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Think sustainability is too big a concept for your bar? Sean Phillips, Distillery Manager for Royal Lochnagar and Strathmill Distillery, sits down with Diageo Bar Academy to tell us how one of Diageo’s prized whisky producers has become sustainable, creating beautiful products while being cost-efficient and better for the environment.

Thanks for joining us today, Sean! Can you tell us a little more about who you are and what you do?

Hi, I am Sean Phillips. I work as the Distillery Manager for Royal Lochnagar and I also look after Strathmill Distillery. Basically, I look after the day-to-day running of the distilleries with my team. I am responsible for the whole site during the week.

Quite a lot of responsibility there! How long have you been working at Royal Lochnagar for then?

Well, I have been working at Royal Lochnagar for coming up to five years, but I have been working for Diageo for over 35 years. I celebrated my 35th year in November there! I first started off as a gin distiller and became a gin master distiller for the brands Gordon’s and Tanqueray. I’ve been around a little bit and have managed several our whisky sites as well like Mortlach, Glendullan Distillery, and a few others, so a lot of experience in the field and a passion for scotch whisky.

Working in a whisky distillery, you must quite like whisky! Do you have a favorite way to drink whisky or perhaps a favorite whisky cocktail?

Well, that’s quite interesting! Yes, I do but the other thing with whisky is so versatile. Depending on the time of day, might be the time of year, even mood depends on the drink. One of my favorites is to have a long drink of whisky with soda water. But there are whisky cocktails out there which I really enjoy like an old fashioned.

There is a cocktail we make at the distillery called ‘Victoria Garden’ where we use our own 12-year-old whisky to make it which is fantastic. It’s a sustainable cocktail as well! From a Royal Loghnagar perspective, I have to go for the Select Reserve that we make. It’s fantastic and pretty special. You get a nice sherry glass and pour it in and it’s lovely. People describe it as almost drinking a Christmas cake in a glass – you have those notes of raisin and marzipan, currants, rich fruit, and obviously the sherry that comes through with that.

If you want to make it, the recipe is as follows:

In a highball glass, add whisky, green chartreuse, apricot liqueur, supa sawa, sugar syrup and lime leaf bitters. Stir and add ice to the top of the glass. Top with soda water and gently stir (mixing soda and alcohol). Garnish with a lime wedge.

Yes, experience is definitely the word! Could you tell us a little bit about the history of Royal Lochnagar and how the distillery first began?

The history is very simple. The distillery was built in 1845 by a gentleman known as John Begg and Lochnagar, as it was then, was divided into two parts. One part was a farm, and one part was a distillery. In 1845 they began to build Balmoral, which is next door, and it took three years to build.

Then, in 1848, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were invited to the distillery by John Begg. It was new, it was innovative in that day. Prince Albert was very into engineering and was very excited. They took up the offer of the invite and they came here with their three children. They did a tour and got to drink the whisky, and the very next day, Lochnagar was given a royal warrant by Queen Victoria, and from then on was known as Royal Lochnagar.

Back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, there was a fire here and the place was burnt down and refurbished. It has continued to operate as a distillery over the years and it did have a working farm at that time. In the 60s, there was a big upgrade of the distillery where new technology was brought in and things like that.

There was another facelift in 1998 where the brand home was pulled together, and the old barns have been turned into coffee shops and so on. One thing about Royal Lochnagar is that we are a traditional distillery. We still use a lot of traditional techniques; we use an open-top mash tun and we use rakes as well [sic].

Quite a lot of our operation is manual and very hand crafted. There are no computers as such, our staff is manually mashing, they are smelling the product to ensure it is top quality. Same with the distilling side of things right through to filling into the casks directly – so still very traditional here from the day we have just started to now.

It’s incredible that you are still manually making your whisky, which leads quite nicely into the next question – how do you integrate sustainability into the distilling practices at Royal Lochnagar?

Some of the main things that have a big impact on us are energy and water usage. So, what we try to do is minimize the amount of water we use to make one liter of alcohol. Ideally, you want to get down to approximately nine liters of water to one liter of alcohol [sic].

Currently, here at the site, we are operating at around eleven liters for one liter of alcohol, so we are always looking at what we can do to reduce the amount of water we use. Is there anything we can do? How much cleaning do we physically need to do? Can we reduce the number of liters we have used for cleaning? The way we heat things up, can we recover that heat to heat something else up?

So, you have got to look all the time to see if we have any quick wins to see if we can improve our sustainability. Something we did in 2018 was we changed the fuel that we used in our boiler to generate the steam. This fuel is known as biofuel, and this is the by-product of rapeseed oil and basically, that helps us be carbon neutral from that perspective because we are not putting any of the noxious gases in the atmosphere, so it is quite a clean oil for us to use [sic].

You can’t just stop there though; you look at your energy usage. We are on a program at the moment changing all our current lighting to LED lighting. A couple of things there, it is a little more expensive to install. However, it lasts longer, and it is more energy-efficient, and it is completely maintenance-free. This means we don’t have to have other contractors coming to the site which means we’ve taken another vehicle off the road as we put in maintenance-free equipment [sic].

Just today, we have identified pipes and some of our tanks that were lagging. We are going to replace these to ensure that we are maintaining heat and not losing that [sic]. You are always looking for small pieces to do. These small steps mount up to bigger things, this is stuff everyone can do to improve their sustainability.

It’s amazing to hear about all these green initiatives that you are putting in place. Obviously, you think sustainability is important overall for the drinks industry.

For me, people want to know how we are producing our products, what are doing to protect the environment, what things are we using that make our process sustainable [sic]. We ensure that the products we use are sustainable, what is the farmer doing to grow that barley, for example [sic]. So, it is important for the whole chain in the drinks industry.

Have you ever come up against challenges when trying to bring in more sustainable practices?

Probably the biggest challenge is brainstorming – what can we do? What we must think about is how far can we take initiatives [sic]. We have to be very careful what we do doesn’t impact the quality of our whisky and the character of the malts, so it is finding that point that is challenging.

Yeah, that makes sense and it’s wonderful that you are having those conversations. What advice would you give to other businesses who are trying to bring in sustainable practices?

My biggest piece of advice would be to do a loss and waste analysis. Look at everything you do and think about are there any quick wins [sic]? A simple thing for us was using light sensors. You walk into an area and the place lights up, but it is only on for a certain amount of time [sic]. You don’t need lights burning all the time. They’re not that expensive but they’ll have a big effect over the year. They can be put on a timer as well which can really help [sic].

Think about your water. How much water are you using? This comes into cleaning as well. How much water are you using to clean and are you using it? Heating up water wastes energy too. How much water is being used in your toilets and can this be sourced in other ways like through waste ice? Temperature is something as well. Ensure that during times that people aren’t in your workspace that the heating is off. Look at the times of the year as well to see where you can reduce heat usage [sic].

There are bigger things you might want to introduce that might be a little more expensive but there will be a long-term payback. Implement the quick wins though and you will see changes!

Five Key Takeaways

1. Look at energy use and where you can be better with that. This includes lighting and temperature

2. How much water are you using? This is something you can look at and find alternative methods.

3. Get together as a team and brainstorm ways to lose and waste.

4. Look at your suppliers and their sustainable practices as well.

5. Go for the quick wins first and don’t be afraid to invest – it will save you in the long run!