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Whisky Industry Continues to Fuel Sustainability Programs

Whisky Industry Continues to Fuel Sustainability Programs

The Scotch whisky industry are forging ahead with ever more sophisticated plans in their quest to reduce carbon emissions. In this article we’re going to take a look at just what research is in progress and what projects are being put forward.


It’s been widely reported how more and more distilleries are installing biomass boilers in their distilleries. By using locally and sustainably produced wood chippings and pellets as fuel, and heat exchangers to use the heat produced to heat water for the central heating system, distilleries are able to make a dent in reducing their carbon footprint.

These biomass boilers have made such an impact that plans for a pioneering £45m project by AMP Clean Energy, have been unveiled for the UK’s largest malting site.

Currently using fossil fuel gas, Simpsons Malt Limited’s Tweed Valley Maltings situated in Berwick upon Tweed, will have an energy centre constructed, containing both electric and biomass boilers.  However, before you raise your eyes at the mention of electric boilers, we should point out that these will be powered using wind energy.  Not only that, but the high voltage electrical boiler will be powered on days when there is too much wind – for those not in the know, the grid cannot store an excess of wind powered energy, nor can it transfer it to alternative locations.  Therefore, when it’s very windy, and the grid is overloaded with renewable energy, they have to request companies to switch off their wind turbines – and pay them to do so, in the form of an ‘energy restraint payment.’

So, on non-windy days the biomass boiler can be used and on windy days the wind powered electric boiler can be utilised, saving not only carbon emissions, but also tax payer’s money in the form of reducing the energy restraint payment; it’s a ‘win-win’ situation.

It’s predicted that carbon emissions will be reduced at the site by a huge 80% that’s a saving of approximately 25,000 tonnes of carbon every year and the equivalent gas usage of around 11,000 homes, a pretty impressive amount.

In what other ways is the industry progressing with reduction in emissions?

While heat is obviously the main type of energy used in distillation, there are also key ingredients used in whisky production. So how can the use of water, barley (grain) or yeast be changed to radically affect the carbon emissions produced? 

The Water Stewardship Framework

The Scotch Whisky Association are leading the pack when it comes to mindful use and conservation of water.  Through responsible management, the industry has reduced its water consumption by 22 per cent since 2012, however the SWA want to further this achievement.

As you can imagine, the use of water within the whisky industry is huge.  Naturally it’s used in the distillation process itself, but don’t forget it’s also required for the cooling stages and cleaning of equipment too. Obviously, water usage varies greatly from one distillery to another and location is a contributory factor. Many producers use water from local sources such as rivers and lochs, but as a result of the current climate situation, this too requires careful and responsible management.

The River Spey, which supplies a number of distilleries with water

As a result, the Scotch Whisky Association has produced a ‘Water Stewardship Framework.’  The Framework has three key strategic objectives:

  • Responsible Consumption
  • Engage and Collaborate
  • Advocacy

Actions required for each objective are clearly detailed, including collaborations and research groups.

Director of Industry Sustainability at the SWA – Ruth Piggin, states:

Water is a precious resource which is vital as both an ingredient for making Scotch Whisky and a tool in its production. The Water Stewardship Framework is an action-orientated commitment to the industry’s continued work to improve water management, and a serious acknowledgement of the importance of water to nature and the wider environment surrounding industry sites.

The impact of the climate crisis is already being felt in Scotland’s water supply chain, and while distilleries manage this well, we understand that we have a duty of care to ensure our use of water is as efficient and responsible as possible. We’re committed to working closely with stakeholders including SEPA, government bodies and other relevant parties, to further improve the industry’s water stewardship.”

The Framework can be viewed here.

So, with water under such careful consideration and management, what about the most diversly affected ingredient? – the grain, barley.

Barley – sustainable production

The most commonly used grain in single malt scotch whisky is barley. So, what can be done in relation to barley production to further reduce the carbon footprint?  We previously detailed how some distilleries are using leftover mash as animal feed, the waste products of which can then be used as fertiliser, and heritage strains of barley which require less water, but is there another alternative?

Well, the answer might just be ‘green-grown barley.’   A project named ‘BioCrop’ is being undertaken by researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, made possible by funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 

The project is expected to take 2 years to complete and aims to determine whether barley grown with green fertilisers is still deemed suitable for use in whisky distillation. Three kinds of sustainable fertilisers are undergoing trials in a specially marked field test site at UCL.

Three varieties of barley are being tested, Cassia, Valeria and RGT Planet, which will come from the Irish BioCrop project, funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).  Researchers there are swapping out current manufactured fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides, which are all made using fossils fuels, for biobased alternatives, such as algae and fungi based ones. Part of that research will also include investigations into whether using marine resources would impact those sources detrimentally, as the purpose is obviously to create a self-sustaining and renewable supply.

The production trials at UCL would then compare barley grown using both fossil fuel manufactured and biobased fertilisers for direct comparison. Dr Angela Freechan, plant pathologist at Heriot-Watt commented:

“They are investigating how biostimulants made from algae, bacteria and yeast perform for barley growth, health and yield compared with traditional fossil fuels.

It’s not enough to know if we can grow barley without fossil fuels. We need to know what changes using biostimulants could have on them, whether it’s their quality, resistance to disease, how they respond to high heat or whether their flavour changes.

Reaching net zero means making our food production more sustainable. Biostimulants can hopefully do just that, but we need to be sure whisky won’t suffer as a result.”

Once the grain has been produced, it will be sent to the laboratory of researchers Dr Ross Alexander and Dr Calum Holmes, for micro malting experiments.  Whilst not in the surroundings of a distillery, they can still subject the grain to similar conditions and document their findings.

Dr Ross confirmed: “We’ll examine the barley on the nanoscale throughout the process to ensure it meets industry standards. That’s everything from how its seeds grow, grain size, enzyme values and soluble protein content.

Nitrogen content is key to barley meeting market specifications. Malt distilling requires a nitrogen level of below 1.65 per cent.

Any change to that could mean it’s not useable for whisky production; the micro malting analysis will give us certainty on the effect of biostimulants on barley.”

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this research and hope to report back in the future with favourable findings.

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