From their first appearance in written history, distilled spirits in medieval Europe were called aqua vitae — Latin for “water of life.” Many languages share names with the same meaning: the French eau de vie, Scandinavian aquavit, and even the old Gaelic uisce beatha, which evolved into the word whiskey.
These names are more than a poetic homage. They are a nod to the single most important ingredient in every distilled spirit in the world: water itself.
Distilleries always cared deeply about their water: where it comes from, how to keep it clean, and how much they use. Many traditional distillery practices were born in regions like Kentucky and Scotland where water was historically cheap, clean, and abundant. But today, water resources across the world are under strain, and even distilleries with seemingly unlimited water access should think about the ramifications of their use. As a result, many distilleries have implemented new methods and practices that transform their use of water.
Closing the Loop
“You can’t make whiskey without water,” says Amy Stammers, head of sustainability at Nc’Nean Distillery. “It’s the biggest ingredient in whiskey, without a shadow of doubt. And water is a very precious commodity.” Located in the Highlands on Scotland’s West Coast, Nc’Nean is one of the most sustainable distilleries in the world. Nc’Nean (pronounced “nick-knee-in,” and named for the Gaelic goddess Neachneohain) is carbon neutral and has the certifications to back it up. It uses 100% renewable local energy and has eliminated 99.97% of its waste.
“In all distilling practices, you’ve got two main demands on the water: the water that ends up in the whiskey, and the volume of water that goes through the condensers,” Stammers explains. The former is difficult to reduce, but for most distilleries, the latter constitutes about 90% of water usage. And this usage can be reduced dramatically by implementing systems to circulate the same water through condensers repeatedly, rather than continually pumping new water through them.
These systems can take multiple forms. At Nc’Nean, it’s a plastic-lined outdoor pond that stores water and captures rainwater that helps cool it and replenish it. “We recycle that pond water through the condensers, back to the pond, and back through the distillery,” Stammers says. This system alone reduces the amount of water Nc’Nean needs to draw from the environment by 90%, to about 8,000 liters a day.
At Seattle-based Copperworks Distilling (ADI’s 2018 Distillery of the Year), the recirculating system operates through a cooling tower, rather than a pond. The tower works with a sophisticated system of heat exchangers, stores water, and allows heat to dissipate. “Instead of using 70,000 gallons of water for every batch, the cooling tower allows us to use 1,000 gallons seventy times per batch,” says Jason Parker, a co-founder and former brewer. “And it’s still there for the next batch. It’s a closed-loop system.”
Though expensive, these systems quickly pay for themselves. Parker notes that suppliers will often engineer a system for a distillery for free as part of the purchasing and installation process. The system at Copperworks cost around $15,000. “You’ll pay it back in one or two years, and you’ll get quality control you wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says, noting that the system — especially if combined with a glycol chiller — offers a high degree of control over water temperature.
A New Whey Forward
Water conservation practices work at distilleries of any scale. Cayuga Ingredients in Auburn, New York, is a bulk spirits producer that can produce a million gallons of neutral spirit per year through its five-column vacuum distillation system. Although the facility also distills grain and other raw ingredients, its primary inputs are liquid dairy byproducts, especially whey. Most dairies and cheese plants treat these materials as waste products and simply dump them. But Cayuga exists to transform these would-be waste products into something useful. Whey comes to the distillery already in liquid form and already hot. There is no need for a traditional mashing process, dramatically reducing energy requirements.
At Cayuga, water is both an output and an input. Whey distillation ultimately produces three outputs: alcohol, spent yeast for animal feed, and water. The stripping still removes the water from the dairy solids. The facility captures this water, purifies it through nanofiltration and reverse osmosis, and turns it back into potable water that can be used for cleaning, storage, and cooling. Cayuga’s operations require around 20,000 gallons of water a day, but they function as a complete internal loop, minus a small amount of evaporation from the cooling towers. “We control these losses because we’re constantly getting new water every day from whey,” says chief operating officer Eduard Zaydman. “Our process does not have any waste whatsoever.”
Fermentation and Beyond
From day one, Copperworks decided to prioritize water conservation across all elements of the distillery’s operations. “As a brewer, I understood how much water is involved in the whole process,” Parker says. “Growing grain takes a lot of water. Malting grain takes a lot of water. Brewing takes a lot of water, and distilling takes a lot of water. Those were four areas where we thought we could make an impact.”
The equipment required to optimize fermentation is more expensive than recirculation systems for condensers. But that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Copperworks outsources all its fermentation to local breweries, tapping into their scale and efficiency without bearing up-front costs itself. “We automatically grandfathered into their water reduction efforts,” Parker says. “They’re big enough to earn return on investment.” The water reduction can be substantial: According to Parker, small breweries may use 20 or more gallons of water to make one gallon of beer. Larger breweries only use between nine and 12 gallons. Parker readily admits that this efficiency doesn’t come from anything Copperworks does itself. In fact, the water savings came from the decision not to do something in-house. “We’re very proud of being able to keep our footprint low because of our partnerships. I wish more distillers would do that,” he says.
