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Sustainability in the Scottish drinks industry

31 Jan 2022 • 5 minute read

Everything you need to know about the sustainable drinks industry in Scotland

Learn about the latest sustainable practices in the Scottish beverage sector featuring Rock Rose Gin, Tennent’s Lager, Black Isle Brewery, Laphroaig, Glengoyne, Arbikie and more.

To many international fans of Scotland, one of the first things that springs to mind is a ‘wee dram’ or a ‘nip’ of Scotch Whisky.

From gin to beer, Scottish alcoholic drinks (and more recently, alcohol-free alternatives) are a major attraction the world over, so it’s no surprise that these products add significant value to one of the country’s strongest export industries. The £15 billion food and drinks sector has grown by 40% over the last ten years, with both UK and overseas buyers increasingly opting to buy Scottish brands. That deserves a toast.

Man extracting a sample of whisky from a cask in to a glass

Sample of whisky being removed from cask

And while we’re popping corks over the sector’s growing success, like many industries, the drinks sector is striving to become more sustainable. It’s thirsty work producing some of the world’s most beloved drinks – with agriculture, transport, water usage and packaging just some of the many environmental considerations which are now a priority for many companies, especially in the wake of COP26 climate summit which took place in Scotland in November 2021.

Drinking responsibly

Consumers are increasingly highlighting that action on sustainability is critical and where they see progress, they give companies credit. Happily, almost three-quarters see a difference in the care businesses put into conserving the environment than they did a decade ago - going green pays.

We’re fortunate to champion and support many sustainable Scottish drinks companies that are changing practices, sometimes centuries-old, for new, eco alternatives in a bid to become more sustainable.

We caught up with six of the country’s most climate conscious drinks brands: Rock Rose Gin, Tennent’s, Black Isle Brewing, Beam Suntory (Bowmore, Laphroaig, Glen Garioch, Teacher’s, Auchentoshan and The Ardmore), Glengoyne and Arbikie.

Explore their stories

Iain Stirling, founder of Arbikie tells us about the company’s world-first ‘climate positive spirits’:

"Arbikie Highland Estate is a 400-year-old family farming business based on Scotland’s east coast. In 2014, my brothers and I opened the Arbikie distillery on the estate with a plan to innovate farming and traditional distilling. Over the last few years, our focus has been on making Arbikie one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries. We have a clear mission to become the global leader in a new category of single-estate, field-to-bottle, sustainable spirits.

We’re involved in several climate-related projects, partnering with ecoSPIRITS to remove single-use glass bottles from its supply chain, for example. We’re also implementing hydrogen as part of the UK Government’s Green Distillery competition to deliver a zero-carbon distillery. The aim is to highlight the opportunities to minimise our industry’s reliance on fossil fuels – this will allow any subsequent findings to be shared with other distillers and brewers throughout the UK.

All our practices are based on a sustainable ethos built on four key principles:

  • Authenticity - Arbikie Distillery is a genuine field to bottle operation. From start to finish, all our spirits are distilled on-site and evoke the taste of our unique environment.
  • Sustainability - we grow our own crops. We use our own water and cultivate our own juniper and botanicals. We’re expanding our use of solar energy and our primary waste products are recycled as cattle feed or used as a natural fertiliser.
  • Traceability - every crop used to make our spirits can be traced to its field of origin. Our distillery conducts every stage of production possible on-site.
  • Innovation- our mission is to set new standards in the industry with the aim to be the first climate positive distillery in the world.

In terms of innovation, we focused on distilling the world’s first climate-positive spirits with Nàdar Gin and Vodka in 2020 by distilling peas to create a base spirit that removes 1.54kg of carbon dioxide emitted from the atmosphere. This was achieved following years of research by our master distiller and plant scientist, Kirsty Black.

Our spirits are exported all over Europe, the US and Canada, and the Middle East. We appreciate the need for competition and commercial success, but we also want to help fellow distilleries become more sustainable. The bigger picture is what matters most.

We’re always looking at how we can learn from others, too. It isn’t about achieving a state of sustainability, or even net zero. For Arbikie, it’s about continual improvement and evolving our business in line with science."

Beam Suntory is a world leader in premium spirits and the producer of many Scottish whiskies. Alistair Longwell, Senior Manager of Scotch Distillation and Maturation Operations at the company, tells us more.

