E-pistle 2009/09 – Today’s Whisky Climate

By Dave Broom, UK

(This article on the potential effects of global warming appeared earlier as a two part series in Whisky Magazine)


The world is heating up. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. The 20th century was the warmest in the last millennium and the 1990s was the warmest decade for the previous 100 years. In the UK, we have been witnessing the warmest weather since records began in 1660.

How then does this global phenomenon affect the UK, Scotland and the whisky industry? The picture of the UK in 2080 painted by the UKCIP02 report   shows a country which has got progressively warmer with annual temperatures between 2.5˚C and 4˚C warmer than today, with northern Scotland warming the least and the southeast of England rising the most. The difference between seasons is more dramatic than it is today. Summers have become increasingly hot [England & Wales by up to 4.5˚C, Scotland by between 3˚- 3.5˚C]  Although this has resulted in a fall in annual precipitation by up to 10% across the country, winters have got wetter [+ 20% in England and eastern Scotland] and rain is falling in more intense bursts. Snowfalls have been reduced to below 70% of today’s levels, in Scotland they have fallen by 66%. In addition, coastal waters have warmed and the sea level has risen by 30cm. This, coupled with more storms has increased incidences of flooding. Though the effects are at their most extreme in the south-east of England, Scotland has not escaped. The east coast will also see the most significant rise in summer temperatures. Though the west coast will remain the wettest part of the country, the highest percentage increase will be seen in the east which could result in more winter flooding and, in a worst case scenario, a shift in river courses and increased coastal erosion.

Dr Toby Sherwin is reader in physical oceanography at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban.
“The UK’s precipitation is set by the Atlantic, but it is very difficult to predict how storm tracks will pass over the Atlantic. There is an assumption that a warmer sea will result in greater evaporation, thereby putting more water in the atmosphere — particularly around the equator — which in turn will result in more precipitation. “It is more difficult to predict the impact of higher sea temperatures and rising sea levels. There has been a rise of 1˚C in the temperature of the Scottish coastal waters over a decade, (a big increase) which we think is because of a change in the patterns of circulation in the Atlantic. In addition sea levels are rising.”

Although a rise of 30cm has been predicted for the UK by 2080, Scotland has its own peculiarities which need to be taken into account, as Dr Jim Hansom of Glasgow University’s  Department of Geographical and Earth Science explains. “The level of sea level rise in Scotland is dependent on what happened to the country during the last two ice ages  . Draw a circle with Rannoch Moor at its centre and its outer limit passing through the Mull of Galloway, Edinburgh, Speyside, the Dornoch Firth, then through Skye, Islay and back to Galloway.  The centre was where the ice was thickest and here the land is still rising. The outer limits is where the ice was at its thinnest and as a result there is less uplift. By the time you reach Northern Ireland any uplift has been replaced by subsidence. Although the relative sea level rise may be less in some places because of this, in simple terms, the sea is rising and the islands are sinking. It’s a double whammy.”

Although a rise of a few centimeters hardly seems the stuff of nightmares, the bigger picture is worrying. “You have to remember is that any sea level rise will be exacerbated by storm surges,” Hansom adds, “and if the ocean is warming there is a chance that storms will become more severe.” There is a further scenario which involves the Greenland ice sheet melting which would not only raise sea levels but put more fresh water into the Arctic ocean which could result in the shutting down of the North Atlantic Drift   “This is what caused glaciers to form in Loch Lomond during the last Ice Age,” said Hansom, “and the evidence is when it happened it happened quickly. If it happens this could means that the UK gets colder rather than warmer, making the temperature closer to Russia or Labrador, with sea ice forming in winter.” Though a slowing of the NAD has been factored into the UKCIP02 scenarios it is however thought unlikely that it will close down totally.


Climate change will impact on every industry, but whisky is an interesting case dependent as it is on agriculture, water and weather.


