Saturday 15 May 2021 marked the 10th annual World Whisky Day, a celebration of all things whisky. To celebrate, MacRoberts had a dram and considered the Scotch Whisky industry and, in particular, how the sector is looking to evolve into a greener and more sustainable industry.

The Scotch Whisky industry directly employs more than 10,500 people in Scotland, including 7,000 in rural areas, and its supply chain is worth more than £1.8bn. Exports of Scotch Whisky were worth £3.8bn in 2020, which is down by 23% on 2019, primarily as a result of tariffs in the US market and the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to the Scottish Parliament election at the beginning of May, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) unveiled its manifesto, calling all candidates to support the industry’s recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The manifesto outlined a number of key commitments, however, the primary focus was on building the Scotch Whisky industry back stronger and greener than it was before the pandemic. The Scotch Whisky industry asked parliamentary candidates to support the tourism and hospitality sectors through the global promotion of Scotch Whisky. In addition to this, the SWA wants the Scottish Parliament to commit to a policy framework which will incentivise investment in renewables, including hydrogen, to help the industry meet its ambition of reaching net zero by 2040, as outlined in the SWA’s sustainability strategy.

The production of whisky is approximately seven times more energy-intensive than the production of gin and the majority of the industry’s carbon emissions are associated with the generation of heat for the distillation process, which accounts for 83% of the distillation industry’s fuel consumption. In order to reduce the carbon footprint of the whisky sector, the SWA announced its new sustainability strategy in January 2021 and pledged that the industry would achieve its goal of net zero carbon emissions in its operations by 2040. This sustainability strategy, if achieved, would place the Scotch Whisky industry five years ahead of the Scottish Government’s official net zero target.

The strategy builds on progress made by the Scotch Whisky sector over the last decade. Indeed, between 2008 and 2018, there has been a 34% decline of greenhouse gas emissions, with 28% of primary energy use coming from non-fossil fuels (compared to 3% in 2008), and just 1% of waste currently being sent to landfill (down 75% since 2016). The Scotch Whisky industry has already taken significant steps to become more sustainable, and in March 2021, the UK Government announced a £8.9m fund to help Scottish distilleries cut emissions and support green jobs.

To reach the sustainability targets, other industry-wide goals include:

  • reducing greenhouse gases by a further 40% by 2030
  • transitioning to cleaner sources of energy for heating, including using anaerobic digestion, biomass, hydrogen, and high temperature heat pumps
  • new product packaging will be reusable, recyclable, and compostable by 2025
  • achieving net-zero carbon emissions from barley production by 2045
  • to reduce water use to 12.5 - 25 litres of water used per litre of pure alcohol produced by 2025

There are a number of Scotch Whisky distilleries who are already proving their commitment to meeting these sustainability goals. For example, in February 2021, it was announced that Nova Innovation, a tidal energy firm, will install a series of underwater turbines between the isles of Islay and Jura on the west coast of Scotland. Islay is home to nine active distilleries, and its exposure to the North Atlantic has made it a hub of tidal power innovation. Jura is home to the Jura distillery. The underwater turbines will generate enough renewable power to displace the use of fossil fuels used on the islands.

With a view to COP26, which will be hosted in Glasgow later this year, the Scotch Whisky sector’s green recovery from COVID-19 and the SWA Sustainability Strategy is a fantastic starting point for discussions with industry experts from around the world regarding the various innovative methods employed in the sector to become more sustainable and tackle climate change.

Sláinte to World Whisky Day and to an even greener future in the global whisky sector!

This article was co-written by Clare Tuohy, Trainee Solicitor.