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Against the grain

Regenerative farming on this family Estate is supporting one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Arbikie Distillery

This article first appeared in our COP28 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 30 November 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

In 2012 three brothers – John, Iain and David Stirling – decided to create one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries, starting where no other distillery had: the soil.

So began the conversion of an ancient cattle barn on the family’s Arbikie Estate, a regenerative farm with a seven-year rotation based in Angus on the east coast of Scotland, that has been in the family for four generations.

A distillery without ties

The UK’s distilling industry is old, traditional and in some ways resistant to change. Processes are bound up with heritage and culture, and all that rich history – while being highly marketable on a global stage – can feel like a straitjacket to innovation.

When the brothers decided to resurrect distilling at Arbikie – ‘over some drams on holiday in New York’ – they were relatively free to forge their own path based on their shared values.

‘We don’t have any predefined rules of how a distillery should be run’, John explains, ‘We are one of the very few distilleries that are family run with no outside investors. This allows us to follow a clear strategy not driven by volume, but by establishing a legacy that looks after our natural environment.’

From the outset, the brothers’ goal was to create a farm-based sustainable distillery producing super-premium and fully traceable spirits from produce on their doorstep.

From field to bottle

The environment at Arbikie is special, and the Stirling family – which can trace its farming credentials back to the 1600s – knew it.

‘We are in a particular microclimate here in Angus that makes growing quality crops easier than most places in Scotland’, John explains. ‘We are also lucky in that we have spectacular views over Lunan Bay.’

The Estate’s 2,100 acres of arable land produce malting barley, legumes, wheat, oil seed rape, oats and potatoes.

The distillery makes superb use of any produce that would otherwise go to waste, closing the loop to create that perfect model craved by all self-respecting sustainable businesses.

The distillery’s location on the Estate allows complete control and visibility in every step of the process. ‘If you look at a distillery’s entire value chain footprint, over 90% originates from scope 3 sources – the indirect, upstream and downstream activities’, John tells us. ‘The main two contributors are raw materials and packaging materials. Being farm based puts us in a great position to tackle the environmental impact of our raw materials.’

The ability to grow, mash, ferment, distil and bottle on site – in a controlled way that is consistent with the brothers’ values – creates a ‘field to bottle’ approach to distilling, supported by a drive for Arbikie to be as self-sufficient as possible – even down to the juniper for the gin and the oak future generations will use for casks.

Tradition meets innovation

While this approach to distilling might seem radical, it’s a straightforward extension of agricultural practices familiar to the Estate.

‘In a strange way we have gone back to many of the practices of the 1960s to go forward in producing a much better way of farming in the most sustainable way’, explains John. ‘Back then seven-year rotations, with break crops and zero waste, were the norm. This fell by the wayside with the rise of supermarkets, yield optimisation and the drive for cheaper food. I hope we have now found a much better balance.’

Arbikie is demonstrating that innovative approaches don’t need to undermine traditional values; in fact the marriage of innovation and tradition is clearly demonstrated in the distillery’s 1794 Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky – the first rye Scotch for over 100 years.

This rye Scotch is a celebration of Arbikie’s field-to-bottle approach, reviving a genuinely authentic way of distilling and producing a spirit with a sense of place and a taste of the land and sea that surround the Estate.

John, Iain and David decided to regrow rye in 2013, for the simple reason that rye is good for the land, good for soil structure and regenerative farming and rotations.

‘We had to go back and look for rye varieties that work really well for distilling, have great flavour and are good for the local environment’, John tells us.

The Scotch’s name is a nod to the year the farm distillery at Arbikie first operated, when distilling was a local craft with a truly local flavour.

All ingredients for the pot would have been taken from the farm and its immediate surroundings – the same approach Arbikie follows today.

Nitrogen and soil health

The working farm provides many of the materials required for distilling spirits in a low-impact way, yet agriculture as a sector is known for its emissions and has shown the lowest reduction in greenhouse gases over the last 30 years.

Of these emissions the second-largest source is agricultural soil, and the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

The excessive application and poor management of industrially manufactured nitrogen fertiliser has had a negative impact on the qualities of our water, air and soils – and is a major source of greenhouse gases.

‘Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that plants need nitrogen to grow’, says Arbikie’s master distiller Dr Kirsty Black, who has been listed as one of the world’s top 10 female master distillers by Spirits Business Magazine and has just won the IWCS industry award for rising star.

‘But despite most of the air that we breathe being made up of nitrogen gas’, Kirsty continues, ‘it is in a form that is inaccessible to most plants – hence the continued reliance on nitrogen fertiliser. The legume family of plants – including peas, beans and lentils – is different; it can take this atmospheric nitrogen, a renewable resource, and fix it into biologically useful forms through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, which live in the nodules on the legume roots. This means they can meet their nitrogen requirement from the air, thus avoiding the need for such industrially made fertilisers.’

Easy peasy sustainability

Armed with this knowledge, Arbikie worked with the James Hutton Institute and Abertay University to ultimately introduce the growing of green peas into the farm’s crop rotation.

In addition to providing a biological way to fix nitrogen into the soil, after many trials and learnings, peas were successfully convinced to turn alcoholic and produce a 96% ABV neutral spirit.

‘This spirit has gone on to be sold as a vodka and a gin under our Nàdar brand, both made from 100% green peas’, John explains. ‘We are one of the very few distilleries that controls all inputs and makes its own base spirit, vodka, for gin production. The gin is flavoured with traditional gin botanicals such as juniper berries and coriander seeds, but also with makrut lime leaves and lemongrass – both grown in our polytunnel.’

During distillation, the leftover pea protein and spent yeast create a waste product known as pot ale, which can be used to feed animals – once again closing the loop and cementing this gin’s claim to a negative carbon footprint and title of the world’s first climate-positive spirit.

As the UK currently imports roughly 80% of its protein, the research team behind the gin is investigating whether pot ale protein can be isolated and consumed by humans as well.

Kirsty developed the methods for creating the world’s first climate-positive gin and vodka and the first rye Scotch in over 100 years; they have been published and are available open access.

Powered by green hydrogen

Arbikie’s track record in innovation helped it to win a ‘green distiller’ competition, and £3m to construct a green hydrogen energy source for the distillery.

The new system creates hydrogen from wastewater and green electricity, which is generated from an on-site wind turbine. The only waste left at the end is water and oxygen.

Thanks to this new investment, Arbikie is set to become the first distillery in the world to be powered by green hydrogen, which will boost its green credentials and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to heat the stills and run the distillery.

Raising the bar

The sustainable methods used to produce Arbikie’s white spirits can cost more than twice the price, but the brothers all feel it’s worth it considering the positive impact on the environment.

In today’s constantly shifting business world it’s also a gift to be in full control of the entire supply chain.

‘We can all learn from one another and raise the bar in terms of how we produce spirits and the impact they have on our environment’, John says. ‘You’ve got to look at everything and just think, can you do this better? Can you use less artificial nitrogen? Of course you can. Can you use less plastic? Of course you can. If enough people take these small steps, it will make a big difference.’

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