One result of warmer summers is that the thermal growing season is estimated to be extended to 60 days in Scotland. Dr Mike Rivington is researcher in Land-Use Systems Modelling at Aberdeen’s Macaulay Institute. He and his colleagues have run a computer simulation to assess what may happen to barley cultivation in Scotland : “It is one of those things that, potentially, climate change could be beneficial to some aspects of Scottish agriculture. The indications are that barley will be OK,” he says. “That said, the model doesn’t take into account pests and pathogens or the wider effects of warming, so on one hand while potential yield could be as good as today or even better, climate change itself may still have a serious impact.” The heavy winter rains predicted for Scotland’s main barley growing areas could affect winter grown crops while the increase in intense rainfall will also have an impact.

The industry has always adopted a belt and braces policy for barley and will also therefore need to take into account the more dramatic changes in climate predicted for East Anglia which, it is predicted, will be more severely affected by summer droughts and rising temperature. Rivington didn’t feel that flooding would affect the main barley growing areas and believed that the change in climate could bring currently marginal hill areas into production.  What they grow however will have changed. His research leads him to conclude that the whisky industry will need to develop new strains of barley to cope with the change in climatic conditions — and that farmers will have to adjust in order to farm them. “Growing successful malting barley is down to the skill of the farmers themselves in regard to the timing and application of fertilisers and it may take some skill to adjust how best to do it with the new varieties which could be needed.”

The industry of course is also dependent on buying cereals from around the world for grain production. Quite what the future holds for this trade, Rivington felt, was harder to forecast. “Trying to predict the global grain production is very difficult. Some will benefit, and others will lose out. There are attendant issues such a global population increase, the effects of climate change and governments determining where food resources are best directed. It could be that a country such as Argentina has to ask itself whether it is justifiable to send grain to Europe when it might be needed for food at home.”


Any discussion with a distiller in recent years will eventually have touched on how water supplies have become increasingly problematic. Springs have been drying up in summer, burns and lochs have been lower — partly the result of less winter snowfall as well as drier  summer conditions. “The fact that less snow is predicted will result in the April thaws which traditionally have brought rivers into full spate being less prevalent,” says Sherwin. “Even if winter precipitation is heavier, the summer warming will have its own knock-on effect. River temperatures in summer will definitely be warmer because the atmosphere will be warmer, and the river levels will also be lower.  This may also be the case in spring.”

This has its own impact on whisky production. Not only will less water be available, but higher river temperatures may mean that distilleries are effectively forbidden from using the water in the first place. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency [SEPA] sets strict upper limits on the temperature of water which is allowed to be returned to a watercourse after being used in a distillery. Increasingly, distilleries in Speyside are finding that the temperature of the water which they are taking from the river is already higher than this level, meaning that they cannot use it. Climate change seems likely to exacerbate this problem.

The temperature of condensing water is also vital in the creation of specific flavour characters. (A heavy distillate character for example needs high volumes of very cold water). It is conceivable that distilleries which are heavily dependent on this may struggle in the future. One way around both problems could be to install water cooling plants, but that would use energy. Spirit character could also be affected by any change in relative humidity as this will have an impact on maturation. Although figures suggest Scotland will be less affected by a rise in humidity than south east England should the maturation model begin to resemble that of Cognac then there will be an impact on mature spirit character.


A further issue revolves around the rise in sea levels. As we have seen the rise will not be the same across Scotland and though even a 30cm rise may seem insignificant, this figure does not does not take into account increased wave height (already noted in the past few years), the higher incidence of storms and greater risk of storm surge [the result of low atmospheric pressure + strong winds; or a storm coinciding with high tide].

UKCIP02 warns that by 2050 the current 100 year high-water mark will be reached every 20 to 40 years depending on the location. This will put the ‘soft coast’ [dunes, machair, estuaries] at risk from flooding, increased coastal erosion and estuary realignment. “We expect to see a mean sea level rise and stronger winter winds, therefore there will be a higher incidence of storms,” says Dr Toby Sherwin. “Distilleries should be worried about the highest tide levels which they can cope with, because these incidents will become more frequent and the sea will be above the level predicted.”

