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Footprints in the Sky

Whether you work in the beer, wine or spirits industry, carbon dioxide is your friend. Without carbon dioxide there can be no alcohol. And the good thing is that this is climate-neutral. Plants eat CO2 in order to create sugars and starches. This process is then partly reverted by fermentation.

In recent years the alcohol industry has been making great efforts to reduce its carbon footprint on the production side and to be more environmentally friendly overall. Energy efficiency, resourcefulness and waste management have become important driving factors towards a more sustainable industry. Big companies like Diageo or Pernod Ricard have been investing millions to bring their production up to date with current ecological standards.

But now that the booze is made, it needs to be sold. What about the energy efficiency of this sector? I don’t want to address the cost of physical shipping of bottles all over the world here. Let’s only talk about the energy consumption of sales and marketing.

Whenever new a Scottish whisky distillery celebrates its grand opening or an existing distillery unveils an enviromentally friendly expansion, booze people such as writers, bloggers and merchants will be flown in from London and elsewhere for the event.

The round trip London-Edinburgh-London is roughly 1100 km. A passenger flight uses approximately 3 litres of kerosene per seat per 100 km. Assuming a fully occupied plane, the fuel comsumption would be 33 l per person. How much whisky could you make with this? Let’s do a rough estimate:

According to an article about Roseisle Distillery I found, Diageo has a gross energy usage of 3 MJ (megajoules) per litre of packaged product. A litre of kerosine has an energy density of 37 MJ. So the round trip uses 33 x 37 = 1221 MJ. This is enough energy to make 407 litres of whisky (presumably at 40% ABV).

This doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but it adds up. There are not only “influencers” travelling the world in the name of booze. In fact those are the smallest part of the total picture. Don’t forget the small army of brand ambassadors in near constant motion from one event to another. Many of them are racking up dozens of trips per year including long-haul flights to Asia.

A round-trip from London to Singapore for example is almost 22000 km, twenty times the distance London-Edinburgh. The whisky equivalent of this trip would be 8140 litres at 40% ABV or 3256 litres of pure alcohol. To put this into perspective, this is the daily output of a small malt whisky distillery with a yearly capacity of around 1 million litres, such as Scapa or Tobermory. This calculation assumes 330 days of production with the traditional silent season of around a month, neglecting the angels’ share.

I don’t even want to begin to estimate the total energy consumption of “marketing by air” for alcoholic drinks. But you can easily see that it is a lot, and it is definitely not neglectable in comparison to energy use in production.

At a moment in history where many scientists say that the environment is at a tipping point, anyone should sit down and look at the status quo and how the situation might be improved. Are all of these brand ambassador flights really necessary? Do European spirits professionals really need to be flown across the Atlantic to sit in a panel and judge award entries?

I am not writing this to indulge in “flight shaming” which has become almost a trend in Europe. But I think it is necessary to raise awareness that if you are really serious about making the booze business more sustainable, there is more than the production side to worry about.