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Sustainability | From 100% Organic Whisky to Vegan Wine

China: 2024.06.26

Pioneering the Future of Sustainable Drink Industry

Annabel Thomas (UK)

Founder of Nc’nean Distillery

Annabel Thomas , founder of Nc’nean Distillery, firmly believes that the whisky industry needs to change to continue thriving in the coming century. Therefore, she decided to establish Nc’nean, a whisky distillery centered on environmental protection, aiming to make it a model of sustainable development.

Nc’nean Distillery

Nc’nean Distillery, located on the west coast of Scotland, is renowned for producing organic, sustainable, small-batch whisky. The distillery uses 100% organically grown barley and relies on renewable energy for production, striving to reduce its carbon footprint and environmental pollution. Nc’nean’s products do not use traditional age statements as a selling point but instead emphasize flavor and quality. The distillery showcases its commitment to environmental protection through the use of 100% recycled glass bottles and a very high waste recycling rate. Nc’nean has set a new benchmark in the whisky industry with its innovative and eco-friendly brewing philosophy.

Emilia Marinig (ITALY)

Marketing Director of Querciabella Winery

With 20 years of international experience in marketing and business development, Emilia is committed to helping Wine brands grow globally. Since 2019, She has happily put down roots in Chianti Classico, managing Marketing and Communications at Querciabella.

Querciabella Winery

Querciabella Winery is globally renowned for its commitment to organic farming and eco-friendly practices. The winery began practicing organic farming over thirty years ago, viewing soil as a vital, living medium, and maintaining vineyard ecological balance through natural methods, dedicated to p rotecting and restoring land health. Querciabella firmly opposes the use of GMOs and artificial additives, emphasizing the purity and precision of grape varieties. Since 2010, the winery has fully transitioned to vegan operations, promoting biodynamic agriculture without animal products, respecting the natural growth cycles of grapes, and enhancing biodiversity and soil health. This approach has created a truly healthy ecosystem and achieved high-quality winemaking goals, fully embodying its commitment to ecological development and land friendliness.

Pioneering the Future of Sustainable Drink Industry

In the advancing realm of sustainable ecological practices within the drink industry, there are trailblazers engaged in pioneering initiatives. From Scotland to Tuscany, two women emerge as voices of candid insight and shared experience.

  • Environmental Challenges

Annabel Thomas:

Primarily through the growing of agricultural crops, and for single malt Scotch, this is exclusively barley. The impacts are wide ranging but include pesticide use (and impacts on biodiversity), fertiliser use (and impacts on river health, for example) and soil degradation (through tillage and extractive agricultural methods).

A practice that we do not engage in, but is widespread within the Scotch whisky industry is the use of peat for flavour. Peat is an amazingly biodiverse habit and carbon sink and extracting and burning it is hugely harmful.

Emilia Marinig

At Querciabella, we understand the significant impact that vineyard production can have on the land and ecosystems. Conventional practices often lead to soil degradation, water depletion, chemical runoff, and habitat loss, all contributing to environmental harm. Moreover, the indirect impacts of wine production, such as carbon emissions throughout the supply chain, and packaging waste, exacerbate these environmental challenges.

The wine industry has faced various crises throughout its history, ranging from disease outbreaks to economic downturns and most recently, critical environmental challenges. One notable crisis that the wine industry faced was the late 19th-century phylloxera epidemic. Phylloxera, a destructive insect, devastated vineyards across Europe, causing economic hardship. To combat the epidemic, vineyard owners adopted grafting techniques, such as grafting European grapevines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. In the current scenario, the phylloxera crisis serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of collaboration and innovation in overcoming challenges and ensuring the long-term viability of the wine industry.

  • Response Measures of the Industry

Annabel Thomas:

The industry has done a little work on this and some have done significantly more work than others. Though the issues are broader-reaching that just whisky and relate to the broader agricultural environment that distilleries operate in. But the reality is most whisky is not farmed organically or really in any other way than ‘conventional’ techniques. Fortunately, some of the leading wineries have taken the lead.

Diageo has launched a regenerative agriculture program aimed at reducing carbon emissions during the cultivation of barley and wheat for Scotch whisky. This three-year initiative will employ proprietary technology to establish carbon baselines across farms, set reduction targets for the carbon emissions of its whisky brands, including Johnnie Walker, Singleton, and Talisker, and collaborate with other organizations to adopt scientific methods for reducing emissions throughout the value chain.

Bruichladdich Distillery has implemented multiple measures to promote sustainable agriculture on the Isle of Islay. By partnering with local farmers, they support the use of regenerative farming practices to grow barley, thereby reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon. Since 2003, the distillery has been purchasing regenerative barley to back these methods. Bruichladdich is also researching the genetic diversity of barley, collaborating with various institutions to explore how genetic traits can address the challenges posed by climate change. To tackle the issue of shorter growing and harvesting windows for barley due to climate change, the distillery works with local farms to grow winter rye as an alternative. The distillery also actively participates in biodiversity conservation programs, maintaining wide protective margins around fields to provide habitats for rare species. Additionally, Bruichladdich supports local livestock farming by supplying spent grain as feed. To ensure the success of these initiatives, Bruichladdich assists farmers through collaboration and financial support, helping to mitigate risks and promote agricultural diversification and sustainability.