Distilleries can also reduce water usage in smaller ways, such as optimizing boilers, capturing rainwater (where legal), or implementing cleaning-in-place (CIP) systems that simultaneously reduce water and cleaning chemical usage. But distilleries should evaluate all their priorities and determine where they can have the greatest impact — and how it fits into a company’s broader mission. At Nc’Nean, further investment in water reduction provides diminishing returns compared to other sustainability initiatives. “We’ve done almost as much as we can do in the water savings department,” Stammers says. “We will still tweak our methods and systems, but we put our focus into other areas like carbon and chemical reduction.”
Similarly, Cayuga’s highest priority is reducing carbon emissions by processing a waste product that is otherwise discarded. When whey breaks down, it emits carbon dioxide. By processing it into alcohol, the distillery keeps about 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. Its closed-loop water system is just a piece of its broader sustainability mission. “We are looking to be recognized as one of the most sustainable bulk alcohol producers,” Zaydman says.
Back to the Land
A distillery’s true water footprint extends beyond the distillery itself. Growing grain (or sugarcane, or agave, or anything else) requires water, too. These impacts, although they’re outside a distillery’s direct control, are part of its overall supply chain footprint. But reducing water usage upstream from production is inherently more difficult. “There are a lot of things you need to know from suppliers, and that information is sometimes very hard to get,” Stammers says. Nc’Nean has prioritized reducing the carbon footprint of its supply chain over its water footprint but aims to quantify and begin optimizing its supply chain water footprint by 2025.
Frey Ranch Distillery in Fallon, Nevada, doesn’t have a hard time getting detailed information from grain suppliers, because it only has one: itself. The estate distillery grows all its grain on-site, giving it unusual control over its water inputs. Like others, Frey Ranch recirculates water in the distillery itself. But co-founder and fifth-generation farmer Colby Frey sees this as just the beginning. How the farm grows its crops is just as important.
Some water sources are more sustainable than others. Nevada is the driest state in the United States, but the area around Frey Ranch, about 60 miles east of Reno, has substantial surface water and a deep aquifer. “We’re in the oasis of Nevada,” says Frey. Unlike many farms in dry areas, Frey Ranch irrigates its crops entirely with this surface water — not water pumped from the aquifer, which renews much more slowly than annual snowmelt. “Our water comes from a reservoir and flows through canals to get to us,” Frey explains. “We’re not pumping it.” Beyond being more renewable, this also saves substantially on energy. “A farm our size would spend several hundred thousand dollars a year in electricity to pump the water,” Frey says. And water that isn’t absorbed by crops just soaks downward, recharging the groundwater.
Reducing water use on farms can be quite technologically advanced. Frey Ranch uses specialized scraper tractors, guided by satellites, that make fields perfectly level — even accounting for the curvature of the Earth. On a perfectly level field, water flows perfectly evenly. It doesn’t pool or puddle. “If you don’t get rid of those uneven spots, the water doesn’t flow right and you need a lot more,” Frey explains. “Like a potted plant that has a hole in the bottom of it, you want that water to drain out rather than become stagnant.”
The distillery and farm also have synergies with each other. “The liquid that comes off our stills is really acidic,” Frey says. In some cities, that liquid would need to be diluted twenty-to-one with fresh water before pouring it down the drain. “We go through 4,000 gallons a day. In a city, we’d have to pump 80,000 gallons of water into it just to dump it down the drain. But instead, we put those 4,000 gallons into our irrigation system.” Far from being a waste product, the acidic liquid is actually beneficial for the fields and crops.
Most distilleries will never grow their own grain, but they can still work with farmers that use good practices. Copperworks buys barley directly from farms that optimize for water use and have Salmon Safe certifications. Some also pursue bioregenerative practices like no-till farming. Similarly, Copperworks works closely with regional malt houses like Skagit Valley Malting that malt using newer techniques that require substantially less water.
Supporting individual farmers and small maltsters helps them bring down costs over time. But it will always cost more than cheap commodity grain. “Commodity pricing is always a race to the bottom, and that includes farming practices that are very destructive,” Parker says. “The cost of doing things the right way is the antithesis to commodity market pricing. So you have to accept that you’re just not going to participate in that cycle.”
The first step in reducing water usage is making it a priority and allocating time and eventually money for the changes and equipment required. But it doesn’t all have to happen at once. Distilleries should plan larger changes over time and focus on big wins rather than just reducing usage on the margins. “So much water goes through condensers,” Stammers says. “That would be the first thing to look at for sure.”
The benefits of sustainable practices may not manifest immediately. But long-run impacts are just as real as short-term ones. Colby Frey’s family has been farming in the same area in northern Nevada since 1854, when Nevada was still a territory. That’s a century and a half of expertise and commitment to growing sustainably in their climate. That unbroken stretch cultivates a genuine sense of stewardship, one well worth emulating. Frey Ranch’s motto is “Be good to the land and the land will be good to you.” To Colby Frey, this is so fundamental that it almost doesn’t need to be said. “We think of it as common sense sustainability,” he says. “You take care of the soil, your natural resources, your water, your climate. Because if you don’t, you don’t have a future.”