So who is most at risk? “Everyone on the coast, to a greater or lesser extent,” says Dr Jim Hansom. “Though there are not many distilleries built at sea level there is the issue of erosion. Bunnahabhain on a gravelly beach will have more of a problem than a distillery built on rock. If there are more storms there will be more coastal erosion and also a buildup of silt and sediment in inlets and estuaries — Lochindaal for example — which could silt up.” (Quite how Islay would get its oil if this happens is worth considering).

“This build-up of silt could cause flooding problems for distilleries close to estuaries — Bladnoch for example,” he continues. “Everything on Islay will be affected in some way. In fact, any coastal distillery will see an impact to some extent. “Speyside won’t be affected by a sea level rise directly unless you have a bonded warehouse or a distillery at the 0.5m level, but any area close to sea level and on any of the flood plains of the rivers will see a higher incidence of flooding as the rivers will back up because of the higher sea level and increased storms.” On this reading, the floods which affect low-lying distilleries such as Glen Moray will become a normal occurrence, while any building on flood plains or low-lying coastal areas (which would include maltings, warehousing and distilleries) could be affected.

All of the above are predictions and though scientists are now increasingly expert at analysing data, as Mike Rivington says: “there remain so many unknowns. There could be forces at work which we still do not understand. On one hand you have to be optimistic that we are doing something, but I still get the jitters!”

Global warming affects every aspect of out lives. Even if drastic action was taken now, it would not reverse the process. Yet action is needed. Next, we will examine what the industry is doing about finding solutions to the potential impacts outlined here as well as reducing its own carbon footprint.


The whisky industry will be directly affected by the consequences of climate change. Shifting weather patterns, drought, sea level rise, sea temperature change, coastal erosion, flood plain damage, increased incidence of flooding, all will have an impact on industry infrastructure as well as on the raw materials needed to produce the spirit. The science behind climate change is now accepted and becoming increasingly, depressingly, precise. What though, in practical terms, is being done to try and reduce the effects of this inevitable change and is it enough?

Whisky-making is energy-intensive. Malting, kilning, mashing, distillation, effluent disposal, all require high amounts of energy. Transportation and packaging adds to the overall environmental impact. Like all UK industries, distillers are required to meet Government targets for reducing energy efficiency levels by 2010. Campbell Evans is director of Government and Consumer Affairs at the SWA. “The climate change agreement has set specific targets for energy usage per litre of alcohol produced. These are currently being bettered and the level is now 13.5% lower than it was in 1999, despite an upping of production. In addition, carbon emissions have also been reduced by 10%. In going forward, the SWA, through its energy committee, is looking at the potential impacts of climate change. It is an ambitious timescale, but the important fact is that we are being proactive.” In many ways, the Scotch whisky industry has a head start. Heat exchangers within distilleries are hardly new innovations, waste heat is recycled wherever possible both in the distillery and, as anyone who has luxuriated in Bowmore’s swimming pool can attest, in the wider community. In Wick, for example, Old Pulteney is generating electricity for neighbouring houses.


As established distilleries find further ways in which to reduce energy, the new builds which are either underway or in the planning stages are under increasing scrutiny to demonstrate their green credentials.

“The environmental impact of the new distillery is being taken extremely seriously, and we are looking at all options to reuse energy and recycle water,” says Michael Alexander at Diageo, when asked about plans for the firm’s mega-plant at Roseisle. “Our aspiration is to create a distillery that will deploy the latest technology and green practices to have a neutral impact.”

“It is our intention to minimize the environmental impact of the new distillery as far as possible in terms of water and fossil fuel usage and discharges to the environment. In fact, we have set an ambitious target of making the distillery water and fossil fuel neutral. We hope to achieve this by utilising technologies that are relatively new to the distilling industry, such as biomass boilers to raise steam from the spent grains, and waste water treatment by anaerobic digestion and membrane filtration. Having a maltings close to the distillery will also allow us to maximise opportunities for waste heat recovery.”

