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After a long week at work, it's nice to treat yourself to your favourite bev - but not at the cost of the earth. Many beer and wine brands have taken great leaps in reducing their impact, ditching plastic, introducing more natural ingredients, and improving production practices to lighten their load, but how many of us have considered the sustainability of our favourite spirit?
Spirits have been distilled since as early as 800 BCE, with fermentation at the heart of production; a naturally occurring process where organic materials containing carbohydrates and yeast decompose. To create a spirit, the concentration of ethyl alcohol is then increased and purified by the infamous process of distillation.
The main, and sometimes only, components in producing a spirit are water and some kind of grain (or a mixture of a few grains) such as wheat, corn, malt, or potatoes. The ingredients are then heated within a vessel into fermentation and the rising vapour is liquified and extracted as alcohol.
The actual distillation process is the number one contributor to a spirit's carbon footprint, according to BIER (1), accounting for more than a third of emissions. Not only does it require a lot of energy to power the process, but it also creates a lot of waste with all that leftover mashed grain (spent mash), waste-water, and liquified goop such as tequila's acidic pulp.
Early in history, the production size of spirits was small and limited, that was until the boom of the industrial revolution came and large factories swooped in to take over. And as the world of spirit production grew, so did its impact on the planet; generating tonnes of waste and not using renewable energy - leaving spirit producers with a big responsibility on their hands.
Fortunately, the world of spirits continues to evolve with sustainability now an increasingly important factor for many brands who're seeking to better their production methods.
The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) identifies a couple of key areas for making alcohol sustainably: recycling and repurposing waste products, eliminating single-use plastics from the supply chain, and ensuring the entire production process is energy efficient. And while local production also helps to reduce a spirit's carbon footprint, it's a few of the international brands that are leading my example within key areas of spirit production.
Here's a few questions (not exhaustive!) that were tested against the brands we reviewed and that you can use in your pre-purchase checklist too:
Energy: Is their distillery using or transitioning into renewable green energy?
Emissions: Are they making an effort to reduce their carbon footprint or even better, become carbon neutral? Many companies achieve this through renewable energies and funding reforestation projects.
Waste: Where's all that waste going? There are so many opportunities to reuse waste in a creative way!
Packaging: What effort are they making towards making their packaging more environmentally friendly? Does it utilise recycled materials*?
Here's a few we've found from around the world leading the way in sustainability practices:
- Have a 'zero to landfill' motto, sending the majority of their brewery and distillery waste to either feed cattle or to an anaerobic digester where it's transformed into energy. They also glass or 90% recycled aluminium for packaging and work with suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint every year - their carbon emissions are down by 48% since 2008 - on their way!
- The Absolut distillery is carbon neutral certified, and one of the most energy-efficient in the world (2). Their 1% waste to landfill policy is made possible by creatively reusing waste, such as 'stillage'. This protein-rich bi-product from wheat-based vodka distillation is used to feed 290,000 pigs and cows at neighbouring farms in Ahus, Sweden, every day. Here in Australia, Absolut are now championing reusing waste in creative ways working with local artists and makers to inspire people to reuse more and waste less!
- This gin is produced in small batches only and the producers are committed to a plastic policy that actively avoids single use-plastics. They source recyclable and sustainable materials including glass bottles and 100% recycled boxes. Their most recent project sees them upcycling leftover sloe berries by collaborating with restaurants and bars to create unique menu offerings. And as its name suggests, with every full size bottle sold, Elephant Gin contributes 15% of profits to elephant conservation charities.
- Patron is focused on reducing their waste; developing a water treatment system that reclaims clean water from the production process, which is reused for cleaning. And with the leftover agave fibre waste, they transform it into 5,500 tonnes of fertiliser compost! They've also installed a natural gas pipeline as a main energy source which helps in reducing carbon emissions and is a first within the tequila industry.
So whether you're a whiskey on-the-rocks or a vodka martini type, be sure to lift the lid on your fave spirit and see what's beneath, and if possible, choose the more sustainable option.
*Because of limitations in the technical process using recycled clear glass material due to impurities, the recycled content can never be as high as what you'll see in brown or green glass, which can be as high as 100% recycled content. As with many factors in the world of sustainability,it's complicated. So we must continue to reuse and recycle as much as we can, to limit the use of natural resources and impact on the planet, while we support brands, businesses and industries to improve their practices and advocate for the government to implement policies to support.
(1) 2012 BIER Research on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits report by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable
(2) 2016 BIER Water and Energy Use Benchmarking Report