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The Environmental Impact Of Alcoholic Drinks Production

by Oliver Klimek on August 22, 2014


We drink whisky and other alcoholic beverages essentially for our personal enjoyment and not because we need them. Some drink them for the effect and/or overdo it (another article will deal with that aspect), some just enjoy the many interesting flavours that fermentation can produce.

But especially people who try to live their lives in a way that is as respectful to nature as possible might be shocked to see what a huge impact this industry has on our environment.

The topic is massive, and you could write a 300 page thick PhD thesis about this. In the frame of a simple blog article a lot of things need to be simplified. My intention is to pick out what for me are the key factors and I will try to work out rough estimates that are deliberately conservative because of the many difficulties that a more detailled calculation would encounter.

Some number crunching was neccessary here, but the amount of maths and physics used should not be too overwhelming.

Global Production

There are a lot of different alcoholic beverages, too many to look at in this context. Also it is not easy to find freely accessible statistics about their production. In terms of volume, beer is by far the largest contributor with an annual production of 190 billion litres in 2012 (1). Wine is second with 28 billion litres in 2012 (2). Vodka follows with 4.44 billion litres in 2012 (3).

I could not find a combined statistic about whisky production, so we need to look at the different whisky producing countries separately. India is the biggest whisky producer in the world, but instead of grain it is largely based on molasses, so it is technically closer to a rum. Production figures for Indian whisky are hard to come by, but sales are supposed to be in the region of 1.8 billion litres per year (4).

Scottish whisky distilleries have produced almost 518 million litres of pure alcohol in 2011 (5) which would equal 1.3 billion litres of whisky at the industry standard of 40% (angels’ share ignored, true average strength will be a bit higher because of bottings with higher ABV). USA, Japan, Canada, Ireland and the rest of the world are trailing behind in production.

Vodka and whisky account for over 50% of the global spirits market by value (6). In total, roughly two thirds of the global spirits production is grain based, this also includes gin, Asian rice spirits and most liqueurs which are largely based on neutral grain spirit. Other sources for alcohol only play a secondary role, rum made from sugar cane has the largest share here. Grapes play ony a very minor part in spirits with brandy and grappa virtually vanishing in the “others” category.

Raw Materials And Calorific Value

With production volumes in the billions of litres it is clear that the production of alcoholic drinks requires very large amounts of raw materials. Looking at the figures above we see that grains and grapes are the most important crops by far. It is an interesting question how many people could be fed with the crops used for the production of alcoholic beverages whose calorific values are usually not taken into account for one’s personal diet but rather added on top.

The easiest way to do this would be to add up all the calories contained in the yearly production. But this does not take into account that fermentation and distillation transform the raw materials significantly and that in brewing and distillation essentialy only the sugars are used while the draff still retains nutritional value; after all it is commonly used as cattle feed.

So it is much more exact to look at the calories of the raw materials. Because of the dominance of grain and grapes I will only look at these two.

With wine the caclulaton is rather straightforward because wine is essentially fermented grape juice. So we just need to calulate the calorific value of 28 billion litres of grape juice. One litre of grape juice has 642 kcal (7) (Please note that the “dietary calorie” is the same as a kilocalorie), so we get 1.8 x 1013 kcal in total.

For beer and grain spirit the calculation is not quite as easy because we need to know how much grain was used in the production. In brewing the amount of grain needed for a given quantity of beer very much varies with the beer style, but typically 20 kilograms of grain will yield 100 litres of beer (8). For the global annual production of 190 billion litres this would mean 38 million metric tons of grain.

Grain spirit distillation typically has a yield of 450 litres pure alcohol per ton for malted barley (9) and wheat (10). Assuming the 4.44 billion litres of annually produced vodka to have 40% ABV this would mean 1.78 billion litres of pure alcohol made from 3.96 million tons of grain. The 518 million litres of alcohol for Scotch whisky are equivalent to 1.15 million tons of grain.

