How Scotland's whisky firms are reducing their environmental footprint

Picture: Glenmorangie
Picture: Glenmorangie
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In most countries around the world if people are asked what they associate with Scotland, whisky is likely to be one of the most popular answers.

With more than 120 malt and grain distilleries, Scotland has the greatest concentration of whisky production in the world. Scotch whisky is the country’s biggest export, worth a record £4.7 billion last year.

Whisky production is dependent on a clean natural environment and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regards sustainability as one of its priorities. The industry works collectively through its environmental strategy, launched in 2009, which includes a number of voluntary targets, for example on the use of non-fossil fuels. It was refreshed in 2016 and is currently under review to ensure it can continue to shape the industry’s sustainability ambitions.

A number of Scotch whisky distillers have been recognised in the VIBES – Scottish Environment Business Awards, which recognise sustainability across all industries. The awards, which are celebrating their 20th year, are run by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in partnership with the Scottish Government, Energy Saving Trust, Highland & Islands Enterprise, Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Water and Zero Waste Scotland.

Previous VIBES winners include the Glenmorangie Company, which won the VIBES Hydro Nation Water Innovation catergory in 2017 for the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP). Run in partnership with Heriot-Watt University and the Marine Conservation Society, this aims to restore native European oysters to the Dornoch Firth.


The Glenmorangie distillery in Tain is located on the edge of the Dornoch Firth, an area of water designated as a Special Area of Conservation. Billed as a project that will benefit nature, business and the community, its vision is to restore long-lost oyster reefs to the firth to enhance biodiversity. It acts in tandem with the distillery’s anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.

The AD plant is purifying about 95 per cent of the waste water Glenmorangie distillery releases, with the remaining 5 per cent of the organic waste to be naturally cleaned by oysters.

Professor John Baxter, chairman of the Independent Restoration Advisory Panel for DEEP, says: “What is really novel about DEEP is the partnership element between science, policy and industry.”

Dr Peter Nelson, operations director at Glenmorangie, explains that the inspiration for DEEP goes back several years to when the industry was starting to understand climate change. One of the concepts that emerged was an ambition to do something to enhance the environment of the Dornoch Firth. Glenmorangie teamed up with Dr Bill Sanderson, associate professor at Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, and together they came up with DEEP.

Nelson explains: “Oysters are the kings of the filter. They are brilliant at taking out these organic materials we’re putting in and turning them into an animal, shell and clean water.”

To progress DEEP, Morag Garden, the SWA’s head of sustainability and innovation, has been seconded to Glenmorangie as a project manager, which will also help ensure the whole industry can benefit from this initiative. By 2021, the ambition is to have 200,000 oysters in the firth as a result of DEEP, which means that Glenmorangie will have achieved zero impact on Dornoch Firth waste. In the long-term, when it reaches the target of four million oysters, the distillery will be net-carbon positive in the firth.

Nelson says that DEEP has wider social and economic benefits, such as giving a boost to the oyster supply chain, which is made up of small businesses. “If we can encourage the creation of sustainable jobs outside the whisky industry that’s a big positive for us,” he adds.


The world’s biggest producer of Scotch whisky, Diageo, with almost 30 malt distilleries, has set itself ambitious environmental targets for 2020. For example, its international supply centre at Leven in Fife – the biggest packaging site for the

group – has introduced a number of measures to encourage sustainability, and was highly commended in the 2017 VIBES Awards.

Diageo decided to implement a trade effluent system upgrade. It uses the latest equipment and technology, and a traffic-light alarm system has been installed to ensure that no liquid waste ever leaves the site. The system is backed up by further measures to protect the River Leven, and its work has been recognised as “best practice” by the relevant authorities.

Other environmental improvements at Leven include a lift and car-sharing scheme; an electric engineering van and charging point; investment in LED lighting to reduce CO2 emissions; and a manufacturing excellence improvement project that calculates the carbon dioxide savings.

Tessa Ward, environmental compliance manager for Diageo in Leven, says: “The site achieved zero waste in 2012, two years ahead of target.”


Another VIBES Award winner – and sponsor of the awards since 2003 – is Chivas Brothers, which produces well-known brands such as Glenlivet and Ballantine’s. Ronald Daalmans, environmental sustainability manager with Chivas, explains that the business has put a lot of effort into energy efficiency – a focus when developing its newer distilleries, such as Dalmunach, which it opened in Speyside in 2015. The facility features the latest heat-recovery technology as part of the company’s commitment to meet non-fossil fuel targets.

Chivas, along with other whisky producers in Speyside, has also invested in the natural gas network in the area, to tackle the issue of the distillers’ reliance on fuel oil because of their relatively remote locations.

In another technological advance, it is looking at the feasibility of electric distilleries, and is investing in options for electrifying heat and using the hot water that comes from the stills.

Chivas is also investigating how it can use technology to be more responsible in its consumption of water, and the company takes a circular economy approach when it comes to by-products. Daalmans says: “Overall, the Scotch whisky industry is in a good place and it is unique in the way it works really well together but, nevertheless, challenges remain.”

He goes on to explain that the annual VIBES Awards gives valuable recognition to achievements by companies from across the Scotch whisky supply chain and Chivas has been entered for the Best of VIBES category this year, which recognises past winners.

Looking at the supply chain, Glasgow-based Guala Closures, which manufactures closures and stoppers for the whisky industry, received a VIBES innovation award in 2016 for investment in its production line which led to a number of benefits, including reductions in energy, water and solvents.

Selected saluted for sustainability measures

Whisky is one of Scotland’s highest achieving sectors in terms of environmental compliance, according to the the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). The agency is launching a series of sector plans to help industries meet and go beyond environmental compliance and launched the first of these, for the Scotch whisky industry, in October 2018.

“We’ll work positively with those who want to do the right thing by Scotland’s environment, such as the Scotch whisky sector,” says SEPA chief executive Terry A’Hearn.

“We’ve seen consistently high compliance for several years – demonstrating that high environmental performance and prosperity are mutually dependent.”

SEPA’s sector plans focus on achieving full compliance with Scotland’s environment protection laws – and encouraging as many operators as possible to move beyond compliance – for example, by reducing water, energy and raw material use, cutting waste, and harnessing innovating to deliver business and environmental benefits.

This approach underpins ‘One Planet Prosperity’ – SEPA’s regulatory strategy for tackling the

21st-century challenges facing Scotland’s environment. “We only have one planet, but are currently using the resources of three,” A’Hearn said. “Our Scotch Whisky Sector Plan sets out how we’ll continue our firm focus on environmental sustainability and look for wider opportunities across the supply chain, including in cereal production, transport, bottle manufacturing and packaging.

“In this plan, we set out how we will help as many Scotch whisky operators as possible to move beyond minimum legal standards and create economic and social success for Scotland from environmental excellence.”