Researchers from University College London (UCL) found that impending heat and drought stress caused by the climate crisis could drastically impact the three ingredients (water, barley and yeast) needed to make whiskey in the country.
The report, which was commissioned by Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, suggests Scotland will face more intense droughts over a longer period of time by the 2080s, leading to a reduced and intermittent water supply in some areas.
Whisky distilleries use about 61 billion litres of water annually, with a single litre of whisky requiring 46.9 litres of water, meaning droughts would force some distilleries to “decrease or halt production”, according to the researchers.
The report draws on evidence from drought conditions during the summer of 2018 when five of Islay’s 10 distilleries and the Blair Atholl and Edradour distilleries in Perthshire were forced to halt production.
In the same year, Glenfarclas in Speyside reported an entire month’s loss of production, amounting to 300,000 litres of whisky, due to the hot weather conditions.
The researcher also found that the 2018 heatwave resulted in a 7.9 per cent decline in UK spring barley production which increased the crop’s value to £179 per tonne from £145 per tonne in the previous year.
A price increase of that size could add costs of about £27m for the Scottish whisky industry, as production requires about 800,000 tonnes of spring barley per year, the report claims.
“There’s an assumption that Scotland is wet, rainy place with a constant water supply,” Carole Roberts, lead author and climate change researcher at UCL, said.
“Climate change is changing when and where it rains, and this will create shortages and change the character of the water, affecting our favourite drams, so planning is essential to protect our whisky.”
The report also says that the flavour of Scottish whisky could change dramatically by 2080 due to climate change, as stages of its production have been developed to suit the temperate maritime climate of the area.
However, warmer air and water temperatures could lead to inefficient cooling in traditional distilleries, creating challenges for conserving the character, consistency and quality of the liquid, according to the report.
In January, the Scotch Whisky Association launched a sustainability strategy which committed the sector to reaching net-zero emissions by 2040 and reducing the environmental impact of the drink’s production.
The association said that it was aiming to reach net-zero in Scottish whisky operations five years ahead of the Scottish government’s 2045 Net Zero target and to make sure all new product packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
At the time, then-Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham noted that whisky production was “vital for prosperity and employment, especially in rural and island communities” in Scotland as she welcomed the plans to reduce carbon emissions in the sector.