The world’s eyes are centred on Glasgow this weekend for COP26…. the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. As one of the most sustainable distilleries in the UK this seemed like the perfect chance to have a chat with Will on his views on sustainability and his journey in the drinks industry.
We’ve tried to capture the conversation between Phil and Will as best we can but the message is clear, together we all need to be making changes to address sustainability in the drinks and hospitality industry.
How did you get into the drinks industry Will?
I started when I set up the distillery. I suppose it’s a back to front way of approaching things, but it’s certainly given me a fresh perspective on the industry and the way it works.
It was a really big learning curve for me, as I came into the industry as essentially a hobbyist and enthusiast.
But I have been distilling for around 26 years starting out with apple brandy and gin – in fact I started experimenting in gin distillation well before the gin explosion.
Before I set up the distillery in 2015 I did my Masters in Distilling at Heriot Watt University. In fact it was when I was at Heriot Watt that I realised that people were willing to spend more and more on gin, which meant that there was an opportunity for smaller producers.
What style of drink did you first fall in love with?
Weirdly enough it was with brandy – plum brandy in particular. When we were kids my parents had Romanian musicians to stay, who left behind some bottles of plum brandy as a present. It wasn’t until after they’d left I discovered this remarkable spirit and it really blew my mind.
Cider and cider making also made a big impression on me as a kid. I spent a lot of my childhood next to a large Somerset cider press. The whole process of cider making was fascinating and the press looked like a museum piece. The cheesepress method of extracting juice is so historic and hasn’t changed in 100s of years. The connection with the land and the quality of produce is seductive.
When did you decide to set up a distillery?
When I was doing my masters at Heriot Watt I thought that it would be a stepping stone into the industry. But once I was fully into my degree I realised that I wanted to have a crack myself at producing.
I really liked the idea of building something: a brand, a distillery and a liquid. Initially the brand aspect was secondary, but now I realise that they’re equal.
When I was setting up the distillery I made every decision with having a large brand in mind – I wanted to future-proof everything.
Where did your passion for the environment and sustainability come from?
I was brought up in the country, so I guess I’ve always had a clear attachment to the land and a passion for that.
But with sustainability I just see this as the way that we should live. I don’t really understand how people can think otherwise. The decisions we make should be sustainable both on a personal level and a business level – why wouldn’t you think otherwise?
I’m certainly an environmentalist and a conservationist and this is the way I approach my business.
Sustainability is a much bandied-about word – what does it mean to you?
Sustainability should be the start and the end point of all decisions in a business. You can’t pick and choose. What isn’t a sustainable brand is one that has a ‘sustainability initiative’, but doesn’t look at every aspect of the business.
A truly sustainable brand is one that has audited every aspect and is moving in a conscious way to mitigate any negative impacts.
All businesses should be having a conversation about sustainability and should be making every effort to move towards sustainability along with their customers.
How much further can you push the environmental aspect of producing spirits?
We all should be on a constant journey to be as green as possible. However, at Greensand Ridge we have done pretty much everything we can do to negate our impact on the environment, now we are looking at every aspect of the supply chain.
Our long term plan is to produce our own neutral grain spirit onsite with surplus produce, that would be an amazing point to get to, however the cost implications are big.
The hardest thing with all of this is to have a complete shift in mindset of everyone. Every piece of the supply chain has to be looked at from the farmer to the end consumer – the farmers have always shouldered the most burden with the food waste issue.
We will be moving towards better labelling on food and drink that will show the carbon intensity of each product. I really like the idea of the Carbon Neutral Audit as it’s a very transparent way of showing that you are really looking at every aspect of your business and the impact it has. If every business did this then we would be in a better place.
What more can the industry do to achieve sustainability goals?
Data and transparency are the way forward. To be able to quantify the impact of your products is the best method of moving and improving things as you can measure that improvement and hold brands to account.
There’s a lot of ‘greenwashing’ with brands at the moment – telling us what you do with your spent botanicals is not going to change the world!
Will’s message for businesses of any type is that we should all be making decisions framed around sustainability on a daily basis. Will has demonstrated that it is possible to be a 100% carbon neutral distillery having built his business with this in mind from the ground up. What’s more challenging for our industry as a whole is the supply network and convincing all participants in the industry to really address sustainability issues.
Here at bbb we’ve taken some steps to analyse our impact on the environment and taken some small steps to try to reduce packaging waste, transport and energy consumption. We hope to be implementing further changes in the next year and we’re not afraid to challenge our contemporaries to review their own impact on the environment.
Let’s hope that our leaders this weekend at COP26 are not afraid to challenge the status quo and work together to rise to the challenges of the climate crisis.