Opinion: The cost of a dry January

Opinion: The cost of a dry January

Reflecting on a new-year tragedy that hints at harder times ahead

Editor's Word | 26 Jan 2024 | Issue 197 | By Bethany Brown

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The world is waking up to a new year. It’s traditionally a time for personal reflection and resolution, to recharge our batteries so we can step forth with renewed optimism and vigour. But our big blue marble keeps on turning, heedless of our traditions.


For residents of Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan, 2024 began with significant earthquakes which at the time of writing have killed more than 200 people and triggered a mass evacuation. In the first week of 2021, right-wing protestors stormed the US Capitol in a violent riot that left five dead and saw more than 170 police officers injured. On 1 January 2005 the world was still reeling from the Boxing Day Tsunami, the result of a 9.1-magnitude underwater earthquake that hit off the coast of Sumatra, which killed nearly 230,000 people.


At the start of 2020 – which became a tragically memorable year for other reasons – the disaster dominating the headlines was widespread bushfires in Australia. They had been raging for months and were at their horrific peak as the new year dawned; it would be mid-March before they were all extinguished. Although Australia is no stranger to bushfires, the 2019/20 season achieved new levels of devastation: 72,000 square miles of land were burned and at least 3,500 buildings were destroyed; the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimated that almost three billion animals were impacted; and estimated losses stretched to A$1.9 billion.


The general consensus in the scientific community is that the increasing severity of wildfires in regions including Australia and the western United States is related to changes to the climate, specifically to the increasing length and severity of drought conditions.


Wildfires and bushfires are a visceral manifestation of the dangers of prolonged drought, but there are other impacts that, while less dramatic, are cause for concern. The one that makes the greatest difference for whisky makers is the impact on agriculture.


A 2016 study by academics from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada and the UK’s University of Sussex found that, between 1985 and 2007, droughts had caused an average production loss in cereal crops of 13.6 per cent. In areas with more “technically advanced” agricultural systems – including North America, Europe, and Australasia – drought-induced losses reached 19.9 per cent. And the climate situation has demonstrably worsened in the intervening years: the United Nations’ 2022 Drought in Numbers report revealed that the number and duration of droughts globally rose by 29 per cent between 2000 and 2022.


While crop scientists and farmers are doing what they can to maximise yields, those growing cereal crops for the whisky industry are working to feed an ever-hungrier beast. The total production capacity of Scotland’s whisky distilleries alone is more than 400 million litres per year. Coming back to Australia, the country now has more than 120 whisky distilleries and all eyes are on growth, with some more established outfits pushing for an annual production capacity of 500,000 or even one million litres before the end of the decade.


Dependent on a number of factors including sugar conversion in the mash and evaporation from the cask, the amount of grain needed to produce one litre of malt whisky can range from 2.5kg to 4.5kg, or higher (these figures are roughly transposed from a video on this topic by Whiskey Tribe, which does an excellent job of demonstrating how hard a calculation it is). Regardless of which end of the spectrum a distillery works at, we’re talking about big volumes of grain. And this really only relates to one of the raw materials used in whisky production – malted barley – without touching on, for example, rye, corn, or wheat. All of these crops, and the distillers who rely on them, stand to suffer if (or more likely when) drought conditions worsen in the world’s major cereal-producing nations.


Perhaps 2024 should be the year to put ‘staying conscious of our environmental footprint’ at the top of our New Year’s resolutions list. Do it for the planet – and for the future of whisky. 

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