Since it is my intention to only give a lower estimate, let’s stop here and ignore all other whiskies and grain based spirits. Beer needs the highest amount of grain anyway, so considering additional spirits would not change the final result by very much. And this also means we can safely neglect the fact that a small amount of vodka is also distilled from other crops like potatoes.

Adding it up we get a total of 43+ million tons of grain used every year for grain based alcoholic drinks. To calculate the calorific value I use the value for wheat only, firstly for the sake of simplicity and secondly because it is the most important grain that is used for food.

1 kg of wheat has 3112 kcal (11),  so 43 million tons have 1.3 x 1014 kcal. Adding the calories of the grape juice above we arrive at 1.48 x 1014 kcal. This is quite a big number. To find out how many people could be fed with this we need to divide this by 365 days and the recommended daily calorie intake of 2300 kcal (12) (average of moderately active middle-aged male and female). The result is 176,300,000.

This means that all grain and grapes used annually for alcoholic drinks would provide enough energy to feed the entire population of Bangladesh (pop. 156,839,000)(13). Of course eating only wheat and grapes would not be sufficient for a balanced diet, but you get the picture.

Land Usage

We have seen that the food which is being used to produce alcoholic drinks could feed an entire rather populous country. Now how much land is used to grow it?

In 2011 the global wine growing surface area was 7.858 million hectares which equals 78,580 square kilometres (14).

The 43 million tons of grain are more than the annual soft wheat production of France which in 2012 was 36.7 million tons (15). With an average yield of 7.36 tons per hectare this relates to a surface area of 4.98 million hectares. Proportionally, 43 million tons would need an area of 5.83 million hectares or 58,300 square kilometres. It should be noted that wheat yield is widely variable globally. The global average yield for wheat is only 3 tons per hectar, less than half of the yield in France (16). Using the global average, an area of more than 140,000 square kilometres would be needed to produce the grains for beer and spirits.

Summing up the data for grain and wine, we get a minimum land usage of 136,880 or 218,580 square kilometres depending on the wheat yield. These areas are comparable to the sizes of Greece and Belarus (17).

Energy Usage

A very important aspect of the environmental footprint of a product is its energy usage. Nowadays you almost only read about carbon emissions. The CO2 footprint has become the prime indicator of how environmentally friendly a product is supposed to be. Unfortunately this number is an extremely abstract thing and very hard to grasp, and not only because carbon dioxide is a gas.

I will take a look at some key points where a lot of energy is needed in drinks production and try to put them into perspective.


Both beer and whisky rely partly on malted barley, and in turn almost all malted barley is used for this purpose. The global yearly production of malted barley is about 30 million tons (18). Comparing this with our minimum estimate of 43 million tons of total grain, we can see how important malted barley is for the alcohol industry.

To make one ton of malted barley, about 600 kWh of heating energy is needed (19). The total production of 30 million tons needs 18,000 GWh. This is the amount of engery all nuclear power plants of the world produce in 2 days (20).

Heating for Brewing and Distillation

To make beer and spirits you need to plenty of heat. The mash has to be made with hot water, in brewing the wort needs to be boiled before fermentation, and for distillation the fermented wash needs to be heated as well so the alcohol can evaporate.

As these processes are fairly complex, let’s do just a very rough approximation by calculating the energy that is needed to bring a corresponding amount of water from room temperature to the boiling point. This should be less than actually needed because both in brewing the boiling needs to be prolonged and in distilling, even though the boiling point of water is never reached, both the mash and the wash have to be heated with a cooler fermentation period in between.

For grain spirits it is important to consider that the amount of liquid needing to be heated is far bigger than the amount of produced alcohol because the fermented wash only has an alcohol content of about 7% while the distilled spirit has 70% or more, and most vodka is distilled to more than 90% ABV. So to make the calculation as simple as possible we take the pure alcohol amounts for vodka and Scotch from above and multiply them by 10.

