Opinion: What do big distilling companies owe to the small communities that support them?

Opinion: What do big distilling companies owe to the small communities that support them?

Should global distilling organisations be contributing to the maintenance of local infrastructure in the communities they operate in?

Thoughts from... | 27 Jan 2023 | Issue 189 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Infrastructure is a little like your health: you don’t really address it until it starts to falter. Over the last few years in the US, our legislators have spent a good deal of time talking about infrastructure – mostly about how bad it is. Take, for instance, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, an 11.7-mile stretch of highway that connects the two New York City boroughs. Pre-pandemic, it carried about 155,000 vehicles each day, 18,000 of which are considered “heavy” trucks. It was designed by Robert Moses, the famous urban planner and public official who is largely responsible for designing NYC’s physical landscape, overseeing tunnels, bridges, highways, parks, and housing.

The six-lane expressway was completed in 1964 and now it’s crumbling. There are holes in the road and the metal infrastructure is visibly rusting and rotting. Mayor Eric Adams has called it “an environmental and aesthetic nightmare”. Experts say that if nothing is done, it will be too dangerous for heavy vehicles by 2026. After years of talking about fixing it, several design options were presented in December and the Mayor’s office and the Department of Transportation are actively engaging communities for feedback. While nobody’s holding their breath that the city will decide and get the construction underway sooner than later, it’s exciting to think that a fix is on the cards.

The citizens of Islay also talk about infrastructure. It comes up in the supermarkets, at the pubs, on the ferry – anywhere that locals run into locals. I stayed on Islay for about three weeks on four separate occasions in recent years and even me, a non-local, got roped into some emphatic discussions. The roads are pocked with potholes and cracks. There’s one point in the road between Port Ellen and Bowmore where locals either slow down or speed up, depending on their appetite for thrill, because a giant bump in the road can bounce you out of your seat.

As anyone who reads these pages knows, there were eight iconic distilleries on the 15-by-25-mile island for many years. Then Ardnahoe started production in 2018 and three more distilleries are under construction. Meantime, historic distilleries such as Ardbeg and Kilchoman have expanded their production capacity. All this has necessitated more raw materials to be brought to the island and increased numbers of tankers or barrels of whisky to ship out, which means more titanic lorries travelling the narrow, unmarked roads more frequently.

The Scotch whisky industry’s growth is irrefutable and seemingly without end. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Scotch exports reached an astonishing £4.1 billion in 2021, having nearly doubled over the prior decade. It’s time to look at how the industry’s success is impacting the country and its infrastructure, particularly in the small island communities, and ask what the global companies that are profiting off that success are doing to prevent or fix the damage caused by increased demands on the land and natural resources. Indeed, several distilleries have taken measures to decrease their environmental footprint, like creating renewable energy systems, but what about their footprint on the manmade systems and structures?

In July 2022, on the heels of selling a cask of whisky from 1975 for the mind-shattering price of £16 million, Ardbeg announced that the company would set up The Ardbeg All Islay Fund and donate £1 million to community projects on Islay. The fund will be distributed over five years to sustainability projects and community organisations.

“Many people at Ardbeg have played a part in the story of the whisky that makes up Cask No 3. It is only right that the community in which our distillery is rooted should share the rewards of its extraordinary sale,” Thomas Moradpour, Ardbeg chief executive and president, was reported as saying. “We look forward to supporting some great causes with The Ardbeg All Islay Fund and making a difference to the island.”

The Ardbeg All Islay Fund won’t fix the island, but it’s an incredible start. It’s due to launch early in 2023. I will follow its evolution carefully and hope that it becomes a model for the other global corporations that operate their businesses in a tiny community.
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