There is a dichotomy in the whisky production world. Here we have a spirit which prides itself on its attachment to the land and its environment. It is perhaps the ultimate slow food drink; and this slow movement is becoming more and more prevalent as people seek higher quality, more taste and of course less impact on the environment as they source food and drink.
But here’s the rub: while whisky has all this in spades, how do you reconcile the massive outlays in energy and resources? Coal may have been replaced by gas, Yoichi withstanding but even here emissions are tightly monitored, but the industry still consumes a lot of energy to produce its spirit.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) launched an environmental strategy paper in 2009 challenging the Scotch industry. The document set out to deliver long-term economic, environmental and social sustainability across the industry. This includes: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, water management, packaging materials and waste, encouraging the adoption of high environmental standards and relevant sustainable practices.
Let’s not forget the step the industry has taken to offset its consumption. In recent years we have seen some companies planting trees to replenish wood sourcing, water usage is monitored and regulated, and for the time being running out of peat seems unlikely.
Working for the future
Ian Buxton asks what Roseisle really means for the whisky industry - and how other distillers are working to help the planet
A greener future? It’s a beguiling, guilt-free vision of carefree drams consumed without having to worry about whisky’s carbon footprint or other environmental impacts.
But, as soon as you start to think about it, the complexity of the issue starts to require a very stiff drink. While researching this subject someone asked me: “have you thought about warehouses?” – and the truth was that I hadn’t.
But, as he pointed out, even if the Scotch Whisky industry can expand to meet the potentially enormous volumes that will be required if the developing markets acquire the taste for whisky that the industry’s optimistic plans suggest they will then all that whisky has to be stored somewhere. For years and years. There isn’t enough space right now.
That means lots more warehouses. But they’re not pretty things. There are only so many suitable sites and folks tend to object to having one in their back yard. If it can’t be stored, there’s very little point in making it.
Then there is the question of ‘whisky miles’. ‘Bottled in Scotland’ is a great claim but it means shipping packaging materials in to and around Scotland, then shipping all those bulky bottles and boxes round the world. As more and more brands aim for a premium positioning, their packaging tends to get heavier and more complex. If that whisky could be exported in bulk and bottled locally then a major environmental impact could be mitigated…but local market bottling is a controversial topic, to say no more. So before getting any more depressed let’s look at some of the good news stories. As befits the largest distiller in Scotland, Diageo have been taking a lead at Roseisle Distillery and at their new £6m state-of-the-art bioenergy plant at their Glenlossie distillery complex.
The new plant will produce energy by burning draff, the spent grain left over from distilling whisky, at the Glenlossie site near Elgin using around 30,000 tonnes of draff per year, the by-product from around 12 million litres of Scotch whisky production. With 17 malt whisky distilleries on Speyside alone, producing more than 50 million litres of spirit per year, Diageo have a plentiful supply of raw material.
The plant will produce steam which will be used in the operations on site, including Glenlossie and Mannochmore distilleries and the onsite dark grains plant, which makes animal feed. The pay-off: by reducing annual CO2 emissions by approximately 6,000 tonnes, Diageo claim this is the equivalent of taking around 1,600 family cars off the road.
The showpiece Roseisle Distillery has been extensively covered here in Whisky Magazine in previous issues, but it’s worth restating the key facts: a brand new 3,000 square metre facility costing £40m and producing 10m litres of spirit annually. The majority of the by-products will be recycled on site in a bioenergy facility, helping the distillery to generate most of its own energy and reduce potential CO2 emissions by approximately 13,000 tonnes (yet more virtual cars left in the garage) through direct savings on fuel used for raising steam.
Diageo’s malt distilling director, Brian Higgs, said: “With Roseisle distillery we showed what can be achieved in using the natural by-products of our industry to produce green energy.”
“Diageo is committed to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and to reducing our overall impact on the environment. The plan for Glenlossie is another significant step in our journey towards that sustainable future for Scotch whisky production.”
