Sustainability in Spirits

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Sustainable can be applied to everything from packaging to production methods to transport and the raw ingredients used to create a spirit in the first place. With no hard and fast definition of the term, it is helpful to look at the possibilities behind a brand’s claim to sustainability.

An average bottle of 750ml distilled spirit costs around 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s the same as driving roughly six miles in a Land Rover. This comes from the distillation and packaging process, where glass is by far the most common container.

Waste water accounts for a good deal of distilled alcohol’s sustainability issues. A litre of alcohol will take 15 litres of water to produce. The process renders this water toxic and expensive to treat, but as we’ll see, there are some exciting methods for reducing, re-using or cleaning this water.

Finding ways to reduce carbon and waste water creation are big hitters when it comes to sustainability in spirits. Some producers that have started to work towards these aims include Ambhar Tequila, which uses an innovative rainwater irrigation system to produce low impact alcohol.

While Ambhar Tequila and other independent brands may be draws to the most discerning of Scotland’s tequila drinkers, the good news is that established global brands including Amber Beverages – who also own The Fabrica de Tequilas Finos brand – are also committed to sustainability.In 2019 Fabrica de Tequilas Finos was awarded Green certification by the Jalisco State Government for Environmental commitment (see the following feature).

Diageo too have committed to reducing water in the production of spirits by 2030. This means even market leaders like Johnnie Walker will be a sustainable choice for the consumer.  They have also committed to improving positive drinking and diversity through its Society 2030: Spirit of Progress plan. One aspect of this plan is their adherence to ‘Water Stewardship’, meaning that they will replenish water used in the creation of spirits with drinkable water, assist in water retention in water-stressed areas, and work with local farmers and small-holders to use the resource efficiently.

Chivas Brothers is another globally recognised brand that has committed to making serious change. Their ‘Good Times from a Good Place’ strategy also has 2030 as a goal for reducing carbon by 50%. In the more immediate future, they intend to use 100% sustainably sourced packaging by 2022.

Packaging is a big hitter when it comes to potential for sustainability in spirits. Some brands are opting to eschew the traditional glass bottle in favour of more creative options. These include paper, polymer, and even recyclable eco-pouches.

The Sustainable Spirit Co. is the only company to offer a re-fill service of sprits in these pouches. By selling vodka, rum and gin in these 2.8-litre bags, they claim to reduce packaging by 95% and save on transported weight and volume, by 45% and 63% respectively.

The company states that by re-using one of their glass bottles, which is a one-time purchase, the eco-pouches save on 100% of the energy and carbon cost of producing new bottles. This might be a little disingenuous as it doesn’t take the production of its specialist eco-pouches into account, especially as they have plastic spouts.

Green Man Woodland Gin was the first spirit to be sold in a paper bottle. Silent Pool Distillers, the creators of the gin, say their product saves six times the carbon created by transportation of glass bottles as it weighs so much less. By including up to 94% recycled paper, the packaging is certainly an innovative solution.

The sustainability concerns regarding glass are more complex, as glass is one of very few highly recyclable materials. Virgin or new glass is a high-carbon endeavour, creating waste water and pouring emissions into the atmosphere. Additionally, glass takes one million years to biodegrade, as opposed to plastic, which takes around 400 (though leaches microplastics into the sea and the food chain).

The good news is that glass bottles can be recycled without end. The recycling process also uses 40% less energy to produce bottles. Recycled glass bottles are truly a sustainable packaging choice.

Another way to cut down on carbon cost is by sourcing locally produced spirits. The fewer miles a product needs to travel to get to your restaurant or bar, the more sustainable it is, on average. Scotland comes out very well in this instance as we have some of the most incredible, delicious, and innovative spirits on offer in the whole world. Some Scottish brands are leading the way in creating sustainable spirits.

Around a third of edible food is wasted every year globally, with the UK accounting for around 10 million tonnes of waste. Some forward-thinking spirits producers are utilising this food waste and repurposing it into delicious drinks. Discarded Spirits Co. are a good example of this practice, using discarded banana peel to flavour rum, cascara berries (the fruit that contains valuable coffee beans) in vermouth, and grape peel and seeds in vodka. Combined with spirits leftover from seasoning casks, or dealcoholizing wine, Discarded creates beauty from what would usually be thrown away.

Arbikie, near Arbroath, also has an unusual approach to the food products that go into its spirits. Dreamed up by three brothers, their family farm has been given over to growing crops specifically for their spirits, including potatoes for vodka and peas for gin. Food waste leftover at the end of the process is fed to cattle where possible.

Nc’nean, distilled on the beautiful Drimnin Estate on the Morvern Peninsula, is an incredible example of just what can be done with attention to detail. The whisky produced is completely organic, packaged in a 100% recycled clear glass bottle, made with 100% renewable energy, and is certified carbon neutral. Waste water is cooled in a natural pool and re-used time after time, so even the hefty water bill of spirit production is negated. The woman-owned company is fighting climate change at every step of the process — and the whisky is world-class.

While Nc’nean is a great example of the possibilities, many brands opt for an easy way out by pledging to offset their carbon emissions. Sadly, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and ProPublica say offsetting doesn’t work in practice.

Offsetting must be undertaken in addition to any work that was already scheduled, and this accounts for just 2% of trees planted worldwide. It simply isn’t a viable option for increasing sustainability — it’s something we should all be striving for, constantly, regardless, in this century’s climate emergency.

One thing that the industry might want to consider is just how much of this cycle the consumer is thinking about. As the world moves toward sustainable options, it stands to reason that more and more distillers will opt for these sustainable methods of saving water, cutting carbon emissions, and even using creative packaging. But, as far as the average customer is concerned, the high price point of sustainably-focussed independent spirits might be something that puts them off.

Adhering to the local connection may be one way to get ahead of the sustainability curve in a proactive and cost-effective way. One thing is for sure: sustainability is a buzzword that is here to stay.

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