The green revolution

The green revolution

With green issues firmly on the agenda,how eco-friendly have malt whisky distilleries become? Ian Wisniewski finds out.

Production | 27 Feb 2009 | Issue 78 | By Ian Wisniewski

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It’s the ultimate mission statement. Maximising efficiency makes financial sense for every business, while eco-issues such as sustainability also benefit everyone else. And eco-warriors,who worry about the future of the planet, can now look forward to the industry’s next phase of initiatives.“We’re launching a program across the Scotch whisky industry this year, the basis of which is a lifecycle analysis up and down the supply chain.“We’ll be setting mid-term goals for 2020, and long-term goals for 2050, with challenging targets concentrating on renewable energy and reducing energy usage. This will be a noncompetitive agreement, not for companies to outdo each other but to cooperate on a sustainability program throughout the industry from which we all benefit,”says Graham Hutcheon of The Edrington Group, who has also been chairman of the Scotch Whisky Association’s environment committee since 2003.“The SWA environment committee was established from a number of committees formed around 10 years ago, with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute providing scientific advice.The SWA also contributes legal advice, while specialists within the industry are acting as advisors on issues such as packaging and waste. It’s not a project, but a way of learning and working in the future,”adds Graham Hutcheon.With malt whisky having entered the eco-era, farming methods are an initial aspect to consider.“In the late 1990s we reviewed and identified the growth trends in the organic food and drink market.From this analysis we decided to make an organic single malt Scotch whisky. Working with the Soil Association we wished to ensure that every stage of the process is certified to their rigorous standards.“This includes the casks used in maturation which are made from oak from environmentally managed forests in Missouri,”says Michael Urquhart, of Gordon & MacPhail, proprietors of Benromach Distillery, which launched Benromach Organic in 2006.With distilling such an energy intensive process, reducing the level of energy used has been an ongoing objective. Heat exchangers are one method used to do this, since the 1970s and 80s.Pre-heating the wash using a heat exchanger, for example, is established practise. Hot pot ale (ie.the residue from the previous distillation) is conducted through a heat exchanger after leaving the still.This transfers heat from the pot ale to the wash, which passes through the heat exchanger on its way to the still. But that’s not the only opportunity.“We’ve got worm tubs at Speyburn, and usually it’s quite difficult to get heat recovery from a wormtub. We adapted the worm tank in 2005, so that instead of draining water that’s been heated in the worm tub, it goes into a storage tank which can be used to preheat the wash. This is an initial way of pre-heating the wash, with the temperature increased further by the pot ale heat exchanger. It costs tens of thousands to install heat exchangers, so there’s a few years before you reach pay back, with the cost of fuel being the main saving, while it also helps to be greener,”says Derek Sinclair of Inver House.Although water is vital to the production process, 90 per cent of water used is for cooling purposes, with the discharge of liquid residue remaining after distillation also governed by strict regulations.“It’s incumbent on us to ensure that water going into the River Tay won’t be harmful to the water course, and the wildlife it supports.At Aberfeldy a bio plant processes the distillery waste waters into clean water. The bio plant is a three stage process, with the final part being the reed bed. Established in 2002, the reed bed acts as a final polish before the very high quality water is added into the river Tay.The reed bed is cut back every February, but apart from that it really takes care of itself. We had a family of ducks living on our reed bed last year,”says Stephanie Macleod of Dewar’s.With production levels rising at various distilleries,more casks are required for aging, which raises the issue of sustainable oak.“We buy a lot of casks from Spain and it’s very important that it’s sustainable. We commissioned the University of Vigo to research harvesting oak trees and sustainability,by doing a detailed study of the population of oak in northern Spain. We’re replanting three trees for every one tree harvested, as the cost of our casks includes a replanting program. We are also planting more than 100,000 trees at The Macallan as part of the latest expansion plan at the distillery,”says Hutcheon.Casks exemplify recycling, in the sense that they’ve already been used to age bourbon or sherry, before being utilised for malt whisky (and typically filled up to three times). Rather than sending exhausted casks to the local gardening centre to begin a new career as planters, casks can be rejuvenated at a cooperage. And as the cost of casks is increasing significantly, with bourbon barrels rising at a faster rate than sherry casks, the amount of casks being recharred is likely to increase.“The process begins by loading the cask into a dechar cabinet, which has four wheels that spin the cask round, while a steel wire brush removes all the char from the inside of the cask.“From start to finish takes a couple of minutes,”says Andrew Russell of Speyside Cooperage.Which recharring method is used depends on whether one, or both ends of the cask are removed.“If one end is removed the cask goes in on its side and turns on rollers, and a flame builds up inside the cask using two to three lance burners, which are very similar to a gas torch,positioned at angles. This is a more modern method, which came into the industry in the last 10 years. If you take both ends off then the cask sits upright on a tray over a pot burner,which is a gas burner below the ground,”says Andrew Russell.The level of charring is specified as either one to four,meaning light,medium,heavy, or very heavy (also known as crocodile),and achieving the desired level takes between 1-6 minutes (timing also depends on how dry the cask is).“The time scale when using either method of recharring is very similar. We may also fire the ends, some customers want it done, some don’t. The ends are usually toasted, sometimes charred, and as the ends account for approximately one-third of the inner surface, whether or not this is done is influential,”adds Russell.While packaging is a significant element in the appeal and success of a brand, another aspect of packaging is the production and use of glass and paper.One initiative has been investment in ‘lightweight’ glass technology, which requires less raw materials as well as less energy to produce and subsequently transport.Similarly, the route to market when transporting bottles raises the question of fuel.“We moved to short sea shipping in April 2008, and 95 per cent of exports to Spain for example are short sea shipping, from Greenock to Bilbao, rather than road transport which reduces our carbon footprint.“We also make optimum use of all the available space when shipping containers, using the maximum weight per container per country, which reduces the number of shipments needed,” says Stephanie Macleod.With various initiatives already in place, and a review of production methods on-going, it remains to be seen how much greener the industry can become.Will solar panels become as familiar a sight as pagoda roofs?Will industry executives arrive at meetings sharing electric cars?We’ll just have to wait and see. FACT BOX Adapting distilleries for a greener future has been on-going at various locations. Meanwhile, Roseisle distillery,which is due for completion this spring (construction work having begun in October,2007) will feature green technology,with the majority of the by-products recycled on site. Potential CO2 emissions will be reduced byapproximately 13,000 tonnes,through direct savings on fuel use for steam raising.The renewable energy will be generated from liquid and solid byproducts, a mixture of barley husks,yeast and water,produced during distillation,and dust and rootlets from the maltings germination process.This is separated into liquid,producing energy in the form of biogas through anaerobic digestion,and dried solids which form a biomass fuel source.
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