In 2008, Melkon Khosrovian had been successfully making spirits for about four years when he hit a roadblock. He and his wife had transitioned from amateur home infusers to bonafide distillery owners in 2004, with the opening of their Monrovia, California Greenbar Distillery, and their recipes and methods were locked in solid. But during a three month period in early 2008, batch after batch of flavored vodkas such as grapefruit honey or celery peppercorn, turned out poorly. "We kept making the same thing, with the same ingredients, but one ingredient was overwhelmingly dominant each time," he says. "We couldn't figure out what was going on."
The problem, it turns out, was the fruit Khosrovian was sourcing from local California farmers. Self-described as someone "chasing flavor," Khosrovian had constantly been asking the farmers he purchased from for "the most flavorful, most aromatic things" they grew. When the farmers switched to organic practices, they began sending Greenbar organic produce, knowing Khosrovian would appreciate the upgrade in quality, but without telling him or increasing the price. "Once we understood the reason for the change, we realized this stuff is so much more flavorful," he says. "We can make better liquor."
Why distillers choose sustainability
The process of making alcohol, just like other avenues of our food system, is one that has environmental, social and economic implications. While it varies from spirit to spirit, production methods, distillation techniques, raw ingredients, packaging, shipping, energy consumption and labor standards all influence the foodprint of a bottle of liquor. While "drink responsibly" is a common phrase, you rarely if ever are told to "drink eco-responsibly."
But there is certainly a reason to sound the call for eco-responsible alcohol. Research done by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) on the carbon footprint of spirits found that, on average, a 750-milliliter bottle of liquor produces 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, the majority of which comes from the distillation process and glass packaging. Distilleries are highly water-intensive — 12 times as much wastewater is produced as the amount of alcohol produced — which can include an estimated eight to 15 liters of waste materials per liter of alcohol. "In a world rife with escalating environmental concerns, allocating agricultural resources to $15 craft cocktails is hard to justify from any ethical perspective," writes acclaimed mixologist Bobby Heugel in an article for Punch, imploring his industry to consider sustainability.
For Khosrovian, moving the distillery to organic began with an understanding that quality ingredients produce better flavor. "The best thing we can make must be from better ingredients," he says. "If we are choosing better quality, we have to go where organic grows." After learning why his purveyors chose to move to organic farming practices — the older farmers were working to improve their farmland to pass along to their sons and daughters — Khosrovian and his wife were inspired to make additional changes, "something to honor that deeper connection to the land," he says. When they moved to their new Los Angeles location, they sought out organic certification; changed to thinner bottles with post-consumer recycled labels; and partnered with an organization in Central America which plants one tree per bottle purchased, which effectively makes Greenbar's process carbon neutral, which they've confirmed through life cycle analysis. "We've come to understand that part of our obligation as a company, part of our responsibility to the public, is to make an impact," he says.
The most taxing part of liquor production, distillation, is also the most elemental. Although distillery wastewater is sometimes used as a fertilizer, it can have toxic impacts on the environment, and it is most often discarded in water treatment facilities where it is expensive and difficult to treat. "When we first got into business, learning how to deal with the waste was a major learning curve," David Grasse, director of operations at New Hampshire's Tamworth Distilling, recently told Wine Enthusiast. "You would think that it being an organic material, like corn, that it couldn't hurt anybody, but because it's very acidic and has high chemical oxygen demand and bio-oxygen demand, you just can't run it into a septic system." In light of the environmental waste, as well as increasingly stringent regulations surrounding water disposal, some distillers are focused on reducing their impact by finding ways to reduce their water use or water waste.
Although the coronavirus pandemic was tough on distillers, who are ultra dependent on bar and restaurant sales, a solution to the waste problem did emerge during the past year. Facing a quickly diminishing supply of hand sanitizer, distilleries nationwide were given emergency authority to fill that supply gap in April. Instead of needing new materials, the sanitizer was made with spent distillation ingredients. "The alcohol that we're using for this is a redistillation of the waste products, the undesirable parts of any given batch that we make," Jordan Cotton, co-owner of Washington, D.C.'s Cotton & Reed rum distillery, told NPR earlier this year. "We redistill those to capture the good ethanol out of that." Distilleries around the country, from Brooklyn to Vermont to Portland, Oregon, are continuing to turn their waste into hand sanitizer, even after commercial products have been restocked, many giving away the hand sanitizer with each purchase and/or to local charities.
