Making single malt Scotch whisky is theoretically a very simple process, and one relying on a small number of raw materials. Essentially, the only requirements are water, barley and yeast, with peat as an optional extra.
Distillers have always sought to be as efficient as possible with their resources, if only because it usually makes sound commercial sense to do so, but since 2009 a Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) Environmental Strategy has been in place to encourage greater awareness, development and implementation of what may be termed ‘green’ policies. These embrace all aspects of Scotch whisky, from growing and malting barley, through water and energy use, sustainable wood policies for casks, to processing and disposal of waste and maximising recyclable and re-usable packaging materials.
To begin at the beginning. The most crucial requirement for any distiller is a reliable source of pure water, and the location of every distillery in Scotland is predicated upon such a source. Water is essential for malting barley and for mashing, while it is also required in large quantities for cooling purposes. Indeed, some 80 per cent of all water used by Scotch whisky distillers is ‘borrowed’ for cooling activities and is ultimately returned to watercourses.
Water for whisky-making is sourced from boreholes and wells, from surface locations or the public supply, with rivers often supplying cooling water, and the water-related activities of Scottish distillers are overseen by The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
As Alan Winchester, Distilleries Manager for Chivas Brothers Ltd, notes, “Early distillers located their distilleries beside rivers and burns to give them water power to drive machinery as well as for cooling, but today we only use it for cooling. There are tight controls by SEPA about how much we can abstract and the temperature at which it has to be returned.
“As a big company with 14 distilleries we are very aware of water usage. The Scotch whisky industry has been around a long time and water is not wasted. We are always looking to keep water use at a minimum. In the past, water was not considered precious to distillers, except in the dry summer months, and the distilleries were usually silent then, anyway. Today, where possible we reuse heat which means we need less water.”
Modern still condensers require less water than their predecessors, and that water may be kept in a ‘closed loop’ for re-use. Meanwhile, Diageo’s newest distillery at Roseisle near Elgin was designed with environmental concerns very much in mind, and some 95 per cent of the site’s water demands are met by a water recovery plant.
It is not just at the distilling stage that water savings are important, and Diageo’s Leven packaging plant in Fife has reduced water consumption by 12 per cent since 2006, with potential reductions of 222,000 litres of water per annum being identified through more efficient ‘Clean in Place’ (CIP) procedures for vessels and pipes between bottling runs.
Clearly, water conservation measures are proving effective, with the SWA noting that the industry’s total water usage in 2010 was 37,024,340 litres, a decrease of 40 per cent over 2008, largely due to the installation of water metres. Net water use in 2010 –excluding cooling water returned to the environment – showed a 20 per cent volume decrease over 2007.
When it comes to barley, the second essential raw material of Scotch malt whisky-making, greater efficiencies have been achieved as new varieties have been developed which provide farmers with a higher crop yields per acre than in the past, while from the distillers’ point of view, the same tonnage of barley now yields more alcohol than before.
It is sometimes considered strange that a product with so much emphasis on provenance as Scotch malt whisky may be made from barley grown anywhere in the world. However, today’s distillers try to use Scottish barley wherever possible, and In 2010 more than 93 per cent of the malted barley employed in whisky-making was grown in Scotland.
Diageo has pledged to purchase Scottish-grown barley whenever possible, with the company’s Procurement Director Andy Roberts declaring earlier this year that “We are looking at between five and 10 per cent annual growth in the whisky market, and if Scotland can supply malting barley for that, then we shall be buying.”
Chivas Brothers’ Alan Winchester notes: “The malt we buy is predominantly grown in Scotland, but at times there will be English and even Irish malt in the system. We don’t want to be involved in shipping malt hundreds of miles if we can help it, but in a really bad year for the barley harvest in the UK we could go to Denmark, if there just wasn’t the quality and quantity required at the home.”
In the past, large quantities of foreign-grown barley were transported to Scotland for malting, but the development of the Golden Promise variety during the mid-1960s revolutionised the country’s ability to cultivate high-quality malting barley on a large scale.
