The Power of Whisky

Two distilleries in Islay implement eco-friendly energy systems

By Cristina Guardamino

The Isle of Islay, in the west coast of Scotland, is home to some of the best-known Scots whiskies. However, recent news and reports point out Islay for different reasons. The island is considered ideally placed to experiment with renewable energy, especially tidal power. Distilleries are not left behind. A trip to the heart of the island shows us the whisky industry’s growing concern over its product’s carbon footprint.

‘Islay, the whisky island’. When I asked in Edinburgh’s tourist office how to get to this remote island in the west coast of Scotland nobody thought I was going there to write about renewable energy. ‘Have fun in the distilleries’, wished me the girl who helped me out dealing with maps and routes.

Known as the Queen of the Hebrides islands, Islay is connected to the mainland with a ferry, the Caledonian MacBrayne. It transports passengers and goods to supply the island, and with four daily services it is also one of the main consumers of oil in Islay.

The fishing village of Port Ascaig from the Caledonian MacBrayne

The arrival to Port Ascaig, in the north part of the island, was somehow special. The Caledonian entered through the narrow channel that divides Islay from the neighbouring isle of Jura. The tiny village of Port Ascaig –visible just after the Dunlossit Castle- waited patiently for us. Some vehicles and smiling faces stood at the pier. A long silver tanker of whisky was also ready to board, like a bright token of the main business in the island.

The whisky experience

When I finally reached the solid ground of Islay, I managed to take a bus towards the biggest town in the island, Bowmore. The bus ride was also interesting since I started to interact with the local community. Surrounded by a bunch of men with alcohol in their breath and red noses who looked at me funny and curious I began to understand where I was. The malt whisky lovers’ paradise.

With eight working whisky distilleries, Islay’s malt whisky industry is one of the most important sources of income for the island. Distilleries also attract a lot of visitors every year. Colourful brochures encourage to ‘experience the Islay whisky trail’ and offer tours around the distilleries. Names like Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Caol Ila or Bunnahabhain are some of the established brands, which have become well known over the world. Apart from whisky and tourism, a look at the green landscape and coastline shows that farming and fishing are still important for the island economy.

View of the Bowmore distillery, the oldest distillery in Islay

The village of Bowmore (‘Big reef’) looks like the perfect destination for holidays. The small white houses facing the sea and the Gaelic names of the streets seem to be beyond the passage of time. But some things are changing for the islanders when it comes to energy supply.

Heated by whisky

Right in the heart of Bowmore, on the shore of Loch Indaal, is the Bowmore Distillery. The traditional industry built in 1779 has a fine and modern whisky shop today. The distillery has changed with the times and, as a matter of fact, I found out that they even have a Facebook profile.

A middle-age kind man received me at the entrance. He was Edward MacAffer, the manager of the distillery. Walking through the malted barley rooms and distillation tanks, MacAffer revealed the distillery’s small contribution for the environment. The waste hot water from the distillation process is used to warm up the local swimming pool in Bowmore.

Bowmore covered pool, heated by the distillery

The pool, known as the MacTaggart Leisure Centre, is next to the distillery in a converted warehouse. “We donated the building to the community swimming pool. We had enough for the whisky production”, explains the distillery manager about the swimming pool.

The leisure centre was opened in 1991 and it is owned by the people of Islay and Jura. “They raised the funds to refurbish it, but our contribution is hot water. This way they don’t need to use oil or electricity to heat the building”, MacAffer says.

The recycled hot water from the distillery heats the swimming pool through a computer controlled system and underground pipes. “It’s used to heat the pool, the building and the shower water”, he states.

Tradition versus renewables

The Bowmore Distillery is the second oldest distillery in Scotland and the oldest on Islay. It changed hands along the time and it’s now owned by Suntory Limited, a Japanese whisky and beer producer.

However, MacAffer confesses that Bowmore distillery remains loyal to the traditional methods of making whisky. This also affects to the energy sources: “We do fire up peat for the whisky flavour”.

“At the moment we are still using an oil boiler. We do need a lot of energy, so it would be a great thing to use renewable energy for the distilleries”, says MacAffer, aware of the plans to implement green energy in Islay. He thinks, though, that the main problem can be to get the finance for these ambitious projects.

Energy from whisky

Opposite Bowmore, the shape of Bruichladdich distillery rises on the other shore of Loch Indaal. The intense aroma of whisky takes me over as soon as I cross the door. Bruichladdich (‘Brae on the shore’) announces proudly its production of “artisanal single malt whisky as it was in 1881”, when the distillery was established.

However, Bruichladdich has taken a step forward in the environmental race of Islay. This distillery is to launch a system to turn waste sludge from whisky production into green energy. Mark Reynier, manager of the distillery, explains the process.

“We are going to install two anaerobic digesters on our site where the waste we generate from distillation will be broken down to produce biogas”, he comments. “The biogas can then be burnt to create electricity. It could meet most of our power needs.” According to Reynier, this innovative system will be installed on trial at the beginning of May and will run for three months.

The waste problem

The process of distilling alone is highly energy intensive. In addition, most whisky is exported in heavy bottles by road and sea transport. On Islay, the storage of the many tons of distillery waste means a problem, which generates environmental impact. That’s why waste can be used efficiently to produce energy from biomass. This type of energy is considered renewable, although it liberates carbon emissions when the waste is burnt.

“Being an island, we have been looking at alternative energy sources for some time, but with little success”, explains Reynier. Economic interests remain important to the distilleries: “Anaerobic digestion is the only green energy solution that we have examined that can deliver a return in investment, which does not cost more to run than existing procedures and is mechanically reliable”, defends the distillery manager.

The eco-mentality

Mark Reynier then introduced me to a bottle of whisky. “We already produce an organic Bruichladdich. In 2008 almost 50% of our barley was organically grown here in Scotland. We anticipate that around 40% of Bruichladdich bottling will be organic by 2015”. The efforts of the whisky industry to include the green thinking into its business and products are obvious.

“It is important to say that we are not eco-warriors, but practical distillers”, he excused himself. “Here in the Hebrides, self sufficiency and pragmatism are strong values, values that have been forged by the isolation and climate for generations. We are not doing anything new. To the contrary, we are only revisiting what our forefathers believed in: waste not, want not”.

These values have prevailed through the ages in Islay’s peoples. Modernity and tradition combine now in the old whisky distilleries. “If we can prove our method at Bruichladdich, I hope we will get the other seven distilleries interested too”, Reynier expects. The distillers’ concern about their environmental impact is increasing. “Islay does have the opportunity to become genuinely one of the greenest islands in the UK”, he concludes.

Life goes on peacefully in Islay. On the way back to the port, a traffic sign in the road reminds me once again where I am. I will be fined with 500 pounds if I consume the valuable malt liquid. The island seems to be unaware of all the ambitious energy schemes. But even whisky –Islay’s pride and curse– is becoming ‘greener’.

Ban on drinking in a traffic sign of Islay

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