The total amount of liquid to be considered is:

  • From beer: 190 billion litres
  • From vodka: 17.8 billion litres
  • From Scotch: 5.8 billion litres
  • Total: 213.6 billion litres

It takes 6.69 x 1013 Kilojoules to heat this amount of water from 25 to 100 degrees Celsius (21). Converted to Gigawatt hours we get 18,583 GWh which is almost the same as the energy needed for malting.


So far wine has not been mentioned because it needs no heating in the production process. In fact wine uses fairly little energy in production compared to beer and spirits, but now we will come to an environmental aspect that is also important for wine.

Bottles are the most important containers for alcoholic drinks, especially for wine and spirits. Things are a bit more difficult for beer. Many countries have deposit systems for beer bottles and much of the produced beer is also filled into cans and kegs. So it may be best to ignore beer here. Making glass bottles – be it from recycled glass or from scratch – is a very energy intensive process because the glass needs to be heated to very high temperatures. So the energy needed to make wine and spirits bottles is an important contributor to the overall energy footprint.

Practically all spirits are filled into bottles. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume that all spirits use 70 or 75 cl bottles. Of course there are numerous other bottle sizes which are used not quite as frequently, but most important for the energy aspect is not the total number of bottles but the total amount of glass. Bottle weight will vary with volume comparable to the surface/volume ratio of casks. But the margin of error should be acceptable because 70/75 cl is the most used bottle size by far.

The global spirits market has a volume of about 20 billion litres a year (6). Some is bottled in plastic, so to add a generous safety margin I’ll assume 15 billion litres bottled in glass which would equal 20 billion 75 cl bottles. I will use 75 cl to be able to compare it with wine where this is the standard bottle volume. Not all wine is bottled, some cheap wine is sold in plastic canisters or in cartons like milk. For the sake of simplicity again let’s assume 20 of the 28 billion litres of annual wine production are bottled. This would mean 26.67 billion 75 cl bottles per year.

So we can estimate that at least 45 billion wine and spirit bottles will be needed every year. A 75 cl glass bottle weighs around 500 grams, so this would mean a total amount of 22.5 billion kg of glass that has to be molten for their production.

To melt 1 kg glass an energy of 3700 to 6000 kJ is needed depending on the glass variety (22). It is safe to assume the lower figure of the range because the glass normally used for bottles is not of very high quality. The total energy required for 22.5 billion kg is 8.3 x 1013 kJ or 23,125 GWh (23). Again this energy amount is comparable to the energy needed for malting or brewing and distilling.

Energy Summary

All three factors considered here add up to a total of 59,708 GWh. This is the energy produced by a 6.816 Gigawatt power plant in a year or 0.3% of the average global power consumption (24).

Because the heat for malting, brewing and distilling is usually supplied by gas we can also calculate how many households could be supplied with the 36,583 GWh of energy used for these purposes.

The average annual gas consumption of a UK household is 16,000 kWh (25). This means that the energy of 36,583 GWh would be sufficient to heat 2,286,000 households.


The drinks buisness is a global one, a large proportion of the production is exported and of course also being transported within the countries of production.

This issue is much too complicated to tackle in a blog article because the ways of transportation are so complex. Air cargo, rail, ship or lorry all have different environmental impacts. It would be a Herculean task to even wager an educated guess here other than to say it will use up an awful lot of fossil fuel. Sorry.


I could only scratch the surface here, and still this has become the longest article I have ever written on this blog. To sum it up concisely:

  • The resources used could feed a large country
  • The resources grown need the entire area of a small to medium country
  • The heating energy needed could heat a mega city
  • The total energy consumption equals the output of a very large power plant.

Apart from transportation many other aspects have not been considered here. For example refrigeration is a another field where much energy is required.

The impact that the production of alcoholic drinks has on the environment is quite significant, and we should try our best to optimize it by innovative technology. With their new Roseisle distillery Diageo has already shown that the energy footprint can be significantly reduced by using renewable energies (26).

Particularly because alcoholic drinks are not strictly needed in this world we should always be aware of the environmental price we have to pay for this luxury.