Emilia Marinig

Over the past 50 years, the wine industry has implemented various measures to address environmental, social, and economic challenges. Key advancements include the widespread adoption of sustainable farming practices, integration of technology for precision viticulture, implementation of water conservation measures, investment in renewable energy sources, establishment of certification programs for sustainable wine production, and ongoing research and innovation to improve sustainability and efficiency throughout the supply chain.

Several new technologies and ideas have emerged to address land issues in the wine industry. These include precision viticulture using drones and GPS mapping for targeted interventions, sensor technology for real-time monitoring of soil and plant health, sustainable water management systems like drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting, climate adaptation strategies such as drought-resistant grape varieties and canopy management techniques, soil health monitoring through advanced soil testing and microbiome analysis, and carbon sequestration practices like cover cropping and agroforestry.

  • Your Daily Operation

Annabel Thomas:

When we were establishing Nc’nean there were not that many favourable conditions (the general fundraising environment did not value sustainability, yet most of our sustainability initiatives cost more!). I think perseverance is really the only way – keeping going until we found investors that shared our vision. There are also many practical things to overcome, like getting organic certification, fine tuning the operation of a biomass boiler to support whisky distilling. Again, a common sense approach and hard work seem to have been the only solutions!

To some extent, I don’t think it is new technologies / ideas that are required, but a move away from very extractive conventional farming techniques. Organic and biodynamic farming, which are really rooted in older farming techniques, provide many of these solutions. In addition, any technique that improves the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil not only improves the quality of the soil but also helps with the broader climate crisis.

Five we’ll uphold are:

1. Organic, regenerative agriculture (we’re working on soil carbon sequestration for example),

2. Renewable energy to power our distillery,

3. High % recycled material for packaging (we use 100% recycled glass for our whisky bottle, we are working on moving our botanical spirit bottle into this),

4. Water conservation (we recycle 90% of our water requirements through a simple but unusual cooling pond, which is fed from the roofs of our warehouses),

5. Charitable and community support (for example supporting our local charitable trust).

It’s hard to list all of the things we won’t do, but here are some major ones:

  1. a) anything that goes against the above,
  2. b) any exploitative practices, of either land or people,
  3. c) anything that considers just profit over and above the environment and broader stakeholders.

Emilia Marinig

The ideal coexistence of the alcoholic beverage industry and the land entails a harmonious balance between environmental sustainability, economic viability, and social responsibility. As producers, we embrace innovation to enhance efficiency and reduce resource consumption while fostering community engagement and supporting local economies.

Querciabella’s commitment to effective ecological management extends beyond mere compliance with regulations—it’s deeply ingrained in our winery’s philosophy of ecological innovation. By embracing organic and biodynamic farming methods, wineries can minimize synthetic inputs, prioritize soil health, and foster biodiversity. Techniques like cover cropping and composting not only enhance soil fertility but also contribute to carbon sequestration and water retention, further bolstering ecological resilience. Nowadays, integrated pest management strategies can be employed to control pests and diseases, thus reducing the need for chemical interventions. Moreover, the advancement of technology and innovation in vineyard management practices allows for exciting experimentation, including the integration of microbial inoculants into our vineyards. These inoculants, mainly consisting of beneficial bacteria and fungi, play a crucial role in enhancing soil health, promoting nutrient cycling, and bolstering plant resilience to stress, ultimately contributing to the overall sustainability and health of the vineyard ecosystem.

Querciabella is committed to upholding our key values in the future, including sustainable farming practices, environmental conservation, transparency and accountability, innovation, and community engagement. We definitively reject the use of synthetic chemicals, habitat destruction, and compromising quality for short-term gains.

Winemaking practices may also evolve to maintain the quality and character of Tuscan wines in the face of changing climatic conditions. This might include adjustments in harvest timing, fermentation techniques, and ageing processes to preserve distinctive flavours and aromas while adapting to variations in grape ripeness and sugar levels.

  • Who Pays for Sustainability?

Annabel Thomas:

I think our sustainable practices and our brand values are inextricably linked, and we have made it so ourselves! I think product quality is related, but not so closely – our decision to purchase organic barley does have an impact on flavour, but there are also many other things we do to create a fantastic tasting whisky that have nothing to do with sustainability. On market competitiveness, I would say that varies both between markets and different segments of the population – some people care deeply about sustainability and buy us as a result but others buy purely on taste.

Emilia Marinig

The relationship between ecological management and our brand value, market competitiveness, and product quality control is symbiotic. Our dedication to ecological management enhances our brand value by positioning us as a leader in sustainable wine production, resonating with consumers who prioritize environmentally responsible products. This strengthens brand loyalty and market competitiveness. Additionally, ecological management practices contribute directly to product quality control by ensuring the health of our vineyards, resulting in high-quality grapes and exceptional wines.

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Image: Some sourced from Nc’nean & Querciabella,

the rest sourced from the internet