Whisky

Whisky and the Environment

There are many factors that contribute to the flavours of whisky. Whisky requires some key ingredients, such as barley, yeast and water, as well as materials like oak barrels and copper-crafted pot stills, all of which affect the flavour profile. What makes it even more interesting is how the climate and geological location contribute. What type of rock does the water run through? Is the whisky stored by the sea? A lot comes down to the environment and the cleanliness of the surroundings. Everyone benefits from clean water and good air quality, so it is important for distilleries to consider all the environmental factors throughout the process of making whisky.

Global warming has become a hot topic (no pun intended…), but it is surprising how little chatter there has been within the drinks industry about the environmental impact of distilleries, distribution and sourcing of the right ingredients. More and more consumers are interested in the provenance of the whole production process: where are the botanicals sourced? who makes the base spirit? how local is the brand? (in this respect, the labelling of many craft gins, for example, is notoriously misleading). And now there is also a growing interest in the sustainability of whisky production, we should all be invested in knowing that the drinks we consume are produced in an environmentally conscious way.

I recently visited Speyside and various whisky distilleries to view how they are embracing the environmental challenges and responsibilities faced by the drinks industry. I was pleasantly surprised to see Chivas Brothers’ latest distillery as a prime example of how whisky makers should contribute to looking after the environment.

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Dalmunach Distillery was completed in 2014. Not only did they take into consideration the locals living right next door to the distillery, but also how to keep production sustainable, especially when the capacity is 10 million litres per year. Four key environmental factors were considered when building the distillery: energy, greenhouse gases, water and by-products.

Dalmunach is a state-of-the-art distillery and it plays a significant role in reducing Chivas Brothers’ environmental footprint. In fact, in 2015 it was a winner of the Sustainability Award at the Drinks Business Green Awards.

The distillery reduced its energy usage by 40% by installing energy-efficient wash and spirit stills. These reduce the heat lost in the process and minimise the energy needed per litre of spirit produced.

They also wanted to maximise energy efficiency and decarbonise the energy sources used, therefore helping to reduce overall carbon emissions. To succeed in both, they installed a gas pipeline to avoid using heavy fuel oil as their main source. By using natural gas, they managed to save 1766 tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the amount of carbon absorbed by 2080 acres of forest in a year.

Dalmunach Distillery is located by the River Spey, which is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) supporting Atlantic salmon, otters, lamprey and pearl mussels. To look after the local habitats and wildlife they designed a cooling water system. This means that all water taken from the river is returned without any damaging effect from the warm cooling water or organic materials. In fact, this development was used as a case study in the Scotch Whisky Association’s latest environmental strategy report in 2015.

They also have a sustainable urban drainage system that collects the rainfall from roadways. The water is then used at the distillery. This will help to prevent pollution and reduce the high flows in the area.

Last, but certainly not least, all the by-products, dregs (what is left of the grain after fermentation) and pot ale (the residue of fermented wort left in a still after the distillation of whisky) are being used for animal feed or otherwise to benefit the agriculture sector. The pot ale is made into syrup using electrical power generated from hydro and wind power, making the process carbon neutral.

Good-quality water is a key element when making whisky. Pure mineral water is used in malting, mashing and the cooling process, and obviously you need water to dilute the spirit to a preferred alcoholic strength.

Chivas Brothers’ environmental and sustainability team is working together with a student from the University of Aberdeen in a four-year project to tackle the effects of climate change on the distillery’s water sources. They’re trying to find natural solutions to reduce and manage the impact of water shortage and rising water temperatures. The field research and model development are being done at the Glenlivet Distillery.

The GlenlivetStrathisla

The older distilleries face more challenges when it comes to improving sustainability. For example, Listed Building status may limit the installation of new equipment or changes to the layout of the distillery. Luckily for Strathisla, it is based next to its sister distillery Glenkeith, which allows them to share its boilers and water sources. At Strathisla they might not be able to enhance some of the technologies, but they are still able to reduce energy demand by using heat recovery between different processes. Glenkeith is one of the most energy-efficient distilleries in the industry and it is hard for Strathisla to match its sister site, but at least they can support each other in the best ways possible.

In March, Chivas Brothers created a new position as a Head of Sustainability and Responsibility. One of the first projects is to help to protect oceans from plastic. After barring straws and stirrers from its drinks in over 100 countries, Chivas calls on drinkers worldwide to make use of the power of social media to support the cause. They encourage people to take a selfie whilst drinking through an invisible straw and post it on Twitter or Instagram with a hashtag “BarStraws”. For each post, Chivas will donate US$1 to the Marine Conservation Society.

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Overall

It is great to see such a forward-thinking attitude in the drinks industry. Demand for these whiskies is increasing and it is therefore important to keep production in line with environmental needs.

Obviously, Chivas Brothers is not the only company to be looking ahead and making changes. In 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association launched an environmental strategy to push sustainability. They aim to move away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and stop sending waste to landfills by 2020. As you can also see from all the above, water management is also a huge part of the strategy in Scotland.

The Macallan opens its new, stunning distillery this June. The Hobbit-like distillery blends into the rolling hills of the Scottish countryside. An impressive 95% of energy used at the distillery is from renewable resources and the nearby biomass power station. I can’t wait to go and visit!

The single-estate distilleries such as Arbikie are more sustainable and environmentally friendly compared to other distilleries that might source their spirit, grain or botanicals from further afield.

Arbikie distillery building

Do you ever consider the environmental impact of the food you eat or the drinks you consume? Have you stopped using plastic straws yet?

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