“As a business that relies on natural resources to create high-quality products, we have an obligation to restore and replenish what we use.

So, we created Proof Positive, a bold sustainability strategy representing an investment of more than $1 billion USD to make a positive impact on the environment, consumers, and communities. It is inspired by our company’s mission to create harmony between people and nature and is aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

As part of the project, the company highlights its Watershed Protection and Planning activity as some of the most crucial. Already underway at various distilleries, including the Glen Garioch site in Oldmeldrum near Aberdeen, it includes source mapping, water quality testing and preservation activities, as well as quantity and supply planning.

Together with Suntory Holdings, Beam Suntory recently announced the launch of a “Peatlands Water Sanctuary” initiative in Scotland. The project will involve the restoration and conservation of 1,300 hectares of peatlands by 2030 at a budget cost of $4.4 million USD to promote carbon sequestration and biodiversity, as well as a series of watershed conservation projects.

So far, the company has reduced water use per unit of production by 22% (versus the 2015 baseline) and reduced carbon emitted by direct operations by 19% (versus the 2019 baseline).

Individually, the brands within the Beam Suntory umbrella are making changes. The renovation project at Glen Garioch includes a new Heat Recovery System which increases energy efficiency within the distillery.

The project also includes the installation of a Direct Fired Wash Still, a traditional method of making whisky which only a handful of distilleries still use. By using modern technology to addresses the drawbacks associated with direct firing, Glen Garioch is returning to tradition, and in turn, maintaining the purity and quality of the new make spirit throughout its maturation process.

By using excess heat from the wash still burner and condenser, instead of a gas boiler, the distillery’s heating requirements can be met with a 15% improvement in energy efficiency, as well as a 46% reduction in water usage due to the closed loop nature of the wash still condenser.

Over on the Scottish island of Islay, the Friends of Laphroaig programme, in which people can own a square foot of Islay, is part of a place-saving scheme to protect the island’s landscape. Our hope is to connect the worldwide drinkers of Laphroaig to the land of its origin - and in this spirit. The aim is to encourage the Laphroaig community to respect and protect the natural resources not only on Islay, but in far-flung parts of the world as they enjoy a ‘wee dram’ of Laphroaig.

In 2020, the Auchentoshan distillery completed a feasibility project 2020 for ‘Green Stills’: high temperature heat pumps that use hot water from the cooling system to create steam for reuse in distillery. This was co-funded by the Scottish Enterprise LCITP (Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme) fund.

Another recent support has come from BEIS, (the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) earlier this year, who recently awarded Green Distillery Competition second phase funding of £3 million to Supercritical’s Project WhiskHy – a green hydrogen-based decarbonisation project that is being piloted at the Ardmore and Glen Garioch distilleries in Aberdeenshire.

“Looking to the future, we’re continuing to work as part of the UN’s Race to Zero campaign, alongside 3,000 non-state organisations, representing over 15% of the global economy, in responding to the climate crisis. Together, this group is the largest coalition ever established which is committed to credible net-zero targets.

Having engaged with this coalition and world leaders at COP26, we commend the Scottish and UK Governments in taking this leadership role by hosting this important gathering in which we shared our Proof Positive ambitions beside other businesses in our industry aligning themselves to global climate goals.”

David Gladwin, founder and director of Black Isle Brewing Co in Ross-shire shares the highs and lows of making premium organic beer.

"At Black Isle, we pride ourselves on our organic process. The barley and hops we use are grown on organic farms that don’t use synthetic chemicals and fertilisers to combat disease and pests and boost yield.

A higher yield in farming is short term gain at the cost of long-term sustainability. I’ve seen farmers spraying a synthetic herbicide on fields which acts as a drying agent to kill the barley and any weeds. This means the crop is uniformly killed by weedkiller and ensures there are no weeds post-harvest for insects, animals, and native and migratory over-wintering birds to feed on.

Instead, we use more labour-intensive traditional methods that might involve a lot of manual labour and natural methods. But what is lacking in yield is made up for in the increased biodiversity on the farm.

It’s a choice – do you want to apply synthetic chemicals to your land, harmful to wildlife and possibly humans too, or are you prepared to take less and receive more in terms of environmental benefit? In the brewing process we have increased admin and costs because of the various certifications and audits required, but we prefer working with naturally grown ingredients – and we think it makes better-tasting beer, of course.

