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How Scotch whisky is leading the way in sustainability

For such an ancient practise, whisky is going green at a fast rate, finds Rosalind Erskine.

Published: November 17, 2021

In January, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) committed to reaching net-zero by 2040 with the launch of a new sustainability strategy.

This is five years ahead of the Scottish Government’s 2045 net zero target and ten years ahead of the UK Government’s target.

The industry’s revised Sustainability Strategy builds on progress made over the past decade, which has seen distillers work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third.

With COP26 having brought the climate conversation to the fore in Scotland, some companies within the whisky industry are planning ahead and have set themselves even more ambitious targets than those set by the SWA.

One of these is Chivas Brothers, the Scotch whisky arm of Pernod Ricard.

Chairman and chief executive Jean-Etienne Gourgues spoke to The Scotsman about the work being done by the company to get its own operations to net zero by 2030.

He said: “We are committed to driving a certain number of United Nations engagements. These ambitions fall under Chivas Brothers Sustainability Strategy ‘Good Times from a Good Place’, which by 2030 aims to reduce our carbon emissions by 50 per cent while increasing our positive impact on the environment.”

Mr Gourgues explained that one of the main challenges of achieving net zero comes from the older distilleries in the portfolio, many of which have been around for hundreds of years.

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“Space is an issue, you can’t create more or move the building,” he said.

But despite this, he’s confident the target set by the company is achievable and agrees with the statement from the SWA chief executive that “Scotch has been produced for 500 years and we want to ensure that it is being produced for generations to come”.

So far only one Chivas Brothers distillery is carbon neutral, according to Mr Gourgues – Braeval, a core single malt component of Chivas – but the company is committed to reducing Glentauchers’ distillery. 

The distillery, which was founded in 1897, is planning to cut carbon emissions by 90 per cent in 18 months with a target of hitting carbon-neutrality within two years.

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Another way in which to help offset carbon that’s been picked up by the industry is investment in the environment.

In 2014 the Glenmorangie distillery, which has been creating whisky in the Highlands since 1843, developed a partnership with Heriot-Watt University and the Marine Conservation Society known as the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), with a plan to restore long-lost oyster reefs to the Firth and to enhance biodiversity.

This move was to tie in with the anaerobic digestion plant to purify the by-products created through the distillation process – something they said at the time was an environmental first for a distillery.

Further down the road, Glengoyne is an exclusive partner of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). They’ve launched fundraising limited edition bottles and want to promote the ways that wetlands can be at the centre of environmental policy.

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Another aspect of whisky that has been put under the spotlight in terms of sustainability is packaging and reducing this waste drastically. The SWA’s target is that all new packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Nc'nean, which launched in 2020, was the first to offer an optional sleeve for the bottle and only uses recycled glass.

This organic distillery is like a breath of fresh air, and it is producing excellent liquid from a distillery powered by renewable energy that recycles 99.97 per cent of its waste is the cherry on top of a seriously sustainable cake.

Glengoyne changed its packaging and design last year to be 100 per cent recyclable and locally sourced.

Mr Gourgues explained that an important part of these changes was to manage customer expectations and to keep communication going.

“People think if they are buying whisky for themselves or as a gift, it must come in a carton,” he said. “But then, what happens to that once it is opened?” 

During COP26, whisky journalist and founder of OurWhisky Becky Paskin chaired a panel discussion on the subject of sustainability in whisky that included First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, founder of Nc’nean Annabel Thomas, and Karen Betts, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association.

She said of the subject: “Scotch whisky is an integral part of Scotland’s industrial and cultural landscape and, as an energy and resource-intensive industry, it has an important part to play in the race toward net zero.

“The industry is already setting the standard with its sustainability initiatives that are dramatically reducing its environmental impact. Its new, forward-thinking sustainability strategy is ambitious and impressive, and there are many other industries around the world that can learn from Scotch whisky’s example.

“However, that doesn’t mean the next few years will be plain sailing.

"Everyone on the panel, including the First Minister, agreed that change cannot be achieved without collaboration.

"If we are really to halt climate change we must work together, not just within our own companies, but with competitors, partners, government, other sectors and consumers too. Everyone has a part to play."

While the SWA is setting targets the industry will have to meet, there does seem to be a collective want to push this further. 

As Mr Gourgues says: “Whisky is a grain-to-glass method – it takes and gives back to the environment around it.”

It makes sense then for this industry to be putting the environment at the top of its priorities.

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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