Duncan Taylor’s new plant in Huntly is aiming to be fuelled by wood chips, an option also considered by Bruichladdich for its Port Charlotte distillery. “We looked at wood chips as an option, but it was too much trouble,” says Mark Reynier at the Islay distiller. “It would have been disruptive, there wasn’t enough 40 year wood, it was too dirty, it required a huge storage capacity, there would have been too many lorries needed – and there wasn’t enough steam pressure/generation. It was the tail wagging the dog.”  Bruichladdich has instead began to investigate biogas, the anaerobic digestion of organic matter (draff, pot ale, etc). “The determining question will be the size of the thing, the space available, the aesthetics and the operational practicality as much as the environmental angle,” says Reynier. “These things sound really good on paper.”

One solution to the issue can be seen at Deanston. “The distillery once housed the largest waterwheels in Europe and is self-sufficient in generating its own electricity, with the power source now coming from water powered turbines,” explains Katherine Crisp at Burn Stewart. “In true Scottish tradition, any electricity not used in the distillation of whisky is sold back to the national grid.”


New builds are not alone however. Grain distilling, the heaviest user of energy, is also receiving greater focus. Investment at the Chivas -owned Strathclyde grain plant includes the installation of a MVR (mechanical vapour recompression) plant, which captures energy from recovered steam. As a result of this and other improvements made between 2004 and 2006, the firm claims that there has been a drop of 10 % in energy usage per litre of alcohol produced and the same fall in CO2 emission levels. North British has beaten its specific energy target for 2006/7 by 25% and claims to be ahead of its target for 2009/10. The distillery has also succeeded in reducing levels of carbon dioxide, ethanol vapour and total organic carbon (a measure of the contamination in effluent) over the last three years.

Diageo is spending £39million expanding its Cameronbridge site and the firm is undertaking a joint feasibility study with Dalkia [energy management consultants] into the development of an anaerobic digestion plant at the distillery. “This potential project is in its early feasibility stage,” says Alexander. “If it goes ahead, it is estimated that it will reduce our BOD [Biochemical Oxygen Demand] load by 90% at the site and would be one of the largest in Europe. We are looking to complete the feasibility in the first quarter of next year. In addition, we’re examining technologies that will minimise our water usage at the site and are similarly committed to maximising re-use of demolition waste on site.”


Though not as dramatic, many malt distilleries are making small but but significant changes. “Our priorities are first and foremost quality, and secondary, ensuring that the distillery runs as efficiently as possible,” says Robert Ransom at Glenfarclas. “Traditional Scottish prudence is very much at the heart of the distilling process with the sale of by-products to reduce waste, and employing second hand casks. This tradition is alive at Glenfarclas with more modern examples including the employment of heat exchangers, a waste heat boiler and hot water evaporator, all to cut our fuel bill, but also to the benefit of the environment.”

Chivas Bros. claims that the complete reconstruction of Glenburgie has made it one of the most energy/CO2-efficient distilleries in the industry. Interestingly however, as a result of the water table falling Glenburgie like Longmorn, has had to sink a deeper bore hole in order to access its water source, a further indication of climate change. A series of heat recovery projects at Allt a Bhainne, Glenallachie, The Glenlivet, Glentauchers, Longmorn and Strathisla Distilleries are intended to deliver energy/CO2 reductions. The most dramatic change, the firm claims, has come at Glendronach where the switch from coal to oil has resulted in a 50% reduction in energy levels and the same fall in carbon emissions.

Elsewhere, more efficient boilers are being installed to help reduce emissions. Burn Stewart has done so at Tobermory and Bunnahabhain, while Bruichladdich has replaced its two old  ones with a more efficient single one, resulted in a 29% reduction in oil usage. Distillery manager Duncan MacGillivray has also designed a heat exchange system which uses the heat of the pot ale to pre-heat the stills.

