Strangely, when I did the post about the carbon footprint of beer, I touched on studies for wine yet it never occurred to me to look for my favourite bevvy, whisky.
Whilst brewers have commissioned proper reports into their carbon impact and there's an authoritative American one for wine, I can't find anything for whisky. In fact, it almost seems like a deliberate ignorance. I can find references to
the whisky industry’s growing concern over its product’s carbon footprint, thought to be one of the highest for any food or drink.
but nobody's volunteering any actual figures.
Bruichladdich on the Scottish island of Islay is a fiercely independent and independently minded distillery, not needing to be asked twice to do something innovative. They're installing anaerobic digesters to turn its yeasty waste into methane to burn and generate electricity.
The project's being touted as part of some green credentials, but Bruichalddich ships its whisky in some of the heaviest bottles I've ever seen, with a bottom of solid glass a centimetre thick. And then they put each of these anvilesque items in its own metal tin.
A cardboard box is enough for comparable whiskies from Ardbeg or Lagavulin. In fact, blended whiskies come without any box at all, and they seem to do fine. It's just extraneous packaging to make you feel like you've bought summat posh. Unless you're needing a cantenna to hack your neighbour's internet, there's no need for the Bruichladdich tin.
THE ISSUES WITH WHISKY
Put simply, whisky is made by brewing a sort of barley-only beer, then boiling it. The alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so they catch the first lot of steam, cool it and it turns back to liquid. This stuff is about 70% alcohol. It gets left in oak barrels for a few years, then diluted to the desired strength, bottled and sold. Most distilleries send casks to bottling plants for dilution, a few - Bruichladdich is one - do the whole thing on-site and use their own source water for dilution.
(So when anyone wants to get snobbish saying that putting a drop of water in your whisky is somehow sacrilegious, point out that it's already watered down and is most likely one-third tap water from some Scottish industrial estate).
It's clear that boiling a liquid will be higher carbon than not boiling it, so whisky will probably be pretty high-carbon. However, there are a few significant mitigating factors.
The largest part of beer's impact is from the manufacture of glass. The second largest is transport. These figures are also true for wine. It's a reasonable guess they're big parts of whisky's impact too.
When I worked out the stuff about the iron content of stout and red wine, it was unfair to compare it ml for ml because you drink stout by the pint but wine in smaller servings. Well, usually anyway.
By the same token, it's not the quantity of whisky in a bottle, but how much drinking it represents. Beer is 95% water. Whisky is, roughly speaking, beer concentrate. If you and I were having a large night we'd get through a bottle of whisky. But to consume the same amount of alcohol, we'd drink 16 bottles of beer. That's a lot more glass and transport. As it's 8 times stronger, it'll have one-eighth of the glass and transport impacts (heavy posh bottles notwithstanding).
Scotch whisky also wins points for being pretty local. As with wine, there's no excuse for Europeans to be buying the American stuff (even before we discover that American whisky basically just tastes of corn and wood).
Also, the way most whisky is only diluted and bottled at large, centralised distribution points reduces the impact further.
Whether this cancels out the extra energy use in distillation is another matter, but it's certainly not as clear cut as it first appears. Nonetheless, getting a specific measure of the carbon footprint of whisky wouldn't be much harder than one for beer, wine or any number of other products for which figures already exist.
AND THERE'S MORE
Whilst the anaerobic digesters are laudable, whisky's impact could be reduced much further by not wasting other by-products of the distillation process, such as heat and barley husks. Just across the bay from Bruichladdich, the Bowmore distillery in the island's main town uses the waste heat from its distillation to heat the municipal swimming pool.
Drinks giant Diageo - owner of many of the best-known names in Scotch whisky - installed a Bruichladdich-style anaerobic digester at the Glen Ord distillery in 2001. They're now setting up a new distillery that not only has anaerobic digesters to generate methane for electricity and cleaning water, but saves the waste husks of barley for burning as biomass in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant.
This will drastically cut energy consumption, and it's one of those things that government says is always the case, where acting sustainably saves a lot of money (let's just ignore the times when it costs more, eh?).
It shows what can be done. Such drastic changes of technology are usually more expensive to retrofit than to build from scratch. And can these projects deliver the cuts we need, in the region of 90%?
Scottish and Newcastle's brewery in Manchester, home of Foster's, Kronenbourg and Strongbow, installed CHP last year, resulting in an 87% reduction in the site's carbon emissions. They're planning to roll out the change to their other breweries.
This is a hard-nosed profit-driven major corporation, not a co-op of niche-market, fair-trading new agers. If it works for them then it should work for every major brewery and distillery in the land.