Pre-pandemic, New York's Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing found a solution to wastewater in aquaculture. The spent grain and wastewater from their distillery is converted into edible biomass "fish food" and pumped into onsight growth tanks of their local partner TimberFish Technologies, which farms speckled trout, Atlantic salmon, shrimp and more. It's becoming popular for producers, including micro-distilleries like Tamworth, Charleston's Striped Pig Distillery and Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, and whiskey giants such as Jack Daniels and Maker's Mark, to send their waste to become livestock feed, many sending the byproduct to the same farms they source corn and grains from.
Distillers also partner with bakers and other producers in upcycling ventures that repurpose spent grains into edible ingredients for human consumption. Along with passing some of their spent grains to a local farm for animal feed, Tamworth partnered with local bakery Sunnyfield Brick Oven Bakery, which uses its corn-based Bourbon mash in a sourdough-like Distillers Bread. In mid 2020, Minneapolis' Tattersall Distillery partnered with NETZRO, making it the first distillery to join several breweries in turning spent grains, in this case Tattersall's rye and organic corn byproducts, into upcycled flours.
Rethinking the energy potential and production of waste
Other producers wanting to make sustainable spirits look at how to reuse the waste internally, rather than sending it out. Industrial liquor giant Bacardi Limited, which runs 31 plants around the world making Bacardi rum, Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin and Cazadores tequila, among others, converts the waste into energy, using an anaerobic digester system to produce methane, which is then used to run production of more distillation. Maker's Mark, along with numerous other breweries, use a similar system. A 2018 life cycle assessment of Scottish malt whiskey, found greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by roughly 15% when distillation by-products are used as a source of renewable energy through the production of biogas.
Some distillers make the most of their locale, reducing the amount of waste produced to begin with. Not only does Minnesota's Prairie Organic Spirits use a batch distillation process, reusing the leftover water from one batch to the next, but they also take advantage of their chillier climate. "Our chilling system is a self-contained loop, so there is no waste output and we have systems in place that take advantage of our cold Minnesota temperatures to assist our chilling needs," Morgan Wagner, Prairie Spirit's brand manager, told us by email.
In the case of Colorado's Montanya Distillers, which produces rum in the South American high-mountain tradition, it's the cold water found at the distillery's high altitudes that helps reduce energy-use. Unlike most rum distillers (often located in much warmer locations), Montanya doesn't need to use chillers on their fermentations; the local tap water is cool enough to help control temperatures and provide whatever cooing is needed. The distillery is also warmed with recycled heat from the distillation process, cutting energy needs even further.
Reducing the impact of packaging materials
Water and byproduct waste are the top contributors when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in liquor production, and packaging materials are number two. Single-use food packaging is an environmental menace; it is often non recyclable or recycled incorrectly, clogging up landfills and leaching harmful chemicals into the environment. And while glass is more easily recycled than plastic, a British report looking at the beverage industry and practices for packaging, waste and more, found that only 50% of glass containers are being recycled in the drinks industry, a number that is likely similar in the U.S.
Many of us understand how problematic plastic bottle production and disposal are, but glass bottle production is equally problematic. A 2019 life cycle assessment of the Finnish brand Koskenkorva Vodka, comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of vodka packaged in glass and recyclable PET plastic bottles, found the carbon footprint of the glass vodka bottles to be roughly 27% more than the PET bottles. Additionally, when using the glass bottle, packaging accounts for 43% of the product's entire carbon footprint, and nearly half that, 24%, when calculating for the recyclable PET plastic bottle.
In addition to the environmental cost, many producers realized the heavy bottles were more expensive to produce and transport. "We had this big, chunky beautiful bottle, but empty, it weighed a kilo, which seemed like a giant waste," says Greenbar's Khosrovian. "We changed to a lightweight bottle and saved two-thirds of the weight, and changed the label from virgin paper, laminated in plastic, to 100% post-consumer recycled paper, not laminated."
His experience is like many other distillers, who are looking to more sustainable packaging options. Some, like Oaxaca's Sombra Mezcal, use locally recycled glass. Looking at materials beyond the glass, Prairie Organic's corks are made from a combination of wood and recycled cork, while Montanya prints bottle labels and case boxes on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper. California's Gray Whale Gin, which donates a part of their proceeds to One Percent for the Planet and Oceana, uses a biodegradable cork and organic paint on their bottle. These steps might seem small-scale, but for each distiller they are part of a bigger picture approach to sustainable spirits.