Efficiencies have also been made in packaging. The Edrington Group has set up an energy task force which looks at a strategy to reduce energy use at its Glasgow HQ and bottling plant. “Over the last 4 years as a result of these energy saving initiatives, the company has achieved a net gain saving of energy of more than 1.17 million kWh, which equates to 225 tonnes of CO2,” says Stan Marshall, Edrington’s director of operational excellence. A programme of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ at its Glasgow bottling facility has resulted in a 60% cut in wastage in five years – an annual saving of £400,000. In addition, 79% of Edrington’s waste is recycled and the company is working with suppliers to return re-usable packaging to them, resulting in savings on transport costs and emissions. Gordon & MacPhail, too, is recycling all of its paper and cardboard.


Although hardly the sexiest part of whisky production, effluent treatment and disposal also has an environmental impact and is therefore under ever-tighter guidelines. Copper levels in water discharged into rivers, for example, have very tight limits. One possible solution to improve effluent treatment is to create a reed bed to help generate an oxygen-rich environment supporting a range of micro-organisms that thrive on the nutrients present in the effluent, an option has been taken by Diageo at its Dufftown and Blair Athol distilleries. At Dufftown, the reed bed is used to ‘polish’ the bioplant effluent, reducing the amount of dissolved copper prior to discharge into the River Dullan. It also has the added benefit of reducing the organic and suspended solids load of the effluent stream.  At Blair Athol the reed bed is used to break down the bioplant sludge and eliminates the need for it to be sprayed onto agricultural land. Likewise, Macallan has chosen “environmentally -friendly technology” to reduce the amount of copper in its discharge into the River Spey to a fifth of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s (SEPA) consented limits.

All of this is laudable and there is compelling evidence that the industry is doing something, yet there remains a nagging feeling that it isn’t being done for the sake of the environment, but for that of efficiency and cost cutting. Robert Ransom: “I am not going to claim that we are a leader in the field of making the whisky industry greener. However we will always consider new practices that help to make the distillery more efficient, and thus there would be a secondary benefit for the environment.” Given the overwhelming evidence about global warming, surely this thinking should be reversed? The environment should come first. It is the ‘efficiency’ (ie savings) which should be the secondary benefit. Indeed, it could be argued that helping to slow climate change will inevitably see an increase in underlying costs.

Underpinning many of the comments was this feeling that commercial advantage was a more powerful motivating factor than any sense of shared environmental responsibility. “I am not convinced of the global warming/climate change/Al Gore-esque arguments, or the scientific research-induced hysteria that is being exploited by the government,” says Mark Reynier. “Climate change’ and ‘carbon footprint’ are in my view excuses. My motivation is not to save the planet, but implementing systems that will use less energy and will save money, as well as the planet. Distilleries are pretty efficient for economic reasons first and foremost and if energy savings can be made by recycling waste streams then that will be done anyhow.”

This argument underpins one of the main conflicts between the business community, the Government and scientists. Business is not predisposed to being bossed around by legislators — the feeling is intensified when scientists begin making their demands. Knowing what needs to be done and what the political and business communities are willing to do are very different things and politicians remain in thrall to the demands of a business community whose prime motivation is to safeguard its profits.

There was one comment from a distiller which pointed to this mindset. In the middle of outlining his firm’s achievements, he began to discuss, “the contribution of carbon dioxide emissions to potential global climate change,” (my italics). Though this might seem like splitting hairs, the use of the word ‘potential’ carries within it the underlying state of denial in which most of us live. It is happening. As the author of ‘The End of Nature’, Bill McKibben, writes: “Permafrost is melting. Get it?” Climate change is real. Accepting this and making it the priority — even conceivably over profits — may be a tough business decision, but it is one which will be inevitable.