(1) Kirin Beer University Report 2013
(2) International Organisation of Vine and Wine
(3) Gin & Vodka: The Vodka Market – A Global Picture
(4) Global Risk Insights
(5) Scotch Whisky Association – 2012 Statistical Report
(6) IBISWorld Industry Report 2010
(7) Wolfram Alpha
(9) Russell: Whisky – Technology, Production and Marketing, p. 37
(10) R.C. Agu et. al.: Predicting Alcohol Yield from UK Soft Winter Wheat for Grain Distilling
(11) Wolfram Alpha
(12) US Department of Agriculture Guideline
(13) Wikipedia – List of Countries by Poulation
(14) OIV – Statistical Report 2012
(15) Bloomberg
(16) Wiley Online Library – Prospects of doubling global wheat yields
(17) Wikipedia – List of countries and dependencies by area
(18) Evergrain – Malting Barley
(19) Danish Energy Agency
(20) Wolfram Alpha
(21) Wolfram Alpha
(22) German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development – Environmental Handbook
(23) Wolfram Alpha
(24) Wolfram Alpha
(25) – Home Energy Sources (taken from official UK statistics)
(26) Drinks Business

PS: This article was inspired by discussion on Facebook about a very loosely related topic. Thank you Peter Lemon of for bringing up this topic and encouraging me to write about it.

Picture: Aske Holst via flickr

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew August 23, 2014 at 3:17 am

Very thought provoking, and the last line really sums up the issue. But being aware of the impact of our actions means nothing if we don’t care if they happen. Has there ever been a concerted effort on the part of drinkers (greater than the general public) to lessen their environmental footprint? I hope that there will be.


Peter August 23, 2014 at 5:13 pm

I find it interesting that any post on a whisky blog that even remotely mentions blogger or industry ethics elicits mountains of comments, some in anger, challenging the morals of complete strangers. Yet, here’s a topic of actual importance, one that seriously requires consideration and…near silence. Well done, whisky people.


Oliver Klimek August 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Reminds me I need to check if there is a Wordpress “Thumbs Up” plugin for comments.


Jeff August 24, 2014 at 3:14 am

Fair enough, but after, indirectly, challenging the morals of complete strangers, are you giving up blogging, giving up whisk(e)y, or both? What is your position and what is it that you’re recommending? Saying that something is interesting and requires consideration isn’t exactly saying much about it. To indicate, or believe, that whisk(e)y production is an immoral/amoral pursuit is a huge can of worms, either in an absolute, or even a relative sense, but what, if any, action is to be taken? If I say that the topic is of actual importance and requires serious consideration am I now on the right side of the issue and can we then move on to review of the latest distillery releases after proper condemnation of those who didn’t comment properly and/or in time about this article? Being “aware” of whisky’s footprint isn’t the same thing as saying that it’s too large (or is anyone saying that?). I’d almost be willing to give up whisk(e)y, if I’m not priced out of it first, if only to end the farce that is NAS – please boycott that, by the way – so I’m not sure who should join whose crusade (if you’re recommending one).

All the above aside, Oliver’s piece is probably the only one of its kind and it certainly will raise awareness on the topic but to what end, I don’t know – consumers don’t really determine production methods. We CAN vote with our money, but as people are leery of boycotts…


Peter August 24, 2014 at 4:46 am

Probably not the most far-reaching and non-sensical thing you’ve ever written, but perhaps close…wow.


Jeff August 24, 2014 at 11:02 am

Oh, hardly nonsense, Peter; if whisky people are to be condemned for their lack of sensitivity/empathy over this issue based on their silence, just what IS the extent of your sensitivity/empathy? Again, what is your position (beyond such condemnation), or is taking the topic “under consideration” enough for you to somehow stand taller than those who you think haven’t done so?


