Bruichladdich: swimming against the tide

31 August, 2023

Bruichladdich’s packaging has undergone a radical overhaul, driven by environmental concerns. Global marketing director Gareth Brown discusses with Oli Dodd the unique challenges of an island such as Islay.

In July of this year, Islay single malt producer Bruichladdich unveiled new packaging for The Classic Laddie, its flagship bottling. The redesign has seen packaging emissions cut by 65% and was guided by a wider mission, to “decarbonise distillation by 2024”. Bruichladdich global marketing director Gareth Brown says: “Packaging is what the consumer sees as the main manifestation of our brand to the world. 

“So the redesign was a branding project, but at its heart was a sustainability project. The glass was optimised for effective transportation, we’re using lighter glass, organic glass coating, an increased recycled glass content and we can fit more bottles on pallets coming into and leaving the distillery.

“That’s important anywhere that you’re bottling, but when you’re doing 100% of your bottling on Islay, a rock in the middle of the Atlantic with very fragmented transport links, it becomes even more important. So it wasn’t just about the bottle itself, it was about the whole ecosystem, the whole footprint that our packaging leaves and ensuring that there was no stone left unturned.

“All of these ways are our way of trying to impact the planet less and it’s all very well doing these things, but you’ve got to make something that the consumer wants to buy. Moving away from the tin is a big step. Secondary packaging such as tins, boxes, cartons and tubes are kind of a given in single malt whisky, especially for premium brands, so for us to move away from it as one of the most premium and well-known brands in the categories is a big step.”

Bruichladdich, and others opting for similar solutions, are swimming against the current of decades of marketing messaging, where heavy glass correlates to higher quality, and premium single malts that are worth spending some money on are worth protecting in some sort of secondary packaging.

But Bruichladdich isn’t removing the tin blindly – since February 2021 it has offered direct customers the choice to opt out of secondary packaging, and to date, 60% have done just that, reassuring the brand that its customers are more concerned with the mission than traditional luxury trappings.

“We believe there is a consumer out there who is looking for brands that are values and purpose-driven. We often draw comparisons to the likes of clothing companies Patagonia, Allbirds, Finisterre, these guys, who we hold ourselves accountable to, they’re our compatriots, that’s who we are inspired by.”

Updating its packaging is perhaps the most visible way a brand can improve its environmental credentials, but it’s not everything. Bruichladdich was among the first whisky distilleries in the world to achieve B Corp status, demonstrating that inclusivity and sustainability span the breadth of the company’s operations.

“You could argue that sustainable practices have been at the heart of the business since its regeneration in 2001,” says Brown. “Sustainability is about community, it can be about the island of Islay, it is everything. The distillery was reborn with an ethos to be more sustainable.

“We take a holistic view of sustainability. It goes across the four pillars of our sustainability strategy: energy & emissions, agriculture & biodiversity, packaging & waste, and Islay & our community.

“They all contribute to decarbonisation and they all contribute to our B Corp status. In terms of our energy and emissions, we’re committed to move to biofuels to completely phase out fossil fuels.

“We’re exploring green hydrogen at the distillery, and we’ll be one of the first distilleries to go to green hydrogen, if we can pull it off. It’s not straightforward in any distillery, it’s even less straightforward when you’re on an island like we are.

“For agriculture and biodiversity, there are a number of areas around farming where we take real accountability for our impact from the ground up, starting with our farming practices – 50% of our barley now comes from Islay.

“We have a responsibility in that chain to ensure that it is as stable as possible.”

Community enhancement

As part of this pledge, the distillery launched The Regeneration Project earlier this year, a rye whisky created to use up the rye that was planted by one of the island’s farmers in the alternate season to barley to improve soil health – a positive agricultural and biodiversity move but also one that enhances Islay and the community.

“Islay is a magical place,” says Brown. “To have the amount of whisky distilleries on such a small rock with a population of 3,000 people makes it very special. But therein starts the challenge. It’s a population of 3,000 people, we currently have nine distilleries, soon to be 10, and probably 12 in the not-too-distant future.

“We’re the largest private employer on the island, we’re also one of the smallest distilleries, but we distil, mature and bottle all our whisky on Islay.

“That in turn comes with a lot of challenges. It’s a lot more expensive to produce on the island, Islay living is more expensive than it is on the mainland, but it’s probably logistics where our biggest challenge comes in.

“There are two flights a day and, depending if they run at all, there are four or five ferries a day that we’re reliant on to bring everything on and off the island.

“Just getting things on and off the island is a real challenge but that’s also what makes it special and unique. It’s not an easy place to make whisky, but when you do, it’s some of the best whisky in the world.”

Conversations about sustainability in Scotch tend to follow a script. Yes, there are examples of incredibly progressive distilleries making all the right moves, but this is against a backdrop of rampant greenwashing and empty gestures from the places that have the power to enact real change, but Brown isn’t so fatalistic.

“The industry is recognising that it’s what consumers are demanding,” he says. “When we became B Corp accredited three years ago, it was a point of difference, it’s becoming less of a point of difference now, and in 10 years’ time, it will just be expected by consumers.

“I’m seeing a marked difference now even from five years ago, which is great to see, but it’s going to take time. We are a manufacturing industry as well as a luxury goods industry and change will take time. What’s written above the door is ‘progress, drop by drop’, we’re always about pushing progress, not status or accolades but real genuine progress, but it is one step at a time.”

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