Long-term benefits of sustainability in whisky distilleries

It may have a heritage dating back centuries, but in the last decade also the Scottish whisky industry has undergone something of an environmental revolution.

Distillers  are learning that sustainability is not just in the best interest of the environment but it’s also beneficial for business. The benefits are numerous; being consistently aware of the environment helps distilleries cut back on long­term costs, appeal to new markets and improve brand image.

As consumers become more interested in the origins of their drinks, and as corporate and social responsibility policies increasingly dominate business discussions, producers of all sizes are exploring how to make their supply chains more sustainable.

Replacing fossil fuels

The distilling process is quite energy intensive. The main energy requirement (about 79%) goes into the heat required to fire the stills which drive the distillation process, traditionally done by burning fossil fuels.

However, the industry has now discovered an energy source much closer to home, namely the spent grain left from distilling, known as “draff“. Using draff, energy can be produced either through biomass combustion by burning dried waste draff, or through anaerobic digestion (AD), whereby draff is mixed with pot ale (the residue of fermented wort left in a still after the distillation of whisky) to produce methane.

The SWA says that AD, the process by which organic matter is broken down to produce biogas and bio-fertilizer, has only beek looked at properly over the last 8 or so years. Some Scotch whisky distillers favor AD from a circular economy point of view, because it allows you to create natural gas (methane), and a further by-product that can go to fertilizer or animal feed, whereas biomass effectively burns all the raw material.

By installing a wood-pellet boiler at one of the distilling sites of John Dewar & Sons in Aberfeldy at the end of 2014, the distillery’s carbon footprint has been reduced by 90%.

Time to scale up

The next obvious step is to be collaborating on a larger scale.  As a result, Diageo’s £17 million bioenergy plant at the Roseisle Distillery in Elgin was one of the first in the industry, with huge savings on the energy requirement and with state-of-the-art water reclamation measures saving up to 300,000 cubic meters of water per year. However, this all is now eclipsed by the £65 million bioenergy plant at the Cameronbridge Distillery. An impressive 5.5 megawatt output meets 95% of the site’s energy needs and has reduced Diageo’s global emissions by more than 5%.

The biggest example of industry collaboration so far, is the CorDE Biomass Cogeneration Plant in Rothes, which takes the wet by-product from 17 local distilleries and generates up to 8.3 megawatt through a combined biomass burning scheme, enough to power 9,000 homes. In addition, this plant saves 64,000 tons of CO2 per year.

The CorDE Biomass Cogeneration Plant in Rothes, Scotland

Sustainable cask use

Cask making traditions are still maintained in several distilleries and cooperages across Scotland, which both manufacture and repair oak casks. Each cask has a working life of over twenty years and when no longer required or serviceable, the casks are sold for a range of uses such as garden ornaments, furniture or fuel.

McCallan Woodland Estate Limited Edition – bottle 486/1,000

The Macallan has, for example, raised customer awareness of the importance of a sustainable source for casks by linking certain brands with tree planting on its own estate. A limited edition of ‘Woodland Estate’, matured in ex-Sherry casks, enabled consumers to own an oak tree identified by a plaque bearing their name and the number of the bottle. Many owners have taken the opportunity to visit their trees.

Launching an ‘Estate Oak’ brand, the company committed to planting an oak tree on its Speyside estate for every bottle purchased. The bottle label is made of recycled paper and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Eventually over 125,000 trees of different types will be planted to screen the distillery and improve wildlife diversity.

Water efficiency

Scottish distillers take management of the water environment seriously. They need pristine water supplies to make whisky. The focus is on consistent supply of good quality water, obtained without detriment to other users; used water must be safely returned to the environment.

Diageo’s Leven packaging plant has won a prestigious Business Environment Partnership award  in November 2017 for innovative work on the efficient use of water. Potential reductions of 222,000 liters of water per year were identified through more efficient ‘Clean in Place’ (CIP) procedures. Since 2006, the Leven plant has reduced its water consumption by 12%.

Copper stills are essential in the whisky industry, uniquely influencing the spirit’s character. However, above certain levels, copper may be harmful to aquatic animals and plants. Therefore the industry works hard to minimise the presence of copper in discharges.

Working with Living Water,  the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown has installed a natural, gravity-fed ecological treatment system. The plant achieves overall biological removal efficiencies in excess of 95%. The effluent has residual copper levels of less than 0.5 parts per million. As a Special Area of Conservation designated by Scottish Ministers, such actions are vital to protect the River Fiddich.

The ecological system is planted with 16 native species of wetland plants and willow trees, which bind copper onto their roots, rhizomes or woody material, thus preventing its release into the environment. Deer, ducks, foxes and red-legged
partridges have all been spotted in the area. Similar wetlands have been developed at Benrinnes (Diageo) and GlenAllachie and Dalmunach (Chivas Brothers) distilleries.

chivas brothers1.jpg
Reed beds at the new Dalmunach Distillery.

The results

On April 27, 2018 the Scotch Whisky Association stated in their Environment Strategy 2018-report that she ‘is delighted to announce’ that it has achieved its 2020 non-fossil fuel target for years ahead of schedule. The Scotch whisky industry now sources over 20% of energy use from environmentally sustainable sources, up from 3% in 2008.

The SWA has also achieved the following targets:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 22% since 2008. This means with global exports of £4.37bn, the Scotch Whisky industry accounts for 20% of all UK food and drink exports, but only accounts for 10.7%  of the energy use. By 2050 some 80% of primary energy will come from non-fossil fuels, such as anaerobic digestion or solar power.
  • Net water use has fallen by 29% since the 2012 base year. This means that since 2012, the equivalent of over 1,800 Olympic sized swimming pools has been saved.
  • The recycled content of the industry’s product packaging stood at 44% in 2016, beating the 2020 goal that 40% of product packaging will be made from recyclable materials.

However, the older distilleries face more challenges when it comes to improving sustainability. For example, ‘Listed Building’-status may limit the installation of new equipment or changes to the layout of the distillery. Below you see Tormore and Strathisla Distilleries, both have the Listed Building-status.


Tormore Distillery, Grantown-on-Spey
Strathisla Distillery, Keith


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