Sustainable Scotch: What's being done to make your whisky green?

Sustainable Scotch: What's being done to make your whisky green?

Though the destination is shared, the path to green Scotch isn’t the same for all distilleries

Sustainability | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 178 | By Gavin Smith

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Located in the West Highlands, Nc’nean recently became the first distillery in the UK to achieve an independently verified net-zero carbon footprint for its on-site operations. Though no others have yet followed suit, distilleries of all shapes and sizes are adapting to meet the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) Sustainability Strategy target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2040.
Sasha Holt, Head of Marketing at Nc'Nean Distillery

Nc’nean is located on the remote Morvern peninsula and was designed from the outset by founder Annabel Thomas to be as environmentally responsible as possible. For the entirety of its production, the company utilises organic malted barley, a biomass boiler, extensive recycling of waste heat and water, and bottles that are made from 100 per cent recycled glass. Unfortunately, according to Sasha Holt, head of marketing for Nc’nean, this hasn’t come without its challenges: “Our biomass boiler is much more difficult to work with – it does not just switch on and off like an oil boiler would, and we also have to plan much further ahead to source the timber, dry it and then chip it ourselves – there’s a whole other level of complication when the chipper breaks.”
Sasha Holt

Though the boiler itself was hugely expensive, she explains that government incentives make it more affordable to run. According to Holt, cost is not always a limiting factor when it comes to implementing green policies. “There are a few of our sustainability initiatives which are neither more expensive nor more difficult,” she continues. “Our cooling pond is probably the best example. We avoid abstracting water or using a chemical and energy-intensive cooling tower by recirculating water through our cooling pond, which is relatively cheap and hassle-free.”
Sasha Holt

Starting out from scratch with clear sustainability goals before designing and constructing a distillery fit to meet those targets is one thing, but improving the eco credentials of old distilleries, often built when energy was cheap and guilt-free, is a different challenge altogether.

One good example is Tobermory. Located on the Isle of Mull and established in 1798, today it is owned by Distell International Ltd, which also operates Bunnahabhain and Deanston distilleries. “It’s much harder to hit targets within an existing old distillery than a new venture, where you start with a blank sheet of paper and design everything to meet targets. But that doesn’t make it any less important for us to meet them,” says Brendan McCarron, Distell’s new master distiller.

“There’s only so much we can do at Tobermory, given the remoteness of the site. It’s a small distillery, making 700,000 litres per year, and our size and remoteness make it difficult for us to do step-changes. There’s not enough material to feed an anaerobic digester, for example. It’s easier for a big plant – you really need scale.”

McCarron adds that his team are exploring higher-gravity brewing as a means of reducing fresh water use. This uses less water in the mash tun, giving more concentrated wort, so less energy is required to boil off the excess during the distillation process.

Meanwhile, Chivas Brothers’ estate of 13 malt distilleries, of varying ages, also gives rise to many challenges when it comes to issues of eco-friendliness, as environmental sustainability manager Ronald Daalmans explains: “Converting all our distilleries to carbon neutrality certainly has its challenges, especially with sites that have been running for many decades, even centuries. However, our ongoing initiatives and projects are dedicated to implementing technologies that are viable across each individual distillery. Our final solution is likely to use our more modern sites to over-achieve or balance off the constraints at listed buildings such as Strathisla.”

Of those more modern sites, Dalmunach, located near Aberlour, in Speyside, is undoubtedly the poster child for Chivas Brothers’ sustainability strategies going forward. It is a large-scale distillery, with a capacity of 10 million litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per annum. Daalmans explains that, because it was built just seven years ago, Dalmunach is the company’s most advanced distillery and was designed in the most efficient manner. “Energy is always expensive, and thermal vapour recompression technology [on the spirit condensers] at Dalmunach makes this one of the most efficient distilleries in the world,” he declares. “Dalmunach stills use 40 per cent less energy than traditional ones, and we use 40 per cent less over the whole site.”
A look inside Dalmunach's still room

Furthermore, Chivas Brothers has invested in a water-cooling system for the distillery, which returns cooled water upstream, resulting in zero water loss, and since 2014 all its sites (including Dalmunach) use 100 per cent green electricity from SSE Hydro and wind generation. Overall, its distilleries are 26 per cent more energy efficient than the sector average.

With no fewer than 28 malt distilleries to its name, Diageo has also taken a keen interest in its environmental impact. The company announced a 10-year sustainability action plan in November last year, titled Society 2030: Spirit of Progress. Key aims are to achieve net-zero carbon emissions across direct operations and a 20 per cent reduction in water used to produce every drink, while also working with suppliers in order to reduce indirect carbon emissions by 50 per cent.

