisky fell in 2013 by 0.8% to 96m cases, with 14 of the industry's top 25 markets registering declines.

The report focuses on IWSR sales data rather than the Scotch Whisky Association's (SWA) official export figures, because the former measures consumption and is "generally a more precise indicator of a market's health" and because product shipped to one market is sometimes re-exported.

That said, the SWA's shipment figures are not much better. Export shipments were flat in value terms in 2013 at GBP4.3bn (US$7.2bn) while, in volume terms, shipments rose by 3% to 101.1m cases. Last week, the SWA announced that exports in the first half of this year had dropped by 11% in value terms, as sales in some core markets fell by as much as half.

Looking ahead, the outlook - and the strategy - is a familiar one, with Scotch whisky producers eyeing fast-growing emerging markets to compensate for declines in mature markets, notably those in Europe. 

Notwithstanding a recent slowing of growth rates in key emerging markets, such as Russia, India and Brazil, the report suggests the basic strategy is sound. "Emerging economies will continue to hold the key to Scotch whisky growth in the next few years, with markets including Russia, India and Brazil likely to post the most significant gains," the report states.

China and India remain markets of "huge promise", while the report expects "heavy investment from key players, a dedicated focus on geographical expansion and strong demand from an aspirational and expanding middle and wealthy class" to continue yielding growth in Brazil, "albeit at more measured rates than in recent years".

However, the poorer performances in China, Russia, India and Brazil in 2013, even if stemming from possibly temporary factors, underline that over-reliance on the BRICs would be unwise. Happily, in addition to the continued long-term potential of these giant emerging markets, there are "a number of other destinations" that also "show promise", the report states. In particular, it singles out Burma, Indonesia, Colombia and Mexico as having significant growth prospects.

In Mexico, for example, GDP growth is expected to strengthen in 2014 to around 3%, thanks to a more expansive macro-economic policy stance. Moreover, the report adds: "Mexican demographics are still very favourable for the industry. The population is young and continues to grow quickly, and the middle class is expanding."

The demographics are also favourable in Colombia, which has been enjoying a period of uncharacteristic political and economic stability, creating "a strong platform for the Scotch category to develop from over the next few years".

The report concludes: "As the adult drinking population increases and the economy expands, the country has been undergoing a social class shift, with many consumers moving into - and through - the middle class. Scotch producers are taking advantage of this, narrowing price gaps between standard and premium brands to encourage these increasingly affluent consumers to trade up."

There are also some emerging prospects closer to home, notably Poland and Turkey. The Scotch category in Poland has grown six-fold since Poland's accession into the EU in 2004. However, per capita consumption remains low at just over 0.5 litres per adult, leaving plenty of room for development. The segment continued to grow in the country last year, with sales rising by double digits across all qualities.

"Growth [in Poland] is likely to continue thanks to growing interest in whisky in general, including an increasing number of whisky bars, shops and books," the report states. "Brand owners are investing heavily in Poland and the consumer base is showing a corresponding growth, with sales now spreading outside the big cities." Sales over the next five years are expected to maintain double-digit growth, with the category forecast to top 6m cases by 2019.

While Turkey also has a relatively young population, creating opportunities, the Government has hardened its stance towards alcohol in recent years. Nevertheless, Scotch has recorded uninterrupted growth since 2005 and the outlook remains positive according to the report. "Not only does Turkey offer brand owners the prospect of consumption growth, it is also a relatively high-value market," it states.

Over in the US, the return to better fortunes for a larger, mature market is also a fillip that the category can be extremely grateful for at the current time. Sales in the country rose by 3% in 2013 to 8.5m cases, and the mood among Scotch companies is upbeat. "Today, there is a sense of optimism that wasn’t present a decade ago, thanks to a whisky revival in the US, as Americans seek out brands with high production values and authenticity."

Once again, demographic factors are critical key. "Millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) are the current target group for many producers," the report states. "They are forcing a rethink of how products are produced, designed and marketed. Within this group, female consumers have become a major preoccupation for brand owners."

In addition, spending patterns among older consumers are looking positive for Scotch. "There is also a growing older segment of the population with increasing disposable income, driving demand for higher-end products whether premium-priced or craft-created."

There is even some limited good news from Europe in the form of rising malt sales in Germany. Overall, however, the segment remains troubled in Germany, as it has not benefited from the generally increased interest around whisk(e)y. Scotch retains a "dusty" image in comparison with other whiskies, contributing to a 2.5% fall in sales last year to 1.44m cases.

On the other hand, however, malt Scotch is "one of the hottest categories in the market". In 2013, volumes grew by just under 20% to 400,000 cases, and the portents are good for sustained growth.

“There is plenty of momentum behind malts,” the report concludes. “Growth here is essentially organic: not driven by price deflation or heavy brand activation, but through new consumers migrating to the category."

For full details of the report, click here.