How Glenmorangie is introducing oysters back into the Dornoch Firth

With the news that the whisky giant Glenmorangie had recently assisted a groundbreaking environmental project which has seen Native European oysters reintroduced to their once native waters of the Highlands after a century's absence, it would seem that the Scottish spirits industry is beginning to take its green credentials quite seriously.

Caption one: scientists lay native oysters on the recreated reef in Dornoch Firth

Caption two: Glenmorangie's Hamish Torrie and Dr Bill Sanderson of Heriot Watt inspect the oysters
Caption one: scientists lay native oysters on the recreated reef in Dornoch Firth Caption two: Glenmorangie's Hamish Torrie and Dr Bill Sanderson of Heriot Watt inspect the oysters

In fact, this is just the latest in a long line of initiatives by spirits companies around the country that are putting the sector at the forefront of environmentalism in the UK’s manufacturing scene.

“This restoration of oyster reefs in the Dornoch Firth is an internationally
recognised special area of conservation,” explained Hamish Torrie, director of corporate social responsibility at
The Glenmorangie Company. “It will help us realise our long-term vision of a distillery in complete harmony with its natural surroundings.

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“Glenmorangie’s distillery has stood on the banks of the Dornoch Firth for over 170 years – and we want to ensure that the firth’s pristine habitat will be preserved and enhanced over the next 170 years.”

Native oysters flourished in the waters of the Dornoch Firth up to 10,000 years ago, before being decimated in the 19th century due to overfishing.

Last year, 300 oysters from the UK’s only sizeable wild oyster population in Loch Ryan were placed on two sites in the firth as part of the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (see panel).

They were watched over by researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, partners in the project, to see if life in that stretch of water was viable for the molluscs. In October this year, they were joined by 20,000 more, with an aim of building an oyster population of four million within the same amount of years.

Glenmorangie also recently officially opened its £6 million anaerobic digestion plant, which is expected to purify up to 95 per cent of the waste water that its distillery at Tain releases into local waters, with the remaining 5 per cent of the organic waste naturally cleaned by the oysters.

Macallan placed the environment at the heart of its design for its pioneering new state-of-the-art distillery, which opened to the public earlier this year.

Built to “reflect and complement the natural beauty” of the area surrounding The Macallan Estate, the stunning building had a strong focus on sustainability, with a key design feature an undulating roof planted with a Scottish wildflower meadow.

Ian Curle, chief executive of Edrington, explained that sustainability remained a constant throughout all of the design and planning phases and that he believes that over 95 per cent of the energy they’ll be using will be from renewable sources.

He said: “As we are the first industry to have a sectoral environmental strategy that we’ve been working on collectively for about five or six years now, it became very important for us because what you see here at The Macallan Distillery is an investment for the future so it has to be future proofed, and the sustainability of the site is vital to that.”

The aforementioned Scotch Whisky Industry Environmental Strategy has played a huge part in the shaping of this industry in a rapid period of growth.

First launched in 2009, it is the only one of its kind covering an entire Scottish sector, a collective plan, it is designed to ensure that Scottish whisky companies work together to not only future proof their supply but also the environment in which these brands and producers are based.

Indeed, The Scotch Whisky Association announced that thanks to this initiative the sector was able to achieve its 2020 non-fossil fuel target four years ahead of schedule, with the industry now sourcing in excess of 20 per cent of its energy use from environmentally sustainable sources, up from just 3 per cent in 2008.

And it is not just the whisky industry, with gin fast becoming one of Scotland’s most popular spirits, not just to drink but also to produce, many smaller companies entering the market are also placing a key focus on the environment.

Arbikie Distillery, which has grown to become one of the Scottish gin industry’s big success stories, is a great example of the circular economy in action.

“Arbikie aims to be the most progressive distillery in the world. One of the key pillars of this is sustainability; our field-to-bottle ethos means if we can’t grow it we don’t use it to make our range of vodkas, gins and Whisky,” explains Adam Hunter, Arbikie’s commercial manager. “At Arbikie we commercially grow the crops we need to make our field-to-bottle vodkas, gins and whiskies.

“This means that we can scale our production in a sustainable manner to meet demand rather than relying on wild foraged ingredients which if over cultivated can have a serious impact on the local ecosystem.”