Our animals approve, too. The brewing biproduct is used as animal feed on the brewery farm. While this is the case for many brewers and distillers, whose spent grains go towards animal feed, we’re in the fortunate position where we can feed it fresh to our own stock. It’s like feeding them warm porridge in the morning which, of course, they love in the winter. In the summer we mix it with other vegetable matter and compost it.

In terms of our growth since we began brewing in the 90s, we’ve found Scottish Development International extremely helpful over the years. We’ve also met some fabulous people through the WWOOF organisation – the WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms - part of a worldwide movement linking visitors with organic farmers, promoting a cultural and educational exchange, and building a global community conscious of ecological farming.

Hopefully living and working here has made an impression on them too. It’s about an exchange of knowledge and experience in return for work. The physical side is important, too. I believe everyone in their life benefits from a period of hard physical work, it’s fulfilling and rewarding for everyone and everything.

In terms of future challenges to the industry, I think the big issues that need addressing are energy use and packaging. The production process uses lots of energy so subsidised hydrogen boilers would help small breweries develop more eco-friendly practices.

Not only is being climate conscious the right thing to do morally, but the market demands corporate social responsibility as essential – customers know that organic beer is good for you, and for the planet. Despite the worries thrown up by the pandemic, we’re bullish about our growth and feel now is the time to invest for the future. We want to put Black Isle on the world map as a premier organic drinks brand."

Barbara Turing, brand manager at Glengoyne, tells us about the Loch Lomond company’s eco-overhaul:

"One of the biggest sustainability challenges in making whisky is the waste it produces.

The process of converting water, barley, and yeast into Scotland’s famous drink results in the creation of waste products along the way. This creates a challenge for us, since by-products need to be processed responsibly.

So, we’ve adopted several initiatives to ensure waste is not only disposed of sustainably, but also able to give back to the planet.

Glengoyne was the first Scottish distillery to adopt a wetlands facility for liquid waste. After distillation, the ‘spent lees’ (the waste that’s left in the still) are treated in the distillery’s on-site wetlands.

Instead of sending spent lees to an industrial treatment plant, they are processed at the distillery, slowly and naturally in reed beds which filter and cleanse waste. The wetlands have helped reduce waste by 25% and are home to 14,500 plants and abundant wildlife, fostering biodiversity and encouraging wildlife in the local area.

The two by-products of mashing and distillation – draff and pot ale – are also converted into renewable electricity for local homes. Using an anaerobic digester allows this organic matter to be broken down by microorganisms which emit biogas - a low-carbon fuel alternative. The waste draff and pot ale from one mash creates 150 days of heat, or 225 days of electricity for a house. In 2020, Glengoyne had 576 mashes, equating to constant heat for 236 houses or electricity for 354 houses per year.

What’s more, in 2020 the entire Glengoyne Collection received a packaging overhaul to become 100% recyclable and locally sourced, making made it the first whisky producer to do so. Additionally, as of Autumn 2019, 100% of Glengoyne Distillery’s electricity is from a wind-backed source.

Like most businesses, the pandemic presented us with many challenges, but we used it as an opportunity to really connect with our customers who we may have not been able to reach otherwise, in new and sustainable ways.

Online tastings for us were something that were extremely successful. One example was when we invited fans to take part in a special live stream where they could not only sample some rare casks, but ultimately decide which go into the distillery’s latest ‘Cask of the Moment’ single-cask bottling.

Indeed, consumers more than ever are invested in what distilleries are doing to be more sustainable. With each business decision, distilleries should be looking to implement green practices. Obviously, no one is perfect, and everyone can always do a bit more, but sustainability in business needs to be a committed journey, rather than a box-ticking exercise.

Brands need to be conscious that the sustainability goal extends beyond the distillery walls. Steps can be taken on-site, but sustainable practice needs to run all the way through the supply chain, from barley farmers all the way to the consumer’s home. Ensuring sustainable procurement is a great step in the right direction for our net zero targets."

Martin and Claire Murray are the partners behind Dunnet Bay Distillers, makers of Caithness-based Rock Rose Gin since 2014:

"We love Caithness – it’s home to our business and our families. The landscape has provided us with inspiration for our botanical choices for the gins: kelp from the shore, Rhodiola rosea from the cliffs, berries from the forest and herbs from the gardens. However, we’ve seen some river levels almost completely dry up this summer due to climate change – it’s the first time in seven years it’s been so low and is quite concerning.

