Water of life: how Chivas Brothers protects local riverways

Scotch whisky lovers know how a distillery prides itself upon its fresh water source – but is that enough? Mark Gillespie takes a look at the work being done by Chivas Brothers to preserve and protect the biodiversity of Scotland's waterways

Words by Mark Gillespie In partnership with Chivas Brothers

'Water risk is often overlooked': Ronald Daalmans, Chivas Brothers' environmental sustainability manager

Aberlour Distillery takes its name from the Lour Burn, which runs alongside the Speyside distillery on its way to the River Spey a few hundred metres downstream. The burn provides cooling water for the distillery and protecting that water supply is an essential part of the multi-million-pound expansion project currently underway at the Chivas Brothers-owned distillery.

‘What’s just as important as protecting the volume of water available to us, however, is the purity of that water – and protecting Scotland’s beautiful riverways and the biodiversity found within them,’ says Ronald Daalmans, Chivas Brothers’ environmental sustainability manager.

The River Spey runs a few hundred metres downstream of Lour Burn

Chivas Brothers has partnered with the Spey Fishery Board to help repopulate salmon in the Lour Burn, planting 20,000 Atlantic Salmon eggs into the stream’s gravel beds. That’s just one example of the work Chivas Brothers and other Scotch whisky producers have been doing to conserve valuable water supplies. Global water shortages have made water an increasingly precious resource, especially given the record heatwaves seen in recent years throughout Europe. Water is one of the three key ingredients in whisky, along with grain and yeast, and without access to clean, pure water, distilleries grind to a halt.

‘Many businesses build their sustainability goals around energy reduction targets, which is important and must continue. However, water risk is often overlooked, and yet its impact on our industry has the potential to be significant,’ Daalmans says.

‘What’s just as important as protecting the volume of water is protecting biodiversity': Daalmans

Industry-wide, water efficiency has improved 22 per cent since 2012, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. The group’s four-pronged sustainability strategy calls for a reduction in average water use to between 12.5 and 25 litres of water per litre of distilled alcohol by 2025.

‘Chivas Brothers has played a significant role in helping us to shape and deliver our sustainability ambitions,’ says Ruth Piggin, the SWA’s industry sustainability director. The company is helping to fund research by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute on high-gravity fermentation, which could reduce the need for water usage until later in the distilling process. ‘We recognise the importance of working collaboratively to solve the climate crisis. Environmental issues cannot be addressed by one sole person or business, and to create systemic change, we need to work together,’ says Daalmans.

Last year, research showed new dams help keep the river from losing volume during dry months

Another example of collaboration came in 2017, when Chivas Brothers partnered with the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute on a research project aimed at fighting the impact of climate change on distillery water resources. The four-year project involved building several small dams at The Glenlivet distillery to see if they could protect the amount of water available for production use. In 2022, research showed that the dams help raise minimum water flows and keep the river from losing volume during periods of scarcity.

In past years, production would have slowed down production at distilleries like The Glenlivet because of a lack of rainfall creating low water levels in springs and along the river, which has the potential to impact the wider industry and the Scottish economy.

Of course, water conservation is just one part of a wider sustainability initiative aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of making whisky. Chivas Brothers has set an ambitious target for carbon neutral distillation by 2026, well ahead of the SWA’s goal of 2040 and the Scottish Government’s own goal of 2045.