But Diageo are in the fortunate position of being able to commit investments in the tens of millions of pounds. What about smaller distillers? How can they ensure a green future? Over on Islay they think they have the answer.
The famously energetic and iconoclastic folks at Bruichladdich have established a pioneering Biowayste system allowing the distillery to generate its own electricity by using the waste products from the distilling process. But it gets better.
Today, all the distillery’s waste streams are ploughed back into powering and producing for the business.
Draff is taken by local island farmers to feed cows, whose slurry is spread on fields growing the distillery’s barley.
Meanwhile pot ale is converted into biogas. During the process, called anaerobic digestion, bespoke microbes digest the watery waste to produce large quantities of the high-quality biogas which in turn powers a generator to produce electricity for the distillery.
Bruichladdich’s MD Reynier said “We wanted to see how we could do our part.” And here’s the fun bit, for this just doesn’t take virtual cars off the road, it actually powers a real one.
Reynier has given up his gas-guzzler (well, his old car) and has taken delivery of a Nissan LEAF (the reigning European and World Car of the Year, he proudly pointed out) meaning that he can now drive completely carbon-free, charging his car using the electricity produced by the distillery.
But are there even bigger gains to be made, albeit controversial ones? Anyone who has ever stepped into a conventional still house in a single malt distillery can’t help notice the enormous amount of waste heat. Often large windows roll up to allow this to escape to the great outdoors.
But, according to the Scotch Whisky regulations, single malt whisky has to be made in a pot still, so the losses are inevitable. Not according to the Loch Lomond Distillery who maintain they can make perfectly acceptable ‘single malt’ using a malted barley mash in their copper-bodied continuous still.
That, of course, isn’t acceptable under today’s rules so the spirit has to be sold as ‘single grain’. It’s been the topic of some heated debate and the energy equation is a complex one but John Peterson, distilling director at Loch Lomond maintains that the column still: “may show savings of up to 10 per cent on energy compared to a conventional pot still set up.”
Add to that the increased efficiency of raw material utilisation and a ‘deep green’ future for Scotch Whisky might involve single malt from a continuous still, transported in bulk and bottled in market – a very different scenario from today.
It all goes to show that this is a hugely complex subject that can’t be limited to engineering and scientific issues. A deep commitment to a sustainable industry might involve some radical changes to deeply-held beliefs about what constitutes Scotch Whisky and a lengthy debate as to how far traditional practices can dictate distilling operations and whisky marketing in what is certain to be a challenging future.
And that’s without mentioning the possibility of a water extraction tax in an independent Scotland. One thing is for sure, the subject isn’t going away. You will hear more about this.
Waste not, want not
The new ecology of America’s whiskey country. Charles K. Cowdery reports
In American distilleries, the term ‘green whiskey’ was long a synonym for new make, i.e. un-aged spirit, a term the more colloquial ‘white dog’ has largely replaced. Good thing, because these days most people will assume ‘green whiskey’ means something else entirely.
Ever since the industry began, American whiskey producers have wrestled with energy use, waste disposal, and other sustainability issues.
Some even eschew the term ‘waste’ in favour of ‘by-products,’ feeling everything that leaves the modern distillery has a useful life.
Stillage, for example, the liquid that exits the still after all of the alcohol has been removed, has long been fed to livestock. Remember, American stillage has grain solids in it and is an excellent feed. That’s why most distillery hands call it ‘slop.’ Fancy terms like ‘stillage’ and ‘spent mash’ are just for tourists.
As recently as the late 19th century, it was common for distillers to have a feedlot on the grounds. Slop was gravity-fed via open trough directly from the still. The trough was long enough to provide decent separation between the two operations, so when the slop finally reached the animals it was cool enough to eat.
Dairy herds are the main users of this free or cheap feed today. Even Heaven Hill, whose distillery is close to downtown Louisville, has farmers with tank trucks lined up every morning, eager to haul it away. Many are the same Nelson County farmers who took Heaven Hill’s slop when the distillery was in Bardstown.