To date, Diageo’s Oban and Royal Lochnagar distilleries have achieved carbon neutrality. According to Callum Rew, senior site manager at Oban Distillery, all the site’s electricity comes from a hydro-electric power source, and a rapeseed oil reduction, a type of biofuel, is burned in its boiler to generate all steam used in production.

“By using this fuel, we are not putting any noxious gases into the atmosphere,” claims Sean Phillips, distillery manager at Royal Lochnagar, where the biofuel is also used. He also notes that other efficiencies, such as reducing hot water cleaning temperatures, are being investigated too.

Of course, it is not just step-change projects that are of significant environmental value. Major initiatives such as the introduction of wash still energy recovery systems, which reduce wash still steam consumption by 30 per cent, have been implemented at Glen Moray in Elgin. These have been accompanied by many lower-level activities which aim to improve on the green spaces available and provide better habitat for wildlife.
Glen Moray Distillery

“The distillery has a beehive now on site and there are plans to have more,” reports Laure Habbouse of parent company La Martiniquaise-Bardinet. “We have planted trees around the boundary of the site in accordance with warehouse planning, and plan to sow wild flowers in a large patch of ground.”
The stills standing proud at Glen Moray

She adds that four diesel forklifts have been replaced with three electric ones; there is no longer a site car, as more public transport is used; energy reports have been carried out on all properties; and more recycling bins have been placed around the distillery. New cask-filling heads have also been installed, which are more energy efficient too.
Repairing casks at Glen Moray

Inevitably, in a sphere where innovation is very much ongoing, there is still a great deal more to come in terms of further enhancing sustainability. “We’re looking at the blueprint of our raw materials,” says McCarron, explaining that the Distell team are exploring how to reduce the number of truck and ferry journeys required to deliver raw materials each year and whether greener transport options are available. “One example is bagged yeast, which we previously used. We’re now using dried yeast, which takes carbon miles off the road,” he adds, noting the latter’s relatively more compact size. “This is very much an ongoing area of interest for us.”

Though sustainability is very much in the media spotlight of late, the desire to maximise efficiencies is nothing new; Daalmans claims that Aberlour Distillery, one of Chivas Brothers’ oldest sites, was in fact the first to install thermo-compression units in the 1990s. The work, however, is far from over. “We are currently developing the next generation of enhanced heat-recovery technologies that can be used to reduce the energy needed to make our whisky still further,” adds Daalmans. “We believe this is the responsible thing to do, before converting sites to low-carbon heating fuels.”

An oft-overlooked source of CO2 emissions is fermentation, which famously fills tun rooms with a nose-tingling gas and so surprises whisky newbies upon first taking a whiff of a wash back’s contents. According to Daalmans, this step is considered to be carbon neutral because the CO2 was absorbed when the crop was grown. “Fermentation CO2 is directly related to the conversion of sugars into alcohol and conversion factors have been calculated for the industry by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) to allow estimates to be made,” he says. “We are working with universities to investigate the potential for CO2 recovery and reuse, in partnership
with the UK Centre for a Circular Chemical Economy, which may allow distilleries to be carbon positive in the future, depending on the success of the research.”

However, these technologically advanced initiatives are currently beyond the reach of smaller companies – primarily due to cost. Nevertheless, continuous improvement is possible for whisky makers, regardless of the size of their pocket book, as Sasha Holt of Nc’nean explains: “We want to work more closely with our barley farmers to reduce the carbon footprint of the barley, we want to find the right refill packaging for our whisky bottles to reduce glass usage and we want to further reduce our chemical usage in the distillery. These are all on the horizon now.”

Without doubt, the entire Scotch whisky industry is taking the SWA’s Sustainability Strategy targets seriously, but what is currently unclear is whether there will be serious consequences for distillers that miss them. It’s unlikely that offending companies will hold up their hands and admit they did not do enough, quickly enough, and there’s no evidence yet to suggest that the industry association will sanction any distiller that’s lagging behind. “What is probably more important is what the government overall does,” muses Holt. “Fundamentally, we need to get to the point where it is unprofitable to emit carbon across all sectors.”

“The main people who will hold us to account are whisky drinkers,” concludes McCarron, who has a relatively reassuring view of Scotch whisky’s green future. “Sustainability isn’t marketing, and it’s not a trend – it’s here to stay. Consumers will be expecting us to do this. I think it will effectively be self-policing, as it all feeds into less waste and less wasted money. Ultimately, it makes sense, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Tobermory Distillery
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