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Pernod Ricard said Asia would drive growth as the region overtook Europe for the first time to become the French company’s biggest market by sales last year.

Pierre Pringuet, chief executive, said there was no sign of a slowdown in Asia, which has also become the group’s largest profits generator, leapfrogging Europe and the Americas.

Mr Pringuet was cautiously upbeat about the outlook for the global economy. He said consumer spending in the US was recovering, encouraging him to return to pre-crisis investment levels. Europe remained “difficult” as austerity measures had begun to bite, but within that, France and Germany had proved resilient, he said.

“I am confident about the recovery and I totally exclude the double-dip scenario, that has no credibi-lity. Today, nothing gives us any indication that the US should enter into recession,” he said.

Mr Pringuet was speaking as the world’s second-largest spirits group by sales after the UK’s Diageo reported a small rise in full-year net profits, which missed analysts’ forecasts because of weaker-than-expected trading in Europe.

The owner of Absolut vodka, Chivas Regal whisky and Martell Cognac, said net profits had risen by 1 per cent to €951m ($1.2bn) in the year to June 30, compared with a year earlier.

China’s taste for cognac and whisky drove like-for-like sales growth of 14 per cent in Asia, easily outpacing the Americas, Europe and France. Asia and the rest of the world accounted for 32 per cent of sales and operating profits in 2009-10.

“China is growing fast,” Mr Pringuet said. “There is one country in Asia which is difficult, Thailand, and that’s linked to the political situation.”

Pernod entered Asia in 1985 and is the biggest international supplier in China and India, according to industry data. Diageo said last week that it was looking to make acquisitions in Asia-Pacific to boost its presence in the region, which accounts for 10 per cent of sales.

Mr Pringuet described trading in July and August as “good”, continuing the momentum from the second half of the fiscal year, which was much stronger than the first half.

Pernod ruled out acquisitions, saying its priority remained paying down debt acquired through its €5.69bn acquisition in 2008 of Vin & Sprit, maker of Absolut vodka.

The group said it had completed its €1bn disposals programme. Net debt fell to €10.6bn at the end of June, from €10.9bn in 2009.

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