In October 2018 an ominous warning was published in the scientific journal, Plant Nature. An international panel foreboded global warming will decrease barley production. While the study looked at the impact on the beer market, whisky is also in the direct firing line. The report noted that depending upon the severity of future environmental conditions, modelling forecasted of declines between three and 17 per cent. In countries like Ireland, prices are anticipated to double. Similar threats apply to other whisky cereals such as corn, wheat and rice. This topic is not news to the distilling industry as it has been a board and management concern on risk assessment registers. The threat of global warming on barley and cereal cultivation is a long-term threat, and we may see some remedial actions mitigate much of this threat, such as work on new barley hybrids, GMO varieties and better conservation and management of arable land usage. It was a different story until the early 19th century when whisky producers confronted a series of acute short-term problems caused by global cooling. These global events happened without warning, resulting in famines and in some instances, immediate bans on distilling.
From 1300, until the early 1900s, the earth experienced cycles of mini-ice ages. Since the early years of grain distilling in the British Isles, distilling was banned from March 1557 until 1560 due to a severe famine. Private stills of less than 200 gallons (900 litres) were permitted to manufacture household medications and tonics. In 1579 another famine prompted the Scottish Parliament to ban the distillation of aqua vitae by apothecaries and a few small distilleries. This time household stills were under 50 gallons (227 litres).
These global events happened without warning, resulting in immediate bans
More than a century later, a severe famine affected most of Europe. It began in Western Europe over 1693 and 1694, moving to northern Europe from 1695 to 1700. Up to 10 per cent of France’s population perished in 1695, and in Scandinavian counties like Finland in 1697, a 33 per cent fatality rate. When the famine shifted to Scotland in 1695, the mortality rate was 15 per cent of the population; another 200,000 people evicted from their rural domiciles, while 130,000 immigrated to England, Northern Ireland and North America. In 1738, extreme frosts, snow and ice continued into the summer, causing Scottish yields to fall sharply, leading to food riots in Leith and Prestonpans. Ireland also suffered famine conditions two years later, losing upwards of 20 per cent of their population in the Year of Slaughter. By the 1760s, more than 90 per cent of the distilling in Scotland was on household stills. As the Government found excise taxes were new rivers of Treasury gold, private stills banned in 1781. Since 1651, the Government held the belief distilling was a luxury and even a threat to civil obedience in times of grain shortages.
The first clue to the cause of these climate shocks came in 1783 when the Laki volcano erupted in Iceland. In Paris 1784, Benjamin Franklin made the connection when he observed all of Europe and most of North America was shrouded in fog and suffered abnormally cold weather. Not only did it kill 25 per cent of Iceland’s population, by 1784 the earth cooled by -1C. The greatest modern climate shock was caused by the largest volcanic event in human history, when Mount Tambora volcano exploded in April 1815, and plunged the earth into three years of winter. Temperatures fell by -3C, the coldest and wettest on record in the northern hemisphere.
The next catastrophic volcanic event, also in Indonesia, was Krakatoa in March 1883. While it sent temperatures down by -2C, world grain production was better insulated for famine and distilling bans, due to improved breeding programs, expansion of new world farmlands and efficient international trading supply chains.
The current fear is global warming will increase global temperatures 2C by 2100, sending the planet to a tipping point. If past shocks are any guide, disruptions due to major volcanic activity or even meteor impact are a far greater ‘known unknown’ for whisky and humankind.