From its idyllic location on Islay, Bruichladdich distillery is setting new environmental standards within the whisky industry, finds Nan Spowart

AS the global climate crisis conference takes place in Egypt, one Scottish whisky distiller is showing that it’s possible to prioritise the planet and people as well as run a successful business.

Such has been Bruichladdich’s progress in this area that the Islay distiller has just won a major award for environmental leadership in business.

The VIBES Scottish Environment Business Awards are supported by a host of organisations including the Scottish Government, Zero Waste Scotland, the Energy Saving Trust, and Nature Scot and Bruichladdich Distillery was recognised for its “management of sustainability across all functions of its business”.

“It’s a really wonderful culmination of what we have been doing,” said CEO Douglas Taylor.

The distiller’s holistic approach to planet, people and business has also been recognised with B Corp certification. Not only the first single malt whisky distillery to receive certification, the distillery was also named as the first whisky and gin distillery in Europe to attain B Corp status for its commitment to the highest levels of social and environment performance, public transparency and accountability.

Bruichladdich gained the certification in 2020 after an 18 month process, with the aim of showing that business can be used as a force for good, and successfully balance profit with purpose.

Since then other distillers have started to follow suit.

“Our certification is a result of our beliefs, our purpose and our behaviour and we hope to have started a movement in our industry,” said Mr Taylor.

HeraldScotland:

Bruichladdich CEO, Douglas Taylor

What is particularly impressive about the company's achievements is that - unlike newer projects that have been "born green" - Bruichladdich is a Victorian distillery, reimagined for the future.

It was reopened in 2001 by a group of independent investors with a vision to reconnect whisky with its agricultural roots and champion its essential raw ingredient, barley. Pioneering the concept of terroir in whisky and celebrating the provenance of its island home, the distillery has continued to put Islay at the heart of every decision.

The aim was to create the ultimate expression of an Islay whisky. Everything that could be done on the island would be, and the distillery currently conceives, distils, matures and bottles each of its single malts on Islay.

Supporting local agriculture and providing decent jobs through a new bottling plant was seen as vital to the prosperity of the island, which at that point was deemed to be a community on an economic edge.

As well as being one of only two Islay distillers to use barley grown on the island, Bruichladdich is partnering with a farmer in the North East of Scotland who is growing organic barley and has collaborated with the Agronomy Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to promote the ancient varietal Bere barley.

Commonly grown in Scotland around 5000 years ago, Bere barley became virtually extinct, despite the complex cereal growing well in poor soil and short seasons.

In a bid to reduce its impact, the distillery trialled an anaerobic digestion system back in 2010 - but it failed. Undeterred, Bruichladdich's commitment to sustainability has not wavered, and the distillery is currently looking into the potential of hydrogen energy as a green fuel alternative.

HeraldScotland:

Bruichladdich’s distinctive aqua bottle, inspired by the vibrant colour of the sea around Islay, gets it noticed on the shelf

 

Committed to the local community and ensuring as much of the whisky making process is done on Islay, the distillery opened its on-site bottling plant in 2003. It is now the largest private employer on the island and is certified as a Great Place to Work and one of the UK’s Great Workplaces for Women.

In the last decade, the aim of sustainability has been ramped up even further, focusing on four key pillars: agriculture and biodiversity; packaging and waste; Islay and community, and energy and emissions, with the aim of decarbonising the distillation process by 2025.

“Of course we are recycling water and trying not to use plastic but what we have learned is that the highest proportion of our CO2 emissions is from raw materials coming in and the shipping and transportation of our products,” said Mr Taylor.  

“As an export business we are shipping whisky all round the world so we are supporting projects looking at renewable fuel sources for commercial marine craft.”

The supply chain also includes a strict no air freight policy.

As well as this, attention has been turned to the distinctive, bright, aqua-coloured

Bruichladdich tin which has been one of the distiller’s strongest marketing tools.

“Its bold design is how we stood out on the shelf but each tin is 1.13kg of CO2 because we have to ship all those tins onto Islay, then ship the product off. While highly recyclable, nine times out of ten these tins probably don't get recycled, so we had to find a solution,” said Mr Taylor.