The feed isn’t really free, of course, since it costs the farmer time and fuel to come get it, and wet slop has to be used immediately, but still they come. That system works for many distilleries, including giants like Heaven Hill and Jack Daniel’s, but it doesn’t work for everybody.
Four Roses separates thin stillage, which it uses as backset, then centrifuges the rest to remove more water so it can be pressed into feed ‘cakes.’ The cakes have a longer shelf life and are easier to transport.
Instead of feeding its stillage directly to cows, Maker’s Mark feeds it first to anaerobic bacteria, using a proprietary system from Ecolab Inc.’s Ecovation division. Process water is also treated this way, which generates methane-rich biogas that offsets about 20 per cent of the facility’s natural gas consumption. Beam is using similar processes at its other production facilities.
Like at Four Roses, the then much drier stillage can be compressed into a ‘cake’ for use as animal feed.
The old way to dry stillage was to tumble it in huge dryers, which uses a tremendous amount of energy, but often was the only choice. These new systems are cleaner, more sustainable, and less expensive.
Located in a rural area, Maker’s Mark uses just 200 of its 620 acres for whiskey production. The rest it manages as a nature preserve. Beam has established another preserve near its Frankfort aging and bottling facility.
Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace Distillery is more urban, but it has just broken ground on a restoration of Albert Blanton’s botanical garden. Buffalo Trace has worked with Frankfort’s Parks and Recreation Department to clean up the Kentucky River’s banks behind the distillery and lay out walking trails.
“Col. Blanton built gardens and a log clubhouse for employees in the 20s and 30s,” says Sazerac president Mark Brown. “When we hand this place off to the next generation, I hope they say ‘thank goodness they did those things,’ in the same way we appreciate what Blanton did.”
Although Rain Vodka is their only Certified Organic product, it means the whole distillery is a Certified Organic Manufacturing Facility. All cleaning supplies, and lawn and garden chemicals, are eco-friendly.
The requirement that only new charred oak barrels may be used to make bourbon and rye sounds initially like a sustainability catastrophe, but today all of the wood comes from managed forests and, more importantly, every barrel is reused by some beverage maker (usually Scottish), who will use it for another 50 years or more, then sell it to a furniture maker. Nothing is wasted.
The biggest companies such as Brown-Forman, Beam and Diageo, have made sustainability a corporate value and are implementing these measures all over the world. “What we’ve learned from our breweries in Ireland is being applied to our breweries in Nigeria;” says Michael Alexander, head of environment for Diageo Global. “It’s embedded in our business.”
Most distilleries no longer fire their boilers with coal, fuel oil, or diesel, all major sources of carbon emissions. Most have switched to natural gas, sometimes combined with electricity, or renewables such as biogas or wood chips. The new distillery at Wild Turkey, for example, burns wood chips. They also installed new emission control equipment on their boilers.
Most distilleries have upgraded the efficiency of all their systems to reduce energy use. Most recycle everything from cardboard to heat energy. Diageo’s George Dickel has reduced waste sent to landfills by 76 per cent since 2008. Beam recently remodelled its offices in the Chicago suburbs and 60 per cent of the refuse that would normally have gone to a landfill was recycled or reused instead.
Heaven Hill uses biodegradable, corn-based packing peanuts. Buffalo Trace is switching to low energy LED lighting.
Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Canadian Mist, etc.) is the only American whiskey company that also manufactures barrels.
The Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville disposes of most of its wood scrap by burning it as boiler fuel.
Brown-Forman conducts an annual, verified green house gas inventory that accounts for and analyses emissions from all facilities and operations worldwide, including business travel. They make their emission scores public through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), where they share the highest transparency score among beverage alcohol companies.
From Tennessee’s native sugar maple trees to the water quality in Ontario’s Georgian Bay, “our business success depends on reducing the impacts of our operations and products on the environment,” says Tim Nall, director of environmental performance and governmental compliance for Brown-Forman.
The rest of America’s whiskey makers feel pretty much the same way.