ALTHOUGH Hong Kong is traditionally a cognac market, whisky has always had its place. Irish whiskey, mostly Jamesons or Bushmills, tends, undeservedly, to be relegated to the status of an ingredient in Irish coffee, but scotch has always been treated with a little more respect. It has, nevertheless, been obliged to play a rather quiet second fiddle. A belief, enshrined in Cantonese superstition though flying in the face of reason, that cognac has an aphrodisiac effect while whisky has the reverse, has tended to limit demand to expatriates and a limited number of Chinese consumers with a Western education. That pattern, however, could be about to change. Although liquor sales overall are in decline in many regional markets, including Hong Kong, whisky is gaining market share over cognac elsewhere in Asia. Scotch is the dominant spirit in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, which is now the single most important market in the world for Johnnie Walker Black Label. The question now is could Hong Kong follow suit? In the short term, the consensus view appears to be that it will not. But one theory is that part of the changing consumption pattern in Asia is attributable to cognac consumers facing the beginning of a recessionary squeeze and trading across to more moderately-priced brands of luxury scotch rather than trading down in their choice of cognac. Put simply, good whisky is cheaper than good brandy so a window of opportunity appears to be opening. Certainly this year has seen the distributors of premium priced scotch taking Hong Kong rather more seriously than before. Aggressively-promoted but relative newcomers to the market include Johnnie Walker Premier and Ballantines Gold Seal, but probably the most outrageous sales pitch of the year came from Dunhill which launched its ''Centenary Blend'', to mark, rather as the name suggests, the company's centenary. Promoted, shamelessly, as the world's most expensive blend, and assembled by a very talented team of blenders, it had just one drawback - you had to buy a minimum of 360 bottles of it. Centenary Blend is available only by the cask, which contains exactly that quantity. The Dunhill offer, which had some takers in Asia, included not only hand-filling and labelling of all bottles as-and-when requested by the cask owner, but storage of the spirit at the distillery in its cask. As part of the arrangement each owner would be flown from wherever in the world they might wish, first class by British Airways, to watch their name being inscribed on the barrel. Glenfiddich Excellence, aimed originally at the Asian duty free market but now also available in Hong Kong at retail outlets - just in time for Christmas - seems remarkably reasonably priced by comparison. Glenfiddich is by far the biggest selling single malt whisky in the world and Excellence is a refined upmarket version of the distillery's classic style. The whisky is aged for 18 years in oak casks which enhance its smoothness and depth. In terms of both taste and packaging William Grant and Sons, which makes Glenfiddich, is clearly aiming the new malt at XO drinkers and its success in a number of regional markets, notably Taiwan, suggests that some Asian consumers are ready for the change. It is also noticeable that the preference for cognac over scotch of local Chinese men is not necessarily shared by the ladies, and there may well be an under-exploited market there for the taking. Notwithstanding the relatively small size of the Hong Kong whisky market, the territory has always enjoyed a good choice of scotches. Readily available blends include Johnnie Walker Red Label, Bell's, Famous Grouse, and White Horse, while deluxe options include Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker Black Label and Dunhill's more affordable Old Master Whisky. Although single malt scotch is sold in comparatively limited quantities at retail, the available range has improved steadily over several years, particularly in bars. The fine collections of malts in the Chinnery Bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and in the Dragon Boat Bar at the Hilton have each made their contribution to educating the market. Hong Kong whisky drinkers can now choose from an array which includes Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, Talisker, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Cardhu and the Macallan as well as a number of less well known malts.