Large-scale producers Absolut, Bacardi and Diageo (parent to brands like Johnnie Walker, Ketel One and Captain Morgan), with more funds for research and testing, have all launched innovative plans for packaging in the near future. Bacardi recently announced its plans for a biodegradable bottle, planned for release in 2023, while Absolut has already launched a trial of recycled paper-plastic hybrid bottles for its vodka in the UK and Sweden. And Diageo is primed to start using 100% plastic-free bottles, made from sustainably sourced wood pulp, starting with Johnnie Walker in early 2021.
Sourcing local, sustainable ingredients
As consumers, purchasing locally grown, more sustainably produced food is one of the best ways to reduce our foodprint. Just like you can look for pesticide-free and non-GMO food items, the same holds true for liquor. Seeking out a brand committed to local and sustainable farming, as well as looking for the USDA Certified Organic and Non-GMO labels, are good ways to ensure that.
Just as Greenbar's move to organic started with ingredients, many sustainable distilleries start with a connection to the land. While Prairie Organic makes other sustainable commitments, their driving mission is to their local Minnesota co-op of family farmers. "Our local farmers are at the center of our process, brand and spirits," Prairie Organic's Wagner told us. "Every batch of our farm-crafted spirits begins as single-vintage, organic yellow corn grown on family-owned Midwest farms." Dedicated to regenerative practices, new co-op farmers spend three seasons restoring the fields, and then plant a 25-foot buffer crop to ensure any pesticide drift from neighboring farms doesn't contaminate their corn.
Numerous other distilleries make similar commitments to local farmers and regional products. Tamworth sources all its grains from within a 150-mile radius of the distillery, and mills the grains in-house for the freshest flavor. Striped Pig Distillery works directly with one South Carolina farm, with whom they hand-picked seed varieties, to source their corn, rye and wheat. The botanicals used to make Gray Whale Gin come from either sustainable farms or are wild foraged.
There are even distillers exploring particular crops for their regenerative properties. While Tattersall works with just a handful of farms within Minnesota, most of which are within a 45-mile radius of the distillery to source their corn, rye, wheat and barley, they are also working in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the Land Institute to experiment with soil-enriching perennial grains such as Kernza and perennial rye. And after working with researchers to study the carbon footprint of peas, which improve soil quality and provide nitrogen for other plants, reducing the need for fertilizers, Scottish gin distiller Arbikie has launched the "world's first climate positive" gin. Marketing claims aside, the use of these sustainable crops over more agriculturally intensive ones such as wheat and corn, is encouraging.
Stepping up for workers rights
A commitment to local, sustainably-produced ingredients and to reducing waste and energy use is important, but can we do more? By helping improve working conditions, Mezcal Union shows that we certainly can. When the operation opened in 2008, the local agave workers weren't getting fair wages, a common problem in the industry. To improve conditions, Mezcal Union formed a group of 20 small-scale unionized distillery partners, roughly 100 workers, and committed to share a sustainable portion of profits to allow the workers and landowners to grow out their own end of the business.
Creating an eco-responsible bar at home
So, how does one "drink eco-responsibly," knowing the amount of waste, environmentally damaging packaging and other issues associated with many distilleries? "The challenge we face every day in trying to execute globally conscious bar programs," wrote Bobby Heugel in Punch, "is bridging the gap between the responsibility we feel to make ethical decisions about our spirits inventory and serving guests who often want nothing more than to relax and enjoy their night off."
Heugel might have been talking as a mixologist preparing a drink for a customer, but the same goes when preparing an after-work drink at home or purchasing your next bottle. It's about balancing the knowledge of how these spirits were made, which standards were used and what commitments to sustainability were made, and our desires for specific drinks.
Beyond the brands mentioned above, here are some general suggestions when looking for sustainable spirits:
Rum: For your sustainable rum drinks, look for a bottle made with organic molasses and spices, like Los Angeles' Crusoe or Minneapolis-based Drake's. Paraguay's Papagayo Rum is also USDA Certified Organic.
Tequila: For your tequila fix, Mexican produced 123 Organic Tequila, 4 Copas, 3 Amigos, and Dulce Vida tequila and Del Maguey Single Village mezcal are all USDA Certified Organic. Learn more about sustainability issues with agave, the primary ingredient of tequila.