Since we started, we’ve been continuously improving our environmental impact:

  • We’ve added a 24kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system
  • Spread our waste as a benefit to agriculture
  • Switched to Forest Stewarship Council (FSC) certified boxes
  • Changed our IT system to green servers
  • Offset our carbon footprint
  • Reduced our waste to landfill
  • Employed an Environmental Manager
  • We won’t stop there though, and plan to add more solar PV and a battery system next year.

In terms of consumer-facing changes, we recently started selling recyclable gin pouches in a bid to lower the impact of transportation. Think of the journey and energy required for a bottle to get to a bar to pour 14 drinks before being sent back to recycle. We thought, there must be a better way to serve spirits. Subscriptions to the gin pouches – that can be decanted into our iconic white bottles – now has over 900 members. We also did the same for our Holy Grass vodka brand too during lockdown – the first vodka pouch in the UK.

As a relatively small business, we’re lucky that we can be agile. I think it’s important to have a positive can-do attitude and a passion to create a business that has a positive impact on our planet and our people.

Existing for shareholder value and profits is no longer enough. Customers want great products, but they also want to buy from businesses that improve the lives of everyone involved. For us, we’re proud to be carbon neutral and to have supported biodiversity projects from the start. We’re also one of the first distilleries in Scotland to pay every employee the Living Wage opens in a new window ."

George Kyle, Head of ESG at C&C Group plc (owner of Tennent Caledonian), discusses the challenges and successes of turning a centuries-old brewery ‘green’:

"Tennent’s is one of Scotland’s oldest businesses, brewing at Wellpark in Glasgow since 1556. We brew using Scottish malted barley and fresh highland water from Loch Katrine - we’re very proud that the beer you order at your local, will be exactly that - in every sense of the word.

However, as you can imagine it’s a complex task to install new environmental technology at a site that’s over 450 years old and sits only a few hundred yards from Glasgow city centre. However even before the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report opens in a new window  and the work carried out at COP26, we have recognised the need to operate ethically and responsibly to protect our environment, support our communities and meet the growing expectations of all stakeholders.

And despite the pandemic, which resulted in a loss of 80% in revenues during lockdown, we have delivered on our commitment to invest £14 million in environmental initiatives. This included the installation of the anaerobic digestion plant and the investment in our packaging plant to remove consumer facing plastics from our canned products.

The carbon capture facility at the Tennent’s brewery, the largest in Scotland, is another of our responses to this – and was a lifesaver in the recent carbon shortage crisis. It allows us to capture and store CO2 generated as a by-product of the brewing process. This CO2 is then used to carbonate Tennent’s Lager meaning we no longer have to source CO2 from third parties, while eliminating 4200 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent of 27,000 flights from Glasgow to London.

What's more, from 1 April this year, all of the electricity at our sites across Scotland will now come from renewable sources.

While it’s up to every business to ensure their own practices are as sustainable as possible, to achieve real progress within the drinks industry we need collaboration across our value chain.

For practically every business sector, the largest emissions sit within Scope 3 (all other indirect emissions that are a result of activities that occur in the value chain). Businesses must collaborate with suppliers and customers alike to accurately measure emissions, set reduction targets, and publicly report progress.

Larger businesses should align with the Science Based Targets Initiative opens in a new window and report emissions under the Carbon Disclosure Project opens in a new window  to give validity and credibility to targets and initiatives to reduce.
Businesses should work with suppliers and customers on these initiatives to share knowledge and tackle emissions, by including:

  • Switching to renewables
  • Product redesign for sustainability
  • Adopting a circular economy
  • Encouraging local sourcing
  • More efficient distribution
  • Use of alternative fuel sources as technology develops
  • Ethical policies, emissions targets and environmental performance in supplier contracts and
  • Internal incentive schemes developed to reward good environmental practice and achievement of targets

Because we're the largest brewer in Scotland, and part of the C&C Group, we’re fortunate to have clout behind the changes we make. But to smaller businesses we would say: ask for help, seek out experts and those who have greater experience, knowledge and understanding and perhaps are further down the road in looking to tackle the issue.

No one has all the answers, but generally everyone is prepared to share their experiences and learning."

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