Scotland’s whisky makers admit net zero targets will be hard to hit

The Scotch whisky sector made a special effort to welcome the COP26 global climate summit to Glasgow: issuing a special blend made from the output of 26 distilleries, served in 900 bottles of 97 per cent recycled glass with stoppers made of recycled wood and cork dust. Scotland’s most iconic export industry had good reason to go the extra mile for the gathering, which ends this weekend. As a resource-hungry and energy-intensive indulgence sold in vast quantities around the world, Scotch’s climate credentials certainly need polishing in an era of tightening carbon emissions curbs. The Scotch Whisky Association announced this month the sector had cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by more than half since 2008 — but it admitted it would be harder to hit its self-imposed target of net zero emissions from its own operations by 2040. “Some of the technologies that we need to get there don’t exist yet,” said Graeme Littlejohn, SWA director of strategy and communication. That is despite a flurry of innovation at distilleries across Scotland, much of it aimed at replacing the oil and other fossil fuels used to ferment barley or other grains and to provide the much higher temperatures needed to distil out the resulting alcohol.

The SWA says the sector got 39 per cent of its energy from non-fossil fuels in 2020, up from just 3 per cent in 2008. Chivas Brothers, the Scotch arm of French group Pernod Ricard, this year converted its Braeval distillery to burn biofuel based on rapeseed residue, for example. But Ronald Daalmans, Chivas’s environmental sustainability manager, said switching to renewables was not enough and more must be done to cut energy use. “We need to focus on efficiency first,” Daalmans said. “If we don’t sort efficiency, we are not going to get where we need to.” So Glentauchers, another Chivas distillery, has installed the industry’s first “mechanical vapour recompression” system, which uses pressure changes to recover energy from the spirit vapour produced by a traditional malt whisky pot still. Daalmans said mechanical vapour recompression would cut the energy needed to produce a litre of spirit to 3 kilowatt-hours, far less than the 5-6 kWh needed in malt whisky distilleries with older technology, and below even the 4.4 kWh needed in the more efficient stills used to make the grain whisky used in most blends. While such gains should make it easier to use renewable electricity for distillation, there is no obvious substitute for the carbon-rich peat burnt to dry malted barley, imparting the smoky flavour vital to many whiskies.

Amid concern about the climate implications of peat extraction, Japan’s Suntory, which owns Scotch brands including the powerfully flavoured Laphroaig, last month announced a £3m project aimed at restoring 1,300 hectares of Scottish peatland by 2030 and more thereafter. The group said that by growing naturally at 1mm per year, the mass gained by the 1,300ha would be equivalent to the peat it used annually for Scotch. But Amy Stammers, head of sustainability at Nc’nean Distillery on the west coast Morvern peninsula, is unconvinced by such schemes. Stammers was taken aback on a recent tour of a rival producer when the guide proudly noted that the peat used to make its whisky was thousands of years old. “You can put money into peatland restoration . . . but by the time that benefit has been realised we will be living in a very different world,” Stammers said. Nc’nean, which produces an unpeated whisky, has made sustainability central to its brand. Established in 2017, it this year claimed the title of the UK’s first distillery with net zero operations. Founder Annabel Thomas said eliminating most of the operational emissions was easy compared with the challenge of decarbonising Nc’nean’s supply chain and distribution. Organic barley suppliers had little idea of their carbon footprint and would need help shifting to farming techniques that encouraged soil carbon sequestration, Thomas said.

“Ideally we would have something where they move over time to a more regenerative practice and they tell us every year what their carbon emissions are,” she said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get there.” Whisky packaging poses another carbon conundrum. While the COP26 blend came in recycled green glass, much whisky is sold in high-grade — and often heavy — clear glass bottles. “There’s an expectation that premium products will have premium packaging,” said Littlejohn of the SWA. Still, Thomas said “nobody has noticed” the imperfections of Nc’nean’s Italian-sourced recycled clear bottles. The distillery is also looking into selling whisky in cans from a Scottish hydro-powered aluminium plant. At Chivas, Daalmans said strict rules on how Scotch was made meant it was impossible to introduce processes that made alcohol production more efficient in a bioethanol plant. But asked why most malt stills were left as bare, heat-radiating copper, he said distillers needed to be convinced that adding insulation would not affect the flavour of their spirit. “That certainly is on the list of things we should take a look at [but] generally our experience is that the closer you get to the distillation process in the still, the more nervous people get,” he said. “We are not just producing ethanol, we are producing ethanol with a certain character.”

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