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How will Scotch Whisky Survive the Climate Change?

How will Scotch Whisky Survive the Climate Change?

Climate Change and Food Sustainability Concerns

At the core is often the concern around food sustainability – with all of these extreme weather conditions, crops are no longer having any guaranteed or even standardised outcomes. In February, the National Farmers’ Union spoke out at its conference about the sheer amount of rain that had hit England over the winter season. Whilst it is a national pastime in the UK to talk about the weather, this was different: October, November and December were the wettest on record for parts of the country, while in Kent – the ‘Garden of England’ – farmers had experienced the rainiest 12 months since records began. Extensive crops of barley and wheat have been completely flooded out, with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to farmers already struggling with tight margins, increased costs of fertilizers, and equipment. 

Aberdeen and Dundee based environmental, crop and food science research centre, the James Hutton Institute, recently released a report which showed that Scotland’s climate is also changing much more quickly than anticipated – with warmer and wetter winters that were not expected to hit those levels until at least 2050. Both the high temperatures, which led to extreme drought, and endless rainfall, which fell on land that was too dry to absorb it all and therefore lead to huge amounts of flooding, naturally have a trickle down effect on producers who rely on the raw products the farmers grow and the land from which they depend on natural resources for their production. 

Challenges Faced by Scotch Whisky Industry

For Scottish whisky makers, the concerns are understandably large. It is an industry which depends fully on agricultural crops. After all, historically it was farmers who made whisky – using up any excess barley or grains that they couldn’t keep over the winter period, and turning it into a distilled product. Agriculture and whisky are inextricably intertwined, so something which affects farmers inevitably will affect whisky makers, big or small. Barley is, generally, purchased from Scottish farmers, where it is by far the largest cereal crop grown in Scotland. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association says that around 90% of it is procured locally. However, with varying levels of production, many will look further south to England or even across to Holland and countries in Europe to source their barley from or to use as a back up in case of issues locally. But with farmers across the whole UK affected, it becomes increasingly difficult to rely on this crop which is so key to its production.

Water Dependency in Whisky Production

Scotch whisky also depends on water, and a continuous and consistent supply of it. With 147 distilleries now operating in Scotland, the industry relies heavily on this natural resource for everything across the production chain: water for use in distillation, for cooling condensers, for watering down whisky before going into cask or bottle, for cleaning and so much more. Without water, whisky would not be. Spend enough time at any of the myriad Scottish whisky distilleries, and you’ll inevitably hear the phrase: ‘Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky’ – usually when you’re hiding in a warehouse while the rain pounds the pavements outside. So if there has been more rain, surely that is a positive for whisky production? Unfortunately, it is not that simple. As the whisky industry needs it year round, extra rainfall is only good if it keeps the rivers and lochs full every month. When high temperatures lead to extreme drought, whisky production has no choice but to halt. Just like much of the whisky making process, rainfall is about consistency. 

Research on Climate Change Impact on Whisky Making

Ahead of COP26, which happened in Glasgow in November 2021, Glengoyne distillery commissioned a report to investigate climate change and whisky making. The report – “How might climate change impact Scotch Whisky production in the next 50-100 years” – was undertaken by University College London researchers Carole Roberts and Professor Mark Maslin from August to September that year. It looked into numerous aspects affecting the whisky industry across Scotland, highlighting that drought is just as much of a concern in some cases as excess rainfall. 

The report stated: “In response to drought conditions during summer of 2018, five of Islay’s ten distilleries and the Blair Atholl and Edradour distilleries in Perthshire were forced to halt production (McGrane et al., 2018). Furthermore, Glenfarclas in Speyside reported an entire month’s loss of production, amounting to 300,000 litres of whisky (The Guardian, 2019). The event resulted from a reduction in spring and summer rainfall to 74- 83% of the 1981-2010 average, translating into river flows 40% below the long-term average for the Tweed, Dee, Spey, and Deveron (Hannaford, 2015; Kendon et al., 2020).” 

Sustainability Efforts in the Whisky Industry

These are no small figures. Any whisky maker will tell you that losing a month’s supply of production has a huge impact on the long-term viability of any set up. As whisky will often spend at least 10-12 years in barrel, anyone looking at stock forecasting will be needing to find ways to plug holes far further ahead, knowing that down the line there will be bigger problems to face. In fact, much of whisky making is about forward planning, as Kara Hepburn – brand manager for Glengoyne, the distillery which commissioned the report – explains. 

“Whilst we respect the past and our time-honoured traditions, at Glengoyne we also care a lot about the future and are proud of the progress we have made on our sustainability journey. As a family company, future planning is very important to us as we want to do the right thing, whenever we can, for our people, our communities and our planet.”

Glengoyne has long had a focus on sustainability. Based just outside of Glasgow on the borders of the Lowlands and Highlands, the distillery was the first to implement a wetlands facility which currently manages 100% of the liquid waste it doesn’t need. 

