Water Scarcity & The Whisky Industry

Water footprint - H2O Building Services


Water resources underpin every aspect of modern society and without them everything would eventually grind to a halt… including whisky distilling!


In fact, the industry is very water intensive, with water one of the three essentials necessary to facilitate the process, alongside malted barley and yeast. The word ‘whisky’ actually comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, which means water of life, or lively water… and water is incredibly important when it comes to whisky production.


A constant supply is required every step of the way, from malting and mashing to dilution before bottling. Indirect water use, meanwhile, includes cooling purposes and steam-powering pot stills.


With an increase in prolonged periods of dry weather and an elevated chance of drought conditions as time goes on, in line with climate change and rising global temperatures, if action isn’t taken now to address water stress and scarcity, the whisky industry in the UK could well find itself in trouble.


Even now, the country is experiencing another spell of dry, warm weather, following on from the heatwave that was seen in July, when record temperatures of 40 degrees C were reached… and hosepipe bans are now being implemented in various regions to help safeguard resources for future use.


The good news for the whisky industry is that the Scotch Whisky Association has set ambitious but realistic targets to help the sector reduce its water use, working alongside individual companies to drive continuous improvement in this regard.


A Whisky Water Stewardship Standard is also in development to consider wider catchment issues, as well as reducing water usage and consumption. This would take water quality, biodiversity, climate change response and the morphology of rivers and lakes into account.


A water use range has been set for the sector of 12.5 to 25 l/lpa by 2025, giving distilleries achievable targets to aim for.


Since the strategy was launched back in 2012, water efficiency across the industry has improved by 22 per cent, with many sites having started water monitoring and auditing, as well as carrying out site water audits to help them identify opportunities to save even more in the future.


With warmer summers and less rainfall being seen over the last couple of years, water flow has inevitably fallen in some catchment areas in Scotland – and climate change is expected to affect water quality, as well as quantity, which is why appropriate and sustainable water management is so essential.


As time goes on, the association expects to see growing numbers of businesses within the sector – as well as elsewhere in the economy – start finding new ways to use water more sustainably.

And, in fact, researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute have this month (August) been working with The Glenlivet Distillery to bring in environmentally friendly solutions at the Chivas Brothers Speyside distillery to protect whisky production and tackle water scarcity head on.


In July, temperatures soared all over Scotland as the heatwave took hold and it’s predicted that such conditions are going to only become more frequent, thanks to climate change. Recent summers have also seen many distilleries forced to temporarily halt procedures because of water shortages.


The summer of 2018, for example, saw groundwater supplies to The Glenlivet decrease, supplies that didn’t replenish until spring the next year.


To help address the situation, the team of researchers devised a range of nature-based solutions, including the use of small dams installed in the local landscape. These capture water when it rains, with these resources then available for use in times of scarcity.


Led by PhD student Jessica Fennell, the project aims to prevent distillery closures during drier conditions. Ms Fennell explained that the dams enhance groundwater recharge, as well as groundwater contribution to streams, helping to increase water availability and reduce flood peaks during heavy and intense rainfall.


She said: “Our research has also raised the possibility of positive implications for water temperature. This is important because distilleries require cool water and groundwater is typically colder than surface water during summer.


“As water temperature is expected to increase with climate change, more water will be needed to achieve the same cooling effects and increased groundwater flow could help stabilise stream temperatures, as well as increase flows through dry summer periods.”


Co-author of the study Dr Josie Geris, from the university’s geosciences department, made further comments, saying that it’s possible water scarcity will become a significant problem in Scotland as time goes on – but nature-based solutions like these dams are a cost-effective and environmentally beneficial water resource management strategy.


Dr Geris went on to say: “The lessons learned can also potentially be applied to other areas of the economy that rely on private water supply and bring other potential benefits, for example in flood management, improvements to biodiversity and water quality, the restoration of upland habitats, and carbon storage.”


Similarly, drinks brand Diageo Scotland has also been prioritising sustainable whisky production… great news considering that it is the biggest Scotch whisky distiller in the world.


The company operates 28 malt distilleries and one grain, employing 4,000 members of staff at 50 different sites around the UK, generating more than £3 billion worth of revenue each year.


But, as environmental manager Neil McDougall recently explained to the SEPA, daily abstraction volumes are monitored and recorded, tracked each month to reduce the risk of over-abstraction. Effluent discharges are also monitored on a weekly basis to ensure that no negative outcomes are sustained by the receiving waterways.


Pioneering technology has also been deployed at the water recovery plant at a new Speyside distillery, with Mr McDougall explaining that the use of a closed loop on the condensers is now minimising water consumption, with the focus on trying to be as water efficient as possible.


If you’d like to find out how your business can become more sustainable and reduce its water footprint, whether you’re in the whisky industry or a completely different sector, get in touch with the team here at H2o Building Services today.