Sustainability is increasingly important to consumers (and the environment), and many distilleries are actively prioritizing sustainability initiatives tailored to their local conditions. Victoria Distillers, located in Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, has pioneered a unique approach that has minimized its water and heat waste. The distillery, which opened in 2008, focuses primarily on gin, led by Victoria gin and the indigo-hued Empress 1908 gin, which the distillery created in collaboration with Victoria’s iconic Fairmont Empress hotel.
As they do at any distillery, the stills at Victoria Distillers generate a lot of heat. “When you’re distilling, you boil off all this alcohol and you recapture a lot of that energy from the alcohol vapor in the condenser,” says Victoria Distillers president and master distiller Peter Hunt. “You create a lot of hot water. When we first installed the still, that was essentially going down the drain.”
But when the distillery moved to a new location right on the Victoria waterfront in 2015, they saw their opportunity. The Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa next door, which has common ownership with the distillery, has a full geothermal system that heats and cools the hotel. “When we renovated our parking lot, we put pipes underneath it that went between the distillery and the basement of the hotel,” Hunt says. “We put the still on a closed loop of water that cycles within the distillery, and a heat exchanger takes all that energy and transfers it into the pipes that go into the hotel.” The energy feeds directly into the hotel’s geothermal system. “Now, we’re not putting any water down the drain at all. We have two 900 liter stills running every day, and for each distillation we’re saving 1,000 gallons of water and about 742,000 BTUs. All of that is transferred over to the hotel to heat the hotel rooms.”
Like many sustainable initiatives, the system took some work to set up, but now provides major benefits at very little cost. “The first month of tuning took a bit of work, but now it’s dead easy,” Hunt says. “It’s essentially just there when we need it. As soon as the still warms up to a boil and we need water to cool the condenser, the pumps flip on and start the circulation of water. And then the heat exchanger cools that water automatically and it flows over to the hotel. And over the last year, we’ve saved about 357,000 gallons of water and 264 million BTUs from going down the drain.”
Of course, most distilleries don’t have geothermally powered hotels next door. But that’s not really the point. Victoria Distillers saw a local situation that it could use to dramatically reduce its water usage and thermal waste, and took advantage of it. Other distilleries will have totally different opportunities, based on what’s around them. “The sustainable initiatives [you can pursue] really depend on your production process,” Hunt says. “But there are local organizations that can help you find those opportunities.” Victoria Distillers worked with several such organizations — including Vancouver Island Green Business, Climate Smart, and the Surfrider Foundation — as it designed its heating system and pursued other sustainable initiatives to minimize plastic waste in production and in the tasting room and minimize its emissions more generally.
For Hunt, the key to starting to build a sustainable business is leaning into what’s available to you. “You just have to search around and evaluate, as a business, what your biggest opportunities are for reduction in water use, energy use, fossil fuel use, whatever it happens to be.”