Peter August 24, 2014 at 6:38 pm


All I wrote was that I found it interesting that people choose to comment on one thing and not another which, in my opinion, is a more worthy topic to comment on. I expressed disappointment in that fact. That’s all. Despite you’re efforts to describe it otherwise, I did not challenge the morals of anyone. I did not say that whisky is an immoral pursuit. I did not claim to be one the right side of the issue or stand taller than anyone else. I did not call for a boycott or crusade. You’re words, not mine. You wrongly inferred all that. When there was a lack of discussion on this post, I simply commented on what people choose to comment on. You seem like a smart guy, Jeff, lots of big words and stuff, instead of trolling someone by putting words in their mouth, you should stick to making the occasional insightful comment.

Since you insist on having it, my take on this is the same as it is on most things in life these days. We’ve created a world where it is increasingly difficult to live within the high-minded ideals we aspire to. It sucks, everyday, I’m confronted with myriad things that I wish I could change about my life that I think would better the lives of others, but for various reasons, are just not possible, or at the very least desirable, right now. But that’s the world we live in, like it or not. I’m sure none of us support unfair labor policies, yet we’re all typing this crap on devices often made under those unfair policies. I hate the polluting car culture the US has so lovingly embraced, yet I drove my kids a measly seven blocks to a park yesterday because it saved me time and allowed them to play there longer. No one with a brain doubts that we’re in a drought, and that water actually is a valuable resource, but lots of smart people are out in parking lots, dumping gallons of water over their heads to support medical research. We never really think about how many gallons it takes to make an old navy T-shirt (I’m wearing one right now), and some of us (myself included) forget and let the water run the whole time we brush our teeth. We pay teachers a pittance, bitch about their benefits, and then excitedly tune in to professional sports to watch incredibly rich athletes do things of almost zero consequence. Hell, as I type, I’m sitting on a chair from fucking Ikea. The list goes on and on.

Our lives are full of contradictions and hypocrisy, being a whisky fan is just another contradiction, and in the grand scheme of things, probably a small one. I’m willing to live with that particular contradiction right now, though maybe I’ll get tired of it one day and switch to bottled water. But, as whisky fans, it’s good to consider the facts and ideas Oliver posed here, it’s good to discuss them. Maybe some ideas for change are generated. There are many things in the industry that are simply part of the industry, and there might not be a way to change them to fit everyone’s ecological aspirations. It’s worth noting that many distilleries have made changes in production that are better for the environment, and even though cost effectiveness was probably the main inspiration, it’s good to see that happening. How sustainable/polluting is barley farming? It would be interesting to find out what percentage of bottle glass is recycled. It would be great if the industry to move away from using cork. That list could go on and on, too. I’d like to think a post like this would open up some of those discussions, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more discussion along those lines. I’m definitely not saying this deserves a crusade or boycott because why start with the booze industry? There are far larger industries creating far larger problems, so perhaps we should start with those. Except then there are even far larger industries creating even larger problems…

There, is that ok, Jeff? With your permission, can we call this little tiff closed or do you want to wander off topic, make more stuff up, and nit-pick some more?


Jeff August 25, 2014 at 1:14 pm

I’m not making anything up. I was just wondering why whisky people are to be condemned over their silence on this issue when there is, apparently, no ethical or moral nit to pick about whisky production in the first place, and so no pressing need to comment. In that sense, I’m not sure how this is a “more worthy topic” than those that do get comment, given that no one is, evidently, saying that there is anything unethical with how whisky is produced or with the current dedication of resources to its production.


Peter August 26, 2014 at 4:59 am

Once again, I never said there was anything unethical about whisky production in the first place, nor did I condemn whisky people for lacking morals because they didn’t comment, so if you’re confused by all this, it’s pretty much you’re own damn fault. I merely stated my opinion. I think the resource use, and environmental and social impact of alcohol production is a more interesting and more important topic than, for example, blogger ethics, and was surprised and a little disappointed at the lack of comments. That’s all I said. You can read into it whatever you want, but that is all I said, period. Anything more than that is just shit you’re making up. Because of your begging, and because I thought it might steer things back around to Oliver’s post, I later commented on how the resource use, and environmental and social impact of alcohol production fits in with my own ethical lifestyle aspirations. We’re done. Sorry Oliver, I know this is not what you want to see in your comments.