“Our liquid waste is cleansed in CO2-capturing reed beds and the water is then safe to rejoin the burn which winds its way into the river and on to Loch Lomond. Following the introduction of the Glengoyne Wetlands, biodiversity is alive and well,” explains Hepburn, adding that the wetlands, which are made up of 12 individual cells, provide a haven for local wildlife with 14,500 plants of 20 varieties including 80,000 bees housed in the two Glengoyne bee hives.

Meanwhile, larger conglomerates are also realising the importance of finding ways to increase sustainability across their production sites.

In late 2023, Diageo announced a regenerative agriculture programme across its Scotch whisky production, working with approximately 20 farmers from whom they source barley and wheat for their distilleries. The aim of the programme is to reduce carbon, increase water stewardship and enhance biodiversity through locally adapted practices such as crop rotation, cover crops and a reduction in cultivation. It is being undertaken in association with James Hutton Limited, the outreach and commercial arm of the James Hutton Institute which is instrumental in researching climate change in Scotland. 

And others are putting their focus into direct changes which are already having an impact on emissions. In 2021, William Grant & Sons pioneered the use of delivery trucks which run on biofuel created from distillery waste. Whilst the draff from the whisky making process was previously pressed into pellets to go back to farmers as cattle feed, the distillery has recently been taking its waste matter and feeding it into an anaerobic digester, which gives off a biogas as the matter breaks down. That gas is captured and then cleaned and used as a low-carbon, low-particulate fuel for a fleet of trucks created in conjunction with IVECO, a company which specialises in natural powered transport. 

Finding eco-friendly transport solutions are also key to the supply chain at Tomatin distillery, which was named Sustainable Distillery of the Year at the Icons of Whisky awards in 2023. Over 60% of its vehicle fleet is either fully electric or hybrid, but that’s just a small part of everything it does to focus on sustainability, as Lauren Plumpton, its Brand Manager, explains.

“We are aware that it is very easy to make statements about supporting sustainability and having a care for the environment but it is actions that really count.

“In 2013 we became the first distillery in Scotland to install an environmentally efficient wood pellet fuelled steam boiler for use in production. Eighty per cent of production is biomass energy, the remaining twenty per cent is liquified petroleum gas (LPG) which is utilised to make up the balance during periods of high demand. 

“In 2019 we installed a weir to prevent over abstraction and ensure that the downstream water environment is healthy, in 2021 we introduced control valves on our cooling system which has cut our water consumption by more than half! Instead of using the draff in animal feed, we now send it to a biogas plant to generate a green sustainable fuel which is then fed into the mains gas network. We protect the local environment from the effluent streams created as a result of our production process by spreading it to local land as a soil improver.”

“We also installed a more sustainable reed bed water treatment system to reduce our environmental impact and create a more diverse habitat for wildlife in the local area,” she says, adding that their ‘certified green’ distillery has also installed 79 solar panels, which saves over five tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.  

Peat Resources and Sustainability

Another big question mark which hangs over the Scotch whisky industry is the use of peat in the making of smokey whiskies. The natural resource is massively on the decline, and many question whether the Scotch whisky industry will one day need to stop making this style of whisky or find an alternative, artificial way of imparting that flavour on its products. For an industry so highly regulated in terms of its production, the latter would be a controversial move. And what many don’t realise is that the entire Scotch whisky industry only uses 1% of peat extracted from the UK each year. Still, understanding how to better manage those resources is vital to an industry which will need to keep adapting to changes in environment. In response, the Scottish government has pledged to invest £250 million to restore a quarter of a million hectares of peatlands by 2030. 

Collaboration with Government for Sustainable Future

And as both Plumpton and Hepburn recognise, the work towards a sustainable future needs to be one embraced not just by the Scotch whisky producers but in conjunction with the government to ensure everyone is working towards the same goal of achieving net zero by 2040 as the industry pledged back in 2021.

“We need to work with governments to ensure that the energy infrastructure advances to allow us to use cleaner fuels such as hydrogen, as currently this is not an option for remote distilleries who are off the mains gas grid network,” adds Plumpton. “We can’t do it all alone and will need help on a national level.”

Hepburn agrees, commenting: “We are fully supportive of the Scotch Whisky Association’s sustainability strategy and believe that, as an industry, we can combat some of these big challenges together as long as government infrastructure and investment is in place to help us all achieve our ambitious goals.”

How distilleries, whether new or old, find ways to become more sustainable will no doubt be top of many producers’ minds moving forwards. After all, whisky is highly reliant on natural resources across the entire production process. If those keep taking a hit, then there will be no future for whisky, a dire thought for all whisky lovers and the tens of thousands employed by this incredible industry across Scotland and the world. But the ground level research and work across the production spectrum already underway paint a positive outlook for this cherished business. Perhaps that famous slogan needs to change to “Today’s climate research and investment is tomorrow’s whisky” – for without continued adaptation that whisky may never come to be. 

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