Climate researchers from University College London (UCL) found impending heat and drought stress caused by global warming could drastically impact the three ingredients needed to make a dram in Scotland, water, barley and yeast.
The report, commissioned by Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, suggested Scotland will face more intense droughts over a longer period of time by the 2080s.
This will lead to a reduced and intermittent water supply in areas of the country which will force some distilleries to “decrease or halt production” as they are “heavily reliant on a continuous water supply”.
Researchers claim whisky distilleries use around 61 billion litres of water annually in which a single litre of whisky requires 46.9 litres of water.
The report draws on evidence from drought conditions during summer of 2018 when five of Islay’s 10 distilleries and the Blair Atholl and Edradour distilleries in Perthshire were forced to halt production.
In the same year, Glenfarclas in Speyside reported an entire month’s loss of production, amounting to 300,000 litres of whisky, due to the hot weather conditions.
Although the report found barley is viewed as a relatively drought-tolerant crop, the negative consequences of warmer weather on the grain variety were also witnessed over the last decade.
Researchers said the 2018 heatwave resulted in a 7.9% decline in UK spring barley production which increased the crops value to £179 per tonne from £145 per tonne in the previous year.
As Scotch whisky production requires around 800,000 tonnes of spring barley per year, a price increase of this magnitude would add costs of around £27 million for the industry, they claimed.
The report did however suggest a temperature increase could lead to a resurgence in the use of maize by distilleries, once “an integral ingredient in grain Scotch whisky”.
But the warmer summers and mild winters are also said to increase populations of invasive species, pests, and diseases.
Carole Roberts, lead author and climate change researcher at UCL, said: “There’s an assumption that Scotland is wet, rainy place with a constant water supply.
“Climate change is changing when and where it rains, and this will create shortages and change the character of the water, affecting our favourite drams, so planning is essential to protect our whisky.”
The report said the flavour of Scotland’s whisky could also be heavily impacted by 2080 due to changes in climate.
Stages of its production, including malting, fermentation, when the yeast is added, distillation, and maturation, have all been developed to suit the temperate maritime climate of the area.
But warmer air and water temperatures, the report found, would all have the potential to lead to inefficient cooling in traditional distilleries, creating challenges for conserving the character, consistency, and quality of the liquid.
Barbara Turing, brand manager at Glengoyne, said: “The threat of climate change is very real, and we all have a role to play in combating its effects.
“At Glengoyne, we still have so much more to do but we are committed to reducing our own impact on the environment and working with the Scotch Whisky Association to achieve their net zero emission target by 2040.”
In time with the release of the report, the distillery announced the launch of its Wetlands Single Cask to represent its ongoing relationship with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) since 2011.
The distillery adopted a wetlands facility for its liquid waste, with a percentage of profits going directly to continue the climate emergency work being done by the conservation charity.
Ms Turing added: “Our partnership with the WWT has been at the heart of our sustainability work and we want to continue to support the valuable work they do.”
Professor Mark Maslin, climate change professor at UCL who worked on the report, said: “The work Glengoyne is doing to reduce their carbon emissions and protect whisky production from climate change is essential.
“But the whisky industry is just one fish in a big pond, and we need government support, investment, and infrastructure for all of us to be net zero emissions as soon as possible.”