Oliver Klimek August 24, 2014 at 6:43 am

Being aware of the facts behind something may help you to make better decisions in general. That’s how I see the purpose if this article. The food part is really just to show the scale of the business. The comparison with Bangladesh as a notoriously underdeveloped country is strictly coincdential. The world still is capable of feeding all humans, distrubution is the problem here. And as whisky drinker you might even come to the conclusion that this is such a small part of the deal that there is no need to worry about anyting. Which of course would be a bit short-sighted.


Jeff August 24, 2014 at 11:45 am

But if I don’t want to join the ranks of the short-sighted, and I’m now officially worried about this topic is that, in itself, enough or what further action, if any, is being recommended? Saying that whisky’s footprint should be reduced wherever possible (again, much of this being out of the consumer’s hands short of boycott of offending companies) is like saying that people should be nicer to each other; who does, or can, stand against those positions, but who ever advocated that the footprint should be bigger or that people should be nastier either? I’m really not sure if whisky production is, or isn’t, being morally condemned here by the tone, if not by the content, of the article – or, indeed, if the position is that there is anything to be condemned in the first place – but, again, it is a great piece and does provide people with information that they otherwise would not have and is certainly worthwhile on that basis.


Tudor Balteanu August 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Even it is a very long article by the terms of the on-line requests, that one is one of the most interesting and well documented by far, and I am reading your writings for some time. Keep up the good work Mr Klimek. Your article made me to think twice about buying another bottle of whisky that will sit on my cabinet and wait for month to be opened because there are other eleven in line.


kallaskander August 25, 2014 at 11:04 am

Hi there,

taking into consideration that distilling surplus grains once was a way to easily conserve and transform the value of this surplus from grain harvesting you could well build a bridge from modest farm distilling on the pre industrial level to the perversion of the marketing driven modern whisky industry.

That means all our fafourite issues of discontent from ever younger NAS whiskies to the behaviour of the “industry” itself and the long term perspectives and consequences based on whishful thinking in some cases like the ever expanding BRIC or emerging markets.

With all the problems you have named.

There are some points where “green” thinking is taking hold such as using spent grains as cattle feed and nowadays going green in boiler technics and using renewable resources for energy in the distilleries themselvs.

But the question has been raised: Does the world need whisky at all in the face of all the problems it causes?



Jeff August 25, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Good comment, and now I think the discussion is entering into moral grounds. Does the world need whisky at all in the face of all the problems it causes? I think the answer is most certainly that, no, the world doesn’t need whisky in any real sense. The context for that answer, however, falls within a world which places high value on economic choice (for those who can afford it), a relatively small group getting what they want as opposed to what they need, with a lot the remaining people getting neither what they want or need, but rather what’s left over. As Oliver points out, one problem is that of distribution of resources, but far a bigger problem is any real interest, where it counts, in solving the distribution problem in the first place. As Peter points out, there are far more offending industries than whisky (although this doesn’t excuse whisky by any means), but to question the underpinnings of the assumptions which result IN whisky IS to question a great deal of our economic system, and certainly to question its morality and its need for far tighter regulation and/or reform – planet management vs. private enterprise.


Jeff August 26, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Of course, Peter, there was no criticism or condemnation implied. Well done, whisky person.


Bill Ricker August 29, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Historical footnote – “and not because we need them” –
The Distillation of beer to whisk(e)y was once a practical way to preserve grain calories from harvest for use in summer when stocks of winter-wheat flour and beer ran low.
(And that would be how benefits of barrel aging was discovered by the small-farm still owners.)

With modern refrigeration, freeze-dry, etc, of course, it’s no longer necessary.


Oliver Klimek August 29, 2014 at 4:47 pm

You are right of course. The same is true for wine as well. I wrote this article specifically from a modern point of view because it is now that the industry has reached such a size that the impact on the environment is quite significant.


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