Indeed master distiller Kirsty Black, who built the brand from the ground up, created her recipe for her award-winning gin around sustainable botanicals, choosing not only those that reflected the Angus environment around the distillery but also those that were populous enough to be sustainably sourced.

Indeed the distillery itself only came about as a means to use up the “wonky veg” – in this case potatoes – rejected by supermarket buyers.

The Bienn An Tuirc distillery in Argyll - named for the hill at the foot of which the production site sits – is another example of a distiller with a keen focus on sustainability, see the panel story.

Powered by its own small hydro-electric scheme at the Torrisdale Castle Estate, which uses water running off the hill, the venture is fully committed to reducing its impact on the environment and has even pledged to plant a tree in its dedicated woodland area for every case of its Kintyre Gin sold.

Not only that but Bienn An Tuirc is also socially responsible with another primary project being the returning of some of its profits to the local community via investment to community projects and other business start-ups.

Case studies

Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP)

This desire to protect the environment is reflected not just in waste reduction or the employment of green technology, but also in a desire to maintain or even restore areas of natural flora and fauna.

This was the goal of Glenmorangie when its Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP) helped reintroduce native oysters into the Dornoch Firth near its distillery at Tain, pictured.

Dr Bill Sanderson, associate professor of marine biodiversity at Heriot-Watt University, which partnered with Glenmorangie for DEEP, says: “This is the first time anyone has tried to recreate a natural European oyster habitat in a protected area.

“Working closely with Glenmorangie, we hope to create an outstanding environment for marine life in the firth and act as a driving force behind other oyster regeneration work across Europe.”

The successful process of reintroduction began last year and has paved the way for the distillery and university to attempt something even more remarkable – recreating the oysters’ natural reefs. This involved an element of recycling and reusing, building an underwater structure composed largely of old scallop shells.

Glenmorangie’s Hamish Torrie says: “We are very excited to move DEEP to its next stage and have been hugely encouraged by the enthusiastic support that our meticulous, research-led approach has received from a wide range of Scottish Government agencies and native oyster growers – it is a truly collaborative effort.”

Beinn an Tuirc Distillers

The explosion of smaller distilleries across Scotland in the wake of the gin boom has seen a wide variety of examples of producers doing things a little differently.

One such, Bienn an Tuirc Distillers has a keen focus on green technology and environmental responsibility.

Its distillery in Kintyre is one of the first to be powered by an on-site hydroelectric scheme. It uses water running off Bienn an Tuirc hill to power its German-made copper still, pictured with Su Black, Head Distiller

Run-off rainwater flows into an intake pipe which runs down a kilometre of pressurised pipe, gaining momentum before hitting a turbine which converts this natural energy into clean, sustainable, electricity.

Capable of producing 99kW, according to founder Neil Macalister Hall, it has the potential to hit 400,000 kW hours per annum.

But this passion for the environment also extends to another plan.

Macalister Hall says: “We’re committed to reducing our impact in whatever way we can. One way is through our tree planting scheme on Torrisdale Estate, home to Beinn An Tuirc Distillery, where guests can plant a native tree during their stay.

Each of these, all oak, will absorb about one tonne of CO2 during its lifetime helping to further reduce any impact the distillery and its team have on the environment.

Chivas Graduate Programme

Sustainability and future proofing in the whisky industry doesn’t just extend to the environment, one company is investing heavily in new talent to ensure it employs people with the skill sets and passion to carry it forward.

Chivas Brothers, owned by Pernod Ricard, unveiled its International Graduate Programme in 2014 with a view to moulding undergraduates into future brand ambassadors.

The programme offers graduates the chance to take on an global career with the opportunity to be posted around the world from Europe to North and South America, Africa and Asia.

Alex Robertson, brand development manager at Chivas, has been through the process and says: “Our graduate programme is immensely valuable to our business and enables us to continue developing a highly skilled workforce for the future.

“Our graduates become a key part of our team, and the scheme enables them to develop a wide skill set.”

Paul O’Connor, has just completed his first role as an ambassador in India, for another Pernod Ricard brand, Ballantine’s, and also believes in the value of cultivating the “next generation of whisky professionals”.

He says: “I think it’s vitally important in such a dynamic industry to learn from the heritage but also encourage innovation. It gives our ambassadors the opportunity and platform to affect the industry of tomorrow.”