In this day and age of jargon and dubious news, we hear terms such as green, sustainable, carbon footprint, renewable and eco-friendly daily. We rarely share a definition for these terms. A company might implement one sustainability practice and then call themselves a green company. Another company may go deep with hundreds of eco-friendly practices in every aspect of their work, and nobody ever hears about it.
We have also entered an era of deceptive claims of eco-integrity. This is similar to the “craft-washing” by bigger brands that want the cachet of small and authentic in the craft-spirits industry. Achieving true environmental sustainability is very challenging, even for the most committed entrepreneurs.
In the craft-spirits space, distilleries have many channels of business to consider for eco-aware practices. This includes distilling, bottling, warehousing, wholesale sales, sales rep travel and distributor interface. It also includes logo merchandise, point of sale builds and marketing. Then you also have the tasting room, bar and restaurant operations. Once we begin “greening” ourselves, it can become intimidating to take the ethos deep. For companies who do, the impostors are a constant source of irritation.
In the absence of other industry standards, I offer the following brief guide to best practices for sustainable distilling, broken down along the supply chain, to help companies that want to become more green and have their actions match their words.
Sourcing and Shipping Raw Ingredients
Environmentally sustainable companies tend to buy raw ingredients directly from farmers. This avoids genetically modified and chemically treated ingredients. Distilleries buy these ingredients from the closest sources so they can ship a minimal distance. If shipping is involved, they offset the carbon emitted by their freight while en route.
For ingredients coming from outside the USA, and especially from the developing world, fair trade certifications help vet supplier practices. Important ones to be mindful of include harvesting, labor and environmental impact. There is no fair trade equivalent for U.S.-sourced ingredients. However, scientific studies suggest growing practices among some U.S. farmers pollute stream flows and air. Studies also show they cause clusters of cancers among farmers due to pesticide exposures. A sustainability certification for USA farm-sourced products would assist distillers in vetting suppliers.
Distilling of Craft Spirits
For actual craft distilling, sustainable initiatives typically apply to:
- Energy use and energy sourcing
- Water use and water sourcing
- Disposal of biomass after distilling is complete
- Disposal of refrigerants
- Energy efficiencies in distillation systems
For example, companies can cut fossil fuel consumption by generating renewable energy on-site from wind or solar. They can also buy renewable energy from a reputable source.
Some companies capture the warm water from their condensers to begin fermentations. This reduces or even eliminates the need for mechanical heat. Distillers in high mountain locations use cold tap water to cool active fermentations, eliminating the need for wort chillers. Distillers can also reuse water from condensers to feed humidifiers.
The number one reversible contributor to global climate change is refrigerant agents. These are often poorly handled and disposed of. Ecologically sustainable distillers recycle their refrigerants and properly dispose of equipment. Some use innovative methods like heat exchange to avoid mechanical cooling altogether. Location and local climate determine what is possible.
Bottling and Branding
Glass manufacturing puts demands on local fresh water and can emit water pollution and air pollution, potentially affecting local communities.
Not all countries require that these pollutants be removed from air and water before being released. American glass makers are forced by the requirements of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to address these emissions. However, these rules are being liberalized in the USA. European makers are also highly regulated. Yet, the cheapest glass comes from countries not required to mitigate their emissions and pollution in the ways we expect in Europe and the USA.
Those large container loads of cheap custom glass from China are among the worst environmental offenders. This is especially true by the time the deliveries reach distillers in the middle of the country by container ship, train and long-haul truck.
Sustainable distilleries source U.S. or European glass from environmentally vetted companies. They buy from the geographically closest vendors and offset the carbon in shipping. They also make an effort to minimize the number of travel legs the glass takes to reach their bottling facilities. They use recycled and FSC-certified label papers and boxes, bio-corks and POS made from upcycled and green materials.
The glass supplier for Montanya Distillers, Owens-Illinois (better known as O-I), recently received Cradle to Cradle certification, a huge undertaking and accomplishment. This is a globally recognized eco-label standard. The designation looks at five areas: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness. O-I was the first beverage packaging company in the world to receive this certification.
Fleets and Company Transportation
It’s now commonplace for distilleries to have fleet vehicles dashing to events, the airport and accounts, often while fighting urban traffic.
There was a time when buying an electric or hybrid car or van meant sacrificing power, price point, safety, convenience and style. This has all changed in the last five years, with greater approachability of alternative engines. The styling and performance of alternative energy vehicles have improved dramatically. The prices have also dropped, and charging stations are now much easier to find. The benefits are especially high for vehicles that move shorter distances and have a lot of stop-and-go traffic (e.g., in urban areas).
Vehicle companies also have started offering zero emissions and partial-zero emissions options. Sustainability-minded distilleries and distributors look to alternatively powered and zero emissions fleet vehicles. They also identify this on their vehicle’s graphics wrap to win support from those who see the vehicles in action.
Tasting Room and Mercantile Operations
On a recent visit to a craft distiller with my group of 12 staff members, we were all excited to taste the wares of one of our fellows in the industry. However, when the tasting began, they poured each spirit into a tiny plastic shot glass. They make nine expressions. They wouldn’t allow us to reuse our cups from one spirit to the next, even with a water rinse. If they have 35 visitors a day do a full-flight tasting, this one distiller would be tossing almost 115,000 tasting cups a year, just in their own facility.
Eco-friendly tasting rooms and gift shops tend to avoid the use of plastic tasting and cocktail cups, favoring glass cups they can wash. They also eliminate the use of straws. To avoid tossing all the glass, they may label and fill 750-milliliter and 1.75-liter vessels to wash and reuse. These can then be used for serving spirits and making infusions in their tasting rooms and bars. They compost. They recycle all the glass, plastic, metal, paper, cardboard and plastic film they generate. They print their sell sheets, shelf talkers and promotional materials on 100% recycled paper. Some even house bees on their rooftops or install living roofs for energy efficiency. They also buy logo merchandise made from upcycled materials and eco-friendly fabrics.
These are just a few of the steps distillers are taking to “walk the sustainability talk” every day. I hope to see more and more methods arise as the industry evaluates the depth and breadth of its impacts. Distilleries need to look both upstream and downstream, as well as inside their facility and vow to improve every aspect possible. This will help leave a habitable world for generations to come.