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Scotch distillery turns whisky into watts

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
  • Independent Scottish distillery planning to use whisky waste to create electricity
  • Bruichladdich single malt whisky has been made on Isle of Islay since 1881
  • Anaerobic digester creates methane from food waste which powers electricity generator

London, England (CNN) -- Creating renewable energy from whisky might sound like a harebrained scheme conceived at the end of a long evening drinking the amber nectar.

But an independently-owned Scottish distillery is hoping that the installation of a new biogas generator will prove to be a lasting moment of environmental clarity and help solve their energy problems.

This month, Bruichladdich -- one of eight distilleries to be found on the Scottish isle of Islay -- will take delivery of an anaerobic digester which will start turning their whisky waste into electricity.

Mark Reynier, owner of Bruichladdich Distillery, hopes the digester will meet around 80 percent of its electricity needs and save the company up to £120,000 ($175,000) every year.

Reynier told CNN: "Our waste product is basically water left over after you've stripped all the alcohol out. It's called, rather unromantically, pot ale."

Every year, several hundred thousand liters of pot ale waste are taken away by a tanker and poured down a pipeline that feeds it into the Sound of Islay off the eastern coast of the island.

Its disposal is a costly business (in the region of $30,000 annually) and allied to rising energy costs it has forced the distillery to rethink how it sources its energy.

"We've looked at biomass and green energies and dismissed them one by one as being completely impractical and uneconomic for an industrial purpose," Reynier said.

"But one thing we can do is use this proven technology and generate biogas."

Anaerobic digestion occurs when natural food stuffs decompose in the absence of oxygen. The end product of this process creates methane which Reynier says will be fed into the generator and converted into green electricity. The only by-product is water.

There has been a distillery at Bruichladdich (pronounced "Brook-Laddie") on the shores of Loch Indaal since 188, and when Reynier took on the business in 2000 he wanted to return it to its "artisan" roots.

"We wanted to take it back to distilling as it used to be," he said.

So that means no coloring, no chill-filtering and all bottling is done on-site. Furthermore, 40 percent of the 2,500 tons of locally grown barley used last year was organic.

Bruichladdich say they produce Scotland's purest single malt using, where possible, original 19th century equipment. In 2009, they distilled 800,000 liters of whisky.

If the biogas trial proves a success, the pot ale that was pumped into the sea on a daily basis will instead be continuously fed into the digester creating something of a virtuous production circle.

But Reynier says transforming the distillery isn't about being "some sort of eco-warrior" but rather about just trying to be sensible.

"We are practical people -- you have to be on an island like this," he said.

It's a sentiment that is widely shared among the wider Scotch whisky industry according to David Williamson, a spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association.

"It's already a very green industry and we rely on the Scottish environment for our product," Williamson told CNN.

"Biowaste is something that is at the heart of the industry's plan to become as sustainable as possible."