Golden Promise was a ‘breakthrough’ crop for Scottish farmers, being bred to mature early, and therefore more likely to be ripe by the end of the short Scottish growing season. It had a stiff and short straw, enabling it to withstand strong winds, and compared to all its predecessors, it offered greater ease of processing and extract potential.
Alan Winchester explains: “Any cereal is the biggest cost for a distiller, then fuel and labour second and third. Because of this we obviously we look for optimum yield, but we have really reached a point where there is not much more improvement to be achieved. We have reached around 420 litres per tonne now, and you’d have been getting some 370/380 litres with Golden Promise, and that was a big step forward from its predecessors. Though quantity is important, spirit quality is paramount. The yield is an important commercial consideration, but quality has to come first.”
Unlike water and barley, peat is an ‘optional extra’ in whisky-making, as its role in the malting process is purely to provide aroma and flavour, and large quantities of malt are made without any use of peat whatsoever.
Essentially, peat is vegetable matter -the carbon rich remains of plants, preserved in the acidic waterlogged conditions where peatbogs form.
The type of peat created depends on the plant material from which it is derived, principally Sphagnum mosses, and on whether it is in the uplands or low lying areas.
As Timothy C S Dolan explains in Whisky Technology, Production and Marketing (2003), “Peat is used during barley kilning as a source of flavour, not as a heat source. The location at which the peat was obtained, and its method of use, strongly affects the flavour of the spirit produced.
During kilning, the peat is burned, avoiding flaming, to produce a smoke called peat reek. It is burned during the early stages of kilning, so that the combustion products absorb to and are absorbed by the malt.”
Peat is effectively a finite resource, since it takes millions of years to regenerate, so there are sensitivities regarding its use in whisky-making. However, most distillers like to wear their environmental credentials on their sleeves, and those who harvest peat for malting are keen to be seen to utilise peat in a responsible way, minimising the quantities involved where possible.
At Bowmore distillery on Islay a process of macerating and baking peat into ‘caff’ for burning in its floor maltings was developed some years ago. This creates more smoke and less flame, generating increased peat flavour in the malted barley while requiring up to 75 per cent less peat than was previously the case.
Highland Park on Orkney also operates floor maltings, and harvests peat on Hobbister Moor. Distillery manager Graham Manson notes that
“We operate the moor in connection with Orkney Islands Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB. We harvest peat in the most environmentally sensitive way possible in relation to the impact on wildlife on the moor.
“Towards the end of our peat-cutting season, when we’ve taken the 250 to 300 tonnes we need for a year’s production, we put back the layer of heather mulch that we skimmed off the top to get to the peat we wanted.
“We also add mulched heather which we get from another moor where the RSPB has had it cut, so that we are returning the area to vegetation.”
It is worth bearing in mind that the Scotch whisky industry only accounts for around 0.5 per cent of all peat used in the UK each year.
Rea Cris, communications coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK National Committee Peatland Programme, says: “In the great scheme of things, the whisky industry really has a minimal impact on peat. When it comes to horticulture, there are alternatives to peat, you don’t have to use it for compost, but the whisky industry really has no alternative to peat to obtain the desired effect.”
She explains: “On a conservation level we’re aiming to have one million hectares of peatlands restored by 2020, but government funding alone won’t be able to deliver this, so engaging the private sector and businesses such as the whisky industry as key potential players is crucial.
“Some businesses, including whisky are already repairing previously damaged peatlands, and these peatlands were damaged by agriculture and not whisky use. We’re looking to engage a wide range of businesses to help with this restoration target.”
Overall, the Scotch whisky industry has much to be proud of when it comes to responsible use of raw materials and ethical treatment of the environment. Julie Hesketh-Laird, director of operational and technical affairs at the SWA, says that the industry has always had strong green credentials, adding: “Progress in reaching our stretching environmental targets is evidence of the industry’s on-going commitment.”