There are some truly astounding things going on in the whisky industry – and downstream from it in the circular economy. Sometimes I’ll turn to a whisky technofix story to get my dose of climate optimism of the day, though I’m increasingly viewing this soothing dram with despondent scepticism.

The whisky industry has beautifully marketed itself to seem both grounded in culture, the landscape and heritage, but also at the forefront of circular economy innovation. It has a strategy that aims to achieve Net Zero emissions on its own operations by 2040.

Innovations abound. There's the collaboration forged, for instance, between a Falkirk distillery and technology firm MiAlgae that will see whisky by-products used as a feedstock to grow omega-3-rich microalgae as an animal feed ingredient – replacing something that is currently extracted from wild-caught fish. Or there’s a new system to extract precious metals from old televisions, laptops, and mobile phones that uses co-products from whisky distillation.

In 2021 independent distillery Nc’nean became the first zero-carbon distillery, powered by a woodchip biomass boiler and renewables, with some emissions offset by tree-planting, and with whisky bottles made of recycled glass.

There is no doubt that whisky is making efforts to go green and tell us about it. But we have to be careful when looking at this prime Scottish export, not to be blinded by the money and green dazzle and let it off the hook for the ways it continues to pollute or damage.

Rob Edwards' recent article in both the Ferret and The Herald was a reminder of that. Two major whisky companies, William Grant & Sons and Chivas Brothers, he wrote, had been “reprimanded by the Scottish Government’s environmental watchdog after leaks which breached legal limits, polluted rivers with oil and 'sewage fungus' and killed wildlife.”

The companies were forced by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to take action to prevent more spillages from their Glenfiddich and Glen Keith distilleries on Speyside and made payments totalling £36,100 to SEPA and local conservation groups.

Obviously, one-off pollution incidents happen in many industries. But such news might want to make us question whisky's environmentally-friendly image. 

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Whisky, of course, is the single largest food and drink export not just for Scotland but the whole of the UK, at a value last year of £6.2 billion. But might want to remind ourselves that this isn't a sector purely made up of small, independent distillers experimenting with biomass boilers. Nearly 70% of malt distilleries are ultimately owned by companies outside Scotland. 

It's also worth noting that the whisky industry worked its influence hard throughout the stages of Scotland’s recent collapsed Deposit Return Scheme, lobbying politicians and officials on 37 occasions. Did they kill the scheme? Hardly – but they certainly weren’t smoothing the way.

The industry, meanwhile, is always keen to play up the romance, the feeling that whisky is some distillation of heritage and the elements.

For instance, the Scotch Whisky Association says, “Scotch whisky is the spirit of the Scottish landscape. The three natural ingredients used to make Scotch Whisky – cereals, water, and yeast - come from some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. So we’ve long been determined to play our part in preserving the natural environment.” 

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Let’s think for a moment about whisky's relationship to that landscape. Let's think, for instance, about the peatlands damaged by the whisky industry over the decades or the fact that we are in so much thrall to the spirit, that in the recent consultation on the Scottish bill banning peat sales, whisky has been made a special case, to be excluded - justifications being that there are limited alternatives to peat and that, in fact, whisky accounts for less than 1% of commercially extracted peat. 

For me, though, the biggest thing not talked about in terms of whisky production is its land use. In 2019 the barley used to make whisky accounted for 48 percent of the total arable land – nearly half of that crop-growing land. More recent figures suggest barley covers an area of 292,200 hectares across Scotland.

Good quality land that we could be using to grow food is being used to produce alcohol, and while it's true that whisky by-products, particularly draff, are often fed to animals, what's clear is that the liquor is coming first, food as an afterthought.

That's remarkable at a time when critics of rewilding are so quick to fret over whether land for food production might be lost to nature restoration. Why are they not asking why we are already dedicating hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to manufacturing something that has no nutritional value whatsoever? Or why such land is being dedicated to a product which we all know, due to abundant research, is bad for our health?

I say all this as someone who loves the occasional dram - preferably a nice, peaty single-malt. Whisky is heritage. It’s romance. It's intoxicating - and we love that feeling. But we have to be careful that we don’t allow it to be too much of a special case. For, in a world of climate change and biodiversity threat, there is very little room for special cases.