These Drinks Might Not Save Your Liver, But They're Trying to Save the Planet
When your resolution to stop drinking ends by happenstance two weeks after New Year’s, and you just say “Screw it” at the next grocery store trip and reach for a bottle—we understand. Some resolutions can be tough, so how about something easier this year? We suggest that, if you’re going to drink, look for certain types of alcohol and booze brands that aren’t roughing up the environment. Here’s a look at the main ingredients in your favorite spirits and some recommendations for sustainable, eco-friendly distilleries.
Vodkas can be made up of a huge variety of different crops. Winter wheat is a popular one, with both Absolut and Kettle One using the crop (Kettle One says it uses GMO-free wheat). Potatoes are also popular—like Luksusowa—as is corn—like Tito’s—which paid a $50,000 fine in 2010 for dumping production waste into a creek.
With so many different base ingredients for vodka, it’s best to look at how a company obtains its crop. Is it from a local farm, or is it imported from massive fields with tons of fertilizer? Are the ingredients fair trade? A company that employs sustainable practices will most likely put it somewhere on their website, and if it’s organic they’ll have the USDA organic seal of approval. While we can’t review every vodka in the world, we can recommend a few:
Fair: Fair, a brand from the Paris-based company Ethical Wine and Spirits, offers a wide range of fair-trade certified spirits from rum to liqueurs. Their vodka is made from quinoa (it’s a super-booze!) produced by 1,200 independent Bolivian farmers living in the Andes and is distilled in France.
Prairie Organic Spirits: Prairie’s parent company, Phillips Distilling, works with co-op corn farmers in Minnesota and does everything organically—even going so far as to use a 25-foot buffer crop to prevent any chemicals from leaking into the soil from neighboring farms. Rather than use herbicides, the farmers rely on birds and bats to snatch up insects.
Vodka 14: A craft vodka from Altitude Spirits in Boulder, Colorado, this vodka preceded the now fashionable market of organic liquor when it launched in 2005. All of the grain it uses is certified organic.
Rum’s primary ingredient is molasses derived from sugarcane, and sugarcane farming is the source of numerous problems. It’s one of the most common source of goods produced by child or forced labor in a number of countries, according to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. A Vice article uncovered serious health concerns in a Nicaraguan town, where three or four citizens die each day, a tragedy linked to working conditions for sugarcane farming and work conditions at the town’s Flor de Caña rum factory.
Harvesting sugarcane is back-breaking work, and workers without proper protections are given no shade and little water, which can cause fatal kidney diseases. After the scandal broke, Flor de Caña had their rum Fair Trade Certified in 2018. It only took thousands of deaths!
So it’s important to pick a rum whose company protects it workers. Here are a few recommendations:
Montanya Rum: Montanya Distillers, based in Crested Butte, Colorado, sources its sugarcane from a family-owned mill in Louisiana. The sugarcane is non-GMO, their distillery is powered by wind energy, and the distillery is serious about offsetting its carbon footprint.
Crusoe Rum: Greenbar Distillery is located in Los Angeles and sources its molasses from Florida. Its line is all organic, the bottles use less glass, the labels are biodegradable, and for every bottle sold the company plants a tree. Since 2018, they’ve planted over 750,000 new trees.
Novo Fogo: It’s not exactly rum, but Cachaça is also made from sugarcane—think of it as rum’s cousin. The Novo Fogo distillery is located in Brazil’s coastal rainforest, and it’s dedicated to not upsetting its surroundings. The alcohol is USDA organic certified and Novo Fogo clearly cares about its employees—they have their sugarcane farmer’s team leader and several other workers featured on their website.
While bourbon is primarily made from corn, its real lifeblood is wood. Bourbon needs to be aged in new, charred oak barrels, which requires logging. The aging process is arguably the most important, and possibly one of the least sustainable, aspects of bourbon creation; however, these barrels are later sold around the world to tequila, beer, rum, whiskey and scotch distilleries, and even to food manufacturers. They’re in high demand, so waste isn’t much of a problem and some distilleries will barrel age their liquor for decades.
