Eleven distilleries preserving the Water of Life

A group of eleven distilleries on the River Spey – the most famous whisky waterway on the planet – have achieved a new world-first for Scotch whisky with a prestigious certification for how they manage precious water resources.

Scotland-based Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), which sets a global benchmark for water sustainability, made the award to the 11 distilleries, owned by leading Scotch whisky producer Diageo, ahead of the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow next month.

The River Spey is one of Scotland’s longest rivers and is famous for its fishing and whisky, with 50 per cent of all Scotch whisky distilled on the Spey. The entire river is protected under European legislation as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) in recognition of its importance for the protection of biodiversity such as wildlife species, including the Atlantic salmon.

The pioneering water stewardship work of the Diageo Spey Catchment Group, which includes such world-famous distilleries as Cardhu, Mortlach and Cragganmore, has seen it awarded the International Water Stewardship Standard (AWS Standard) certification.

The AWS Standard is the international standard for responsible water use and encompasses social, cultural and environmental criteria, including engagement with local communities. The Standard recognises continual improvement and commitment to ongoing action in response to the ever-changing nature of water and climate-related threats.

To gain the certification, a team from across Diageo engaged with local communities and stakeholders to initiate projects across the River Spey, designed to care for water use and improve water efficiency, as well protect against climate-related impacts by improving water balance sustainability. This included engagement with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Spey Catchment Initiative, Spey Fishery Board, Scottish Canoe Association, Spirit of the Spey, and others during the certification process.

Work with RSPB to restore peatland at Abernethy Nature Reserve, in the Cairngorm National Park, is just one recent example of Diageo’s efforts, where water retention within the catchment was identified as a key issue for improvement for both biodiversity and business continuity. In summer 2018, some Speyside distilleries were forced to halt whisky production, after a heatwave caused them to run out of water.

Ewan Andrew, chief sustainability officer, Diageo, said: ‘Water is an absolutely crucial ingredient of our whisky, but it is also a precious shared resource that is coming under increasing pressure in many parts of the world, including Scotland.

‘We know how important it is that we protect the iconic River Spey that makes our whisky special. The certification of our Speyside distilleries recognises the efforts we have led in the catchment, to ensure high quality and sustainable water stewardship, so that our natural landscape is preserved for everyone.’

Adrian Sym, chief executive officer of Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) said: ‘The Diageo Spey Catchment Group is the first group of distilleries globally to be certified to the AWS Standard, meaning they have shown a high level of water stewardship performance.

‘Water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change. Diageo’s leadership will not only help safeguard one of Scotland’s most important exports, but it also serves as a model to other companies on the power of collective action as water availability becomes less predictable in many places.’

Spey Fishery Board director Roger Knight added: ‘Collective action, such as that we have seen from Diageo working with its partners in the Spey Catchment Initiative, is going to become even more vital in the years ahead. Only by working together do we stand a chance of making the River Spey more resilient to the ravages of climate change and averting the climate emergency which confronts us all.’

The Diageo Spey Catchment Group includes the following sites: Auchroisk Distillery, Benrinnes Distillery, Cardhu Distillery, Cragganmore Distillery, Dailuaine Distillery, Dalwhinnie Distillery, Dufftown Distillery, Glendullan Distillery, Glen Spey Distillery, Knockando Distillery, and Mortlach Distillery. The Speyside sites have achieved ‘Core Level’ certification.

With water scarcity being one of the world’s biggest challenges, The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 focuses on better water management as key to climate change and all businesses have a role to play in this.

Diageo has set ambitious targets for 2030 to address water sustainability across its business:

  • 30% improvement in water use efficiency globally and 40% in water stressed areas
  • Replenish all direct consumptive water used in water stressed areas
  • Complete 150 community water projects, including providing access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene
  • All of sites in priority water basins engaged in collective action to improve water security and certified to the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard.
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