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Climate Change Is Coming for Your Scotch

Distilleries in Scotland lost precious production time because they ran out of water

by Alex Lubben
Jun 3 2019, 8:13pm

The Scotch market is heating up, and not in a good way.

Whisky makers in Scotland have revealed that during the summer heat wave last year, they had to halt production because they ran out of water, the Guardian reports.

“We lost the whole of September, Callum Faser, of the Glenfarclas distillery, told the Guardian. The entire month was shot, largely because they didn’t have the spring water they needed. The distillery’s private natural spring had run dry. The UK’s Met Office, the national weather service, found last year that global heating made the heat wave 30 times more likely. Indeed, it was hot enough to turn the British Isles from green to brown, as seen in photos taken from space.

Faser wasn’t alone: Another distillery near Pitlochry, called the Edradour, lost a few days’ worth of production last year, too, also because they ran out of water, according to the Guardian.

It’s not yet clear how future droughts might affect whisky production across Scotland (and scotch whisky, by definition, has to be distilled in Scotland). But Glenfarclas is smack in the middle of distillery country. “Within a 20-mile radius of where we are now, there are 35 distilleries,” George Grant, the director of sales at Glenfarclas, told the New York Times. Heat waves or droughts in the region could have an effect on a good chunk of the industry, whose contribution to the UK's economy has grown by 10% since 2016, according to an industry body.

Other climate-related factors spell more trouble: Increased temperatures in Scotland also mean less snowfall, which means less snow to melt and replenish groundwater supplies that Scotch-makers need. And rising seas won’t be good for distillers, either. There’s more than one distillery located along the River Spey, and some on the coasts of Scotland. Those could face more regular flooding as the tides continue to rise. In order to protect Elgin, an important whiskey-producing town, from chronic flooding, officials dropped £86 million on a massive civil engineering project, designed to protect the town from flooding from the River Lossie. And back in 2002, floods in Elgin displaced 200 people.

Climate change holds overall downsides for distillers, but it may bring one or two bright spots. Warmer temperatures could mean more plentiful barley harvests, which would be good for Scotch production, according to a paper published in the journal Climate in 2016. (A warmer world could also lead to more inconsistent harvests — lots one year, little the next — which the authors say will need to be planned for.)

The scotch industry knows it will need a stable environment in order to keep doing business, so it’s working to limit its own carbon footprint.

The Scotch Whisky Association, which estimates it’s responsible for 3 percent of Scotland’s carbon emissions, has laid out a plan for gradually reducing its carbon footprint industrywide. They report that between 2008 and 2018, greenhouse gas emissions from their industry dropped by 22 percent.

It’s not just the scotch industry that’s worried about climate change. The whole country’s on edge.

Last week, the head of Scotland’s natural conservation agency, Francesca Osowska, warned: “Image an apocalypse: Polluted waters, drained and eroding peatlands, coastal towns and villages deserted in the wake of rising sea level and coastal erosion, massive areas of forestry afflicted by disease, a dearth of people in rural areas, and no birdsong.”

That’s what’s coming unless we radically shift to a low-carbon economy before the year 2030, Osowska told the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Thursday, according to the Guardian.

Cover: A member of staff looking at the Diageo Claive Scotch Whisky collection. Issue date: Tuesday April 30, 2019. Investment and increased export success resulted in the spirit bringing in '5.5 billion in 2018, up from '5 billion two years earlier. Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire URN:42584404 (Press Association via AP Images)