When you’re feeling the need for some good old ‘Murican bourbon whisky, there are a few distilleries doing what they can to make their products more sustainable.
Angel’s Envy: This Louisville, Kentucky-based distillery has an annual “Toast the Trees” event, and planted 12,000 trees in 2018. According to their production manager, they bought around 16,000 barrels, which would require about 8,000 trees, meaning they put 4,000 more trees in the ground than they took away.
Koval: Koval is a Chicago-based distillery producing organic and kosher spirits with a “grain-to-bottle mentality” working with local organic farmers. They produce a number of whiskeys, gin, and offer a bourbon variety, too.
Woodford Reserve: This bourbon maker in Woodford Country, Kentucky, is partnered with The Nature Conservancy and makes efforts to safeguard the local environment, like building gardens for butterflies and planting trees. Their parent company, Brown-Forman, also employs sustainable practices, like using traditional ovens to save energy and water.
Tequila and Mescal
Tequila and mescal are facing some problems. Agave, which is native to Mexico, is the main ingredient in both these liquors, and agave farming is a staple occupation in that country—but Mexico’s new generation would rather work elsewhere than in agriculture. Additionally, the agave plants need at least five years to reach maturity (some take up to 30 years), and there is currently an agave crisis from over-harvesting—it’s predicated the plant will face a mass shortage through at least 2021.
To combat this, some businesses in California are trying to engineer their own agave, like Drylands Farming Company. Another is St. George Spirits, which is currently working to grow and produce California-made agave and tequila–but the tequila won’t be on shelves anytime soon. So what can we enjoy instead?
Patron: Everyone knows Patron, but did you know it’s a big believer in sustainability? Leftover compost is returned to agave farmers to grow new succulents—they even went the extra mile to convince farmers that it would work for their crops. The company reuses clean water from the production process for its cooling towers and for cleaning and was the first tequila distillery to install a natural gas pipeline for its main source of energy.
Tequila Ocho: Did you know that bats rely on agave plants, and vice versa? Bats pollinate the succulent, but only when it flowers after maturing—the problem is, when the agave plant flowers, it dies. So, there’s little incentive for farmers to keep the plants around for the bats. Ocho launched a bat-friendly program that devotes around five percent of its agave plants to reach flowering status and feed our leathery-winged friends.
Sombra Mezcal: Sombra donates at least 1 percent of its sales to environmental charities and educational initiatives in Oaxaca, Mexico. They collect and use rainwater, source their wood-burning ovens from certified forests, use solar panels, and upcycle agave byproducts into adobe bricks for the locals.
Other things to keep in mind
Creating alcohol in general isn’t an environmentally friendly practice. According to a 2012 report by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, the average 750mL glass bottle of North American whiskey produced by column distillation leaves a carbon footprint of 2,745 grams on average. That’s like a floating, six-pound dumbbell of CO2 dissipating into the atmosphere for a single, normal-sized bottle of alcohol. Much of that carbon footprint (36 percent) comes from the heat-and-energy intensive distillation process, which every hard alcohol requires.
Beer, too, is pretty carbon-intensive: a Climate Conservancy report in cooperation with New Belgium Company estimates the entire process of getting a six-pack of bottles sold at retail, from start to finish, emits 3,188.8 grams of carbon—however, that includes 829.8 grams of carbon emissions incurred when the sixer is sitting inside a retailer’s fridge (Remove the fridge time and the six pack’s foot print is 2,359 grams.).
Of course, most of the things we buy aren’t eco-friendly, from smart phones to hamburgers and soy patties. But there’s often a more earth-friendly choice when you’re browsing the booze isles. Look for these things for a reduced carbon footprint:
Buy local. Local distillers have reduced transportation time (which means burning less fuel) and are more likely to use locally sourced ingredients.
Don’t buy bottles that are frosted glass—they can’t be recycled.
So take a shot, help plant a tree and drink plenty of water—there’s nothing worse than an unsustainable hangover.