The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
Single Malt Sustainability in Action
Sustainability has been a key pillar in the single malt world for many years and is only growing in importance. From local, pure water sources and using organically or biodynamically grown grain, to barrel repurposing and recycling and turning excess emissions into biofuel, distilleries large and small are redoubling their efforts to be sustainably focused.
Spirit of Progress
In November 2020, Diageo announced their Spirit of Progress initiative which focuses, along with championing inclusivity and diversity and promoting positive (re: moderated) drinking, on grain-to-glass sustainability. How are they doing this? Take their goal of using 100% renewable energy and achieving net zero carbon emissions across their direct operations. About 80% of energy used in the entire distillation process is generated to heat the stills, which has typically been done by burning fossil fuels. By converting the traditional boilers to use renewable liquid biofuel (often created from vegetable oil residues), Diageo have taken Royal Lochnagar and Oban (their smallest and second smallest distilleries, respectively) and have turned them into the first examples of 100% renewable energy run single malt distilleries.
Ewan Andrew, chief sustainability officer and president for Diageo, said it was “vital” to “act now if we want to maintain the wonderful world we all live in”; but this is not an out of the blue announcement from Diageo. They’ve been working on reducing their carbon footprint for years, collaborating with other distilleries and initiatives in Scotland and around the world to pioneer and support new, environmentally conscious ways of industrial whisky production. Andrew commented he’s “proud that we have already halved our own carbon footprint” (helped, in large part, by their bioenergy plant at Roseisle Distillery, and the much larger one at Cameronbridge Distillery, which reduced their global emissions by over 5%, and have been in play since 2010) “and that we are going to push ourselves further by becoming carbon neutral by 2030.”
Collaboration & Biofuel
Diageo is not alone in making their distilleries more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Many others have been doing this in various ways for a long time, as well. When it was discovered that draff (the spent grain from the distillation process) can produce energy 1. through biomass combustion by being dried and burned, or 2. by being mixed with pot ale to produce methane via anaerobic digestion, it was a game changer. Back in 2014, Dewars (owned by Bacardi, and while not a single malt, it’s worth noting) installed a wood-pellet boiler at one of their distilleries and experienced a 90% reduction in carbon emissions at that site.
The CorDE Biomass Cogeneration Plant is the largest example of industry collaboration regarding biofuel generated energy and heat production and is located in Rothes, Speyside. By taking the wet by-product of 17 local distilleries (roughly 115,000 tonnes of draff) and turning it into energy through a combined biomass burning scheme, this plant generates up to 8.3 MWe (megawatts electric) - the equivalent of supplying 9,000 homes with electricity. Not only that, but the plant also saves 64,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.
Water & Copper
Water is another key point in Diageo’s initiative, not only in reducing their water usage by 30% per drink and achieving a net positive water impact in their key water stressed basins and communities, but by also providing clean water and sanitation with their launch of over 150 community water projects around the globe. They will also be educating over 150k smallholder farms on land regeneration techniques and biodiversity.
William Grant & Sons is another big player that’s also been working on various sustainability projects over the years; one of the most notable being their work at the Glenfiddich distillery to reduce copper discharges into the local environment. Copper is, of course, essential to making single malt whisky, but its presence in large quantities can be harmful to the local flora and fauna. Working with Living Water Ecosystems, Glenfiddich has established a natural, gravity-fed ecological treatment system which utilizes “complex ecological relationships to create a ‘food web’ which enables waste products to be transformed into plant and animal biomass.” Simply put, by creating an ecological system with native species of wetland plants and trees which attract any wayward copper to their roots and woody bits, it keeps the copper from getting out any further into (and thereby harming) the environment. By creating this natural treatment system, Glenfiddich’s residual copper presence in the distillery’s effluent stands at less than .5 parts per million, making their biological removal efficiencies over 95% successful. Such actions are vital to protect the River Fiddich and surrounding ecosystems.
Peat and Scotch may seem synonymous, but in actuality, the extraction of peat used for the entirety of the Scotch whisky industry is less than 1% of the total extracted annually in the UK - the majority being harvested for horticultural purposes. Nevertheless, peatlands have suffered greatly from industry and climate change, and whisky companies are working to preserve this precious resource.
While once heavily relied upon as key fuel during the drying process of malting, it’s now only used for flavouring purposes; and distilleries that utilize peat, such as Lagavulin (owned by Diageo), are continually working to reduce the amount of use and waste by increasing the efficiency of their processes. A further example of peatland conservation, besides just tightening distillery operations, is the collaboration in 2016 between Lagavulin and RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), which worked to fund the restoration and conservation of 280 hectares of Islay peatlands.
I think we can all agree we enjoy whisky and would like to continue enjoying it for decades to come. It’s heartening to see, even with the current state of the world, that some large corporations are working hard to make a positive impact and move towards sustainability and environmentally friendly practices.