Islay has a history of green energy initiatives. Now one of its famous distilleries is generating power from waste

Ask someone to name a Scotch whisky and it is a fair bet Bruichladdich will not be the first mentioned. But in sustainability terms this single malt – made on the island of Islay, off Scotland’s west coast – is a leader, in an industry that is grappling to address a hefty carbon footprint.

Already sourcing local barley, rather than importing from the mainland, Bruichladdich is now installing an anaerobic digestion system to convert the “pot ale” waste from the distilling process into biogas to generate electricity. This would previously have been dumped in the sea.

But Bruichladdich managing director and major shareholder Mark Reynier does not cast himself as an eco-evangelist. Reynier is sceptical about over-idealistic environmentalists who “put the cart before the horse” by “looking for a heroic solution and then wondering how you get there”.

Reynier links sustainability to the artisanal character of Bruichladdich, its “terroir”, the idea that the product’s taste is borne out of the unique attributes – human, climatic and environmental – of where it comes from. Calling what Bruichladdich is doing a sustainability initiative is, to him, anathema.

Anaerobic digestion, he says, is a “practical solution and has a return on investment of 18 months”.

A modular system currently being trialled is expected to generate 80% of Bruichladdich’s electricity. This, combined with not having to dispose of the pot ale, should result in total savings of £80,000 a year, Reynier says. If the test is successful, Bruichladdich will install a full system at a cost of £150,000, and will add to it as it increases production.

Community benefits

Reynier says: “I would envisage that every distiller on Islay will adopt it as quickly as possible. I am sure they will.” That will have a community benefit, as Islay suffers from an unreliable electricity supply. Reynier estimates that if all the Islay distilleries – there are eight currently in operation – moved to anaerobic digestion, it would reduce the electricity Islay takes out of the grid by about 40%.

The Scotch Whisky Association points out that Bruichladdich, which is not a member of the organisation, is not alone in addressing these issues. “The industry is already embracing and developing environmental initiatives,” says SWA director of government and consumer affairs Campbell Evans.

In its environmental strategy, launched in 2009, SWA pledges that by 2020 it will ensure that 20% of the industry’s primary energy requirements will be derived from non-fossil fuel sources. Scotch whisky companies have also committed to cut fossil fuel use by 80% by 2050, representing an annual saving by 2050 of over 750,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Current total carbon emissions from activities that the industry has under its direct control can be tentatively estimated at about 900,000 to 950,000 tonnes, according to the SWA.

Renewable energy has long been a feature on Islay. The island has a fully operational wave power station. And Diageo has provisionally committed to buy energy from a tidal energy project being developed by Scottish Power and from a local wind turbine initiative.

Alan Barclay, governance director at Diageo, says energy consumption is “where we can make a difference” most immediately.

Transportation is also a major issue, though. Moving heavy glass bottles from bottling plants to consumers is an energy-intensive process. Recognising this, the SWA has pledged to reduce the average unit weight of product packaging by 10% and ensure that 40% of product packaging is made from recycled materials by 2020.

And so consumers will be able to enjoy an even more guilt-free dram. Slàinte!

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