Earlier this week the Scotch Whisky Association announced a new sustainability strategy. Committing to emissions neutrality by 2040 (five years in advance of the Scottish Government’s overarching target) the organisation has sought to build on the progress made over the last ten years which has seen distillers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than a third. The strategy encompasses four distinctive themes – tackling climate change, using water responsibly, moving to a circular economy and caring for the land. It’s an ambitious plan. But whilst some industries have seen environmental issues as something to be pushed back and lobbied against, over the past decade the sustainability of the whisky industry has gathered the same level of steam as you’d expect to see rising to the very top of still.
Scotch whisky has relied on fossil fuels for the entirety of its existence. Even as recently as 2018, more than 70% of the industry’s energy requirements have come from non-renewal sources. Together with wider plans for “decarbonisation”, distilleries have looked to explore how energy and the by-products created from the crafting of whisky can be either recycled back into the plant and/or sold to the market – resulting in either cost savings or not-insignificant contributions to operations’ bottom lines.
Sustainability has become, in its own way, aligned to the notion of craft. And idea that posits that whisky innovation can (and should) far exceed the boundaries of the fermenter, still and cask alone. Distillery renovations highlighting energy recycling, newly installed, more efficient plant and the construction of whole sites with lower or even neutral emissions are now common distilling news threads. But whilst the industry has and still does possess a large carbon footprint, environmentally positive innovations should not be thought of as solely deriving from the past decade. Throughout whisky’s history there are countless stories of distillery modernisations that have provided additional energy benefits – Bowmore’s direct fired stills were also heating the town’s municipal swimming pool all the way back in the 19th Century. And they still are.
The inputs to a distillery are not just the ingredients of whisky itself. Power is required. At times rather a lot of it. Both heat and light are fundamental to distilling – boilers need to be warmed, stills need to be fired and the lights need to be on so that operators can see what they’re doing. That one is really rather fundamental. Nowadays, these things are often taken for granted – electricity flows into the site without nary a thought. However, distilleries relationships with electricity don’t go back anywhere near to its mass adoption. Whilst cities were powered, distilleries, often in rural locations had little to no access to ‘the grid’. Carbon-based fuel sources were simply easier to source, transport and burn. And over time they had become part and parcel of not just the process of making whisky, but of its actual aroma and taste experience.
But even back then, some distilleries utilised alternative power sources – some of which offered a lower environmental impact vs. coal or peat incineration. Deanston is perhaps one of the better-known examples – starting life as a cotton mill in 1785, the continuous supply of water with which to drive its water wheel resulted in the distillery being founded and, to this day, still being the only site in Scotland self-sufficient in electricity with power generated by an on-site hydroelectric system. When you get the chance to visit – I highly suggest you do – the distillery’s uniqueness from its heritage and waterwheels is something you won’t see anywhere else.
Glen Elgin is not really thought of as an environmentally minded facility. And visiting you’ll note stark contrasts between parts of the site that are old and parts which are clearly much more modern. However, I’d posit that the distillery’s use of paraffin fuel and a water turbine likewise mark it out as an early innovation in terms of power. Whilst not a sustainable power source, the use of paraffin (otherwise known as lamp oil or kerosene) at Elgin continued until electrification came in the 1950s. It was one of the very last distilleries to switch over. However, paraffin as a non-renewal offers a lower environmental impact when compared to coal or wood, producing significantly less fumes whilst still burning efficiently and cheaply.
Combined with the paraffin engine was a water turbine which drew from the adjacent Glen Burn – the combination of the two kept the distillery operational, though the site still required a full-time worker refilling lamps to keep the lights on. Nevertheless, this early innovation, despite being a far cry from modern-day ‘green’ distilling, still to my mind highlights the industry’s historical willingness to explore alternative energy sources. And as we move into an era of increasingly sustainable distilling, it is this mindset that is going to be required once more in order to ensure that the industry fully embraces the use of non-fossil fuels and energy efficiency, recyclable packaging, and the sourcing of sustainably produced casks. Whilst the future is bright - the future is undoubtedly green.
Today’s spotlight on Glen Elgin comes from The Whisky Exchange - in the form of single cask #805343 released towards the end of last year. Matured for 12 years in an ex-bourbon hogshead and bottled at 55.8% ABV, this is still available for £69.95 directly from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Buttercream icing and Italian meringue provide a soft, sugary opening. Syrupy pears, fresh apple juice and preserved lemon are joined with a scattering of hedgerow berries – all providing an array of bright fruit-forward aromas. Supporting – bread and butter pudding, warmed honey, sugary barley corns and leafy green house notes. The addition of water expresses pear drop esteryness together with croissants and thick whipping cream.
Taste: Densely textured and mouthcoating – sweet, sugared fruits are upfront – orchard compote that’s been heavily reduced and paired with freshly picked wild berries. Vanilla crème patisserie and grated chocolate are joined by more prominent (but excellently balanced) oak – sappy, veneered and with sustained by controlled pepperiness. Dilution favours stone fruits with apricot yoghurt joined by barley water and scattered, candied citrus peels.
Finish: Medium with chocolate turning increasingly bitter – but tempered by the lovely foil of persisting, fresh and defined fruitiness. Pepperiness fades alongside a touch of mint leaf freshness.
It’s all too easy to look at this Whisky Exchange release and to think “just another 12 year old Glen Elgin”. And that’s likely what has happened since this expression was released – barring a small cache of clued-up enthusiasts, Glen Elgin just usually doesn’t tend to generate the levels of excitement that it deserves. But I’m here to let you know that this this Whisky Exchange single cask release delivers. And it’s far too good to fly under your radars. Fruit-focussed, wonderfully balanced without ever feeling prosaic and full of vigour – this impresses me much.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
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