As a result, the distiller decided to run a pilot last summer where people ordering online were given information on the issue and the chance to order without the tin.

Over 50% of buyers opted to do without, giving the distiller the confidence to remove it from its Port Charlotte brand this summer, with the flagship Bruichladdich brand set to take further significant steps in the new year.

The distiller now has a target to reduce each bottle’s CO2 by 30% by 2025 and by 50% by 2030. Future bottle designs will be lighter and have more consumer recycled glass.

A key part of the sustainability strategy is strengthening the island community, as well as ensuring the workers have excellent pay and conditions. Bruichladdich focuses on community outreach by supporting the Islay Energy Trust, providing career opportunities to help young people stay on the island and funding bursaries.

Energy use is the biggest challenge but Bruichladdich is continuing to fund research into renewable sources that could be used instead of fossil fuels and there is hope a solution can be found. The distiller has already switched to cleaner grades of biofuels, with the move from Medium Fuel Oil to Distillate reducing Bruichladdich's carbon footprint by 5%. The change is proving to be a positive catalyst for other distilleries on Islay to do likewise.

In other areas, the hot wastewater system uses heat from the distillery condensers to keep buildings warm, rainwater is diverted from the Coultorsay maturation warehouse roofs to the river which feeds the distillery, and there are two fully electric vehicles, hybrid buses and electric forklifts on site with a larger fleet in the pipeline. 

The distiller is also supporting projects exploring climate resilient crops, soil health, regenerative agriculture and crop rotation, aiming to reduce reliance on agrochemicals.

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Going for growth in the most eco-friendly way

The path to sustainability can be a rocky one, as Bruichladdich Distillery has found.
One of the distiller’s key aims is a sustainable rural ecosystem, with delicious whisky made from barley either grown on Islay or in ways that are not harming the environment.

HeraldScotland:

In order to find more resilient and less environmentally damaging ways of growing barley, in 2017 the business purchased a small 30 acre croft adjacent to the distillery. In a bid to research, learn and share knowledge, the following year Bruichladdich held a croft summit, with maltsters, distillers, farmers, breeders, academics and agronomists attending from all over the world.

The croft will play a crucial role in crop research and grain development, and will allow the distiller to trial new crop varieties, alternative land management practices and techniques - pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the industry. The first trial plots didn't succeed, but, as Bruichladdich CEO Douglas Taylor explained, the team now have a greater appreciation of how nuanced and comprehensive good farming needs to be. 

“The notion that not everything works is one we have had to get comfortable with. But out of that trial process, we have partnered with a local farmer on Islay –who was already growing barley for us – to test and trial different varietals on his fields,” said Mr Taylor.

Rather than growing barley all the time on the same fields, depleting the soil of nutrients which then have to be replaced through agrochemicals, the farmer agreed to try crop rotation using rye – if Bruichladdich bought the rye.

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Bruichladdich has invested in finding more resilient and less environmentally damaging ways of growing native barley

 

At that point there was no Islay rye whisky on the market but the distiller agreed to try producing one using the farmer’s harvest. Not only did the crop rotation result in a 30% reduction in agrochemicals but Bruichladdich discovered it made fantastic whisky, which is going to be released in the New Year.

The innovation follows on from the first biodynamic Scotch whisky which the distiller released on the market last year. The biodynamic process is a regenerative agricultural practice that does not use chemical pesticides or fertilisers. 

Now, 52% of the distiller’s barley is grown on Islay from a total of 19 farmers. This Islay barley joins Bere barley grown on Orkney, organic barley grown in the North East of Scotland, and barley grown on a biodynamic certified and carbon negative farm south of the Border, which sequesters ten times more carbon than it emits. 

As well as three single malts, the distillery also makes The Botanist, the first Islay dry gin made from 22 locally foraged botanicals. The Botanist Foundation funds a number of research programmes, championing conservation and biodiversity on Islay and beyond.

In addition, the distiller has partnerships with the James Hutton Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands, the breeding programme at Washington State University Bread Lab, supports the Global Botanic Garden Fund and partnered with fellow Scottish B Corp Brewgooder to create a whisky sour inspired beer, with proceeds providing clean drinking water for communities in developing countries.