Neil McDougall, Elgin

The water environment plays a fundamental role in the life of Neil McDougall.

He has dedicated over 25 years to the improvement of the Scottish environment in a variety of organisations including the North East River Purification Board, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and, since 2005, as Environmental Manager for drinks company Diageo Scotland, the world’s largest Scotch whisky distiller.

The water environment is of prime importance for the production of Scotch whisky: without adequate supplies of pure clean water, the whole distilling industry could not survive. Improving water efficiency in whisky production inevitably presents its own unique challenges: “I could get this site to use less water,” Neil explains, “but that would change the character of the whisky, which is linked to the volume of water you use to make it. It’s all to do with the cooling and the cleaning process. That’s where you use most of your water and that’s what can impact character.”

Neil lives in Elgin, Speyside, a region with almost half of Scotland’s distilleries. There are 108 distilleries licensed to produce Scotch whisky and, according to the Scottish Whisky Association, the industry exported 93 million cases worldwide, generated exports of £4.3 billion and directly employed around 10,000 people, many in economically deprived areas.

Diageo Scotland operates 28 malt distilleries and one grain distillery, and employs 4,000 staff at 50 sites across the country. With over £3bn worth of revenue generated each year, Diageo is Scotland’s top manufacturing exporter. Many of Diageo’s famous brands are made in Scotland for export around the world, including Johnnie Walker – the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky.

Whisky distilling requires lot of water. Along with malted barley and yeast, water is one of the three essential ingredients required in the distilling process. No surprise, then, that whisky takes its name from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “lively water” or “water of life”.

On a day-to-day basis, Neil’s job is to ensure that each Diageo facility in Scotland meets its environmental obligations and also complies with both Diageo and Scotch Whisky Association performance promises on environmental impacts. He explains, “We monitor and record our daily abstraction volumes and track this each month to ensure that we are not over-abstracting and ‘drying up’ any watercourses. Similarly, we monitor our effluent discharges each week to ensure that we are not causing any negative impact upon the receiving watercourse.”

The Blair Athol distillery is one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland. Situated amidst the spectacular scenery of Perthshire’s “Big Tree Country”, the distillery is a popular destination on the highland tourist trail. The site straddles the Kinnaird Burn which feeds into the River Tummel – and even has a fish ladder to facilitate the natural migration of fish along the burn.

“We put major efforts into ensuring that we operate in a responsible manner and engage with all our stakeholders such as SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Fishery Boards and local angling associations to ensure we do not have any negative effects on the water environment”.

Neil works closely with colleagues within the Scotch whisky industry to ensure that environmental matters are considered and addressed proactively. He explains, “The industry needs good, clean water and we also see ourselves as custodians of the water. As an industry we do try to ensure that we leave the water in pristine condition.”

The water recovery plant at Diageo’s new state-of-the-art distillery in Speyside has been designed specifically with sustainability in mind – Neil cites this as an example of how pioneering technology can be used to improve water efficiency.

“We try to be efficient as possible. At our new Roseisle facility, for example, we are minimising water consumption with the introduction of a closed loop on the distillery condensers.” Neil points out that, where possible, the company tries to exceed industry standards. “We go beyond compliance”, he explains. “This is not to put undue pressure on others; rather, the industry has realistic standards that must be achieved and each of us has the option to exceed that standard.” 

It’s not just in industry where there are high expectations for Scotland’s water. Neil believes that the main challenge for our water environment is to ensure that there is sufficient quantity and quality of water for all of us to enjoy. “Everyone in Scotland expects that there will be copious supplies of clean, pristine water. So if they want to fish, canoe or go for walks they expect that it’s always going to be there.”

Unsurprisingly, he believes that it is important for all of us to take care of our water resources. “If we don’t protect the volume and quality of our water resources we could see a greater impact upon the natural environment, as many species rely on water to survive. It is not only the surface water that we must consider, but groundwater also. We should all be striving to ensure that as much of Scotland as possible remains in a pristine condition.” 

Due to the location of the sites he looks after, Neil mainly operates in Scotland’s rural areas. “The water environment of Scotland in its natural state is always a nice thing to see. You can be on a river or small burn, where the water is clear and you see the trout, birds and other wildlife.”

Being able to improve the condition of Scotland’s water environment through his role at Diageo, enabling his family and the wider community to enjoy it, is highly rewarding for Neil. “I’m happy knowing that through my work, and through our work with SEPA, that rivers like the Spey, the Lossie and the coastline around the Moray Firth are in a condition that folk can enjoy them. I get a great amount of satisfaction knowing these rivers are clean and that something you are doing throughout your life has contributed to the greater good.”