Spirits — alcohol — are incredibly eco-unfriendly and wasteful to produce, but the industry is stepping up to meet the challenge of creating environmentally sustainable spirits
Drink like you give a fuck.
— The Trash Collective (formerly, Trash Tiki blog.)
When most people think about cocktails, spirits, and bartending in general, they probably don’t realize that sustainability is a growing concern for the industry. For example, did you know that 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky, and 1.7 million oak barrels were produced there in 2017 alone, according to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association? (For bourbon to be labelled and sold as ‘bourbon’, it must be aged in new charred oak — and each barrel must be freshly made for this purpose.) That’s a LOT of trees in a world bereft of its trees! Additionally, growing the corn and other grains, as well as the other resources and processes used to create spirits are very wasteful, too. Can alcohol and its ingredients be produced without harming the environment? Who are eco-conscious alcohol producers? How can we, as consumers, support these efforts?
To answer these questions and much more, Shanna Farrell, an oral historian and interviewer at University of California, Berkeley’s Oral History Center who specializes in cultural and environmental history, went looking for answers. She shares her physical and intellectual journey with us in her informative book, A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits (Island Press; 2021: Amazon US / Amazon UK), by sharing the stories of some of the people she interviewed who grow the agricultural products for making the spirits, who produce the liquor, and who mix the cocktails.
In addition to being an oral historian, Ms Farrell is also a bartender who lives in San Francisco where she is surrounded by farm-to-table restaurants and high-end bars, so naturally, she wondered why eco-consciousness associated with agricultural products doesn’t also generally apply to alcohol. This is because most people don’t think of spirits as food. But whether we’re sipping rum, brandy, whiskey, or tequila, most liquor is distilled from the same agricultural crops that end up on our dinner plates. Most of these crops are grown with pesticides and other chemicals that pollute nearby watersheds, and the distilling process itself consumes huge volumes of water. And bars are notorious for generating mountains of trash. Although the good drink movement is far behind the good food movement, it is building up steam, and this wonderfully readable book is certain to help.
Ms Farrell spent a lot of time talking with people about their farming practices and how to capture the essence of the ingredients in a bottle. She talks to the people who grow the pears that end up in bottles of brandy and tells us where that unnatural shade of red in our cocktails comes from. On her grand tour of the spirits industry, she investigates the agricultural products they are made from — products that are also an integral part of the food system. We hear from distillers small and large who have introduced sustainability measures into their alcohol production processes, such as the water and energy-saving measures initiated by the mid-sized Leopold Brothers distillers to the forest management practices embraced by the comparatively large Maker’s Mark distillers. On one hand, these distillers know they could be doing much more to lighten their impact on the environment but at the same time, they must balance those issues with the practical responsibility to sell their products at reasonable prices.
The book also includes a lot of history.
“The book tells the story of the people who make, or made, each spirit, and this includes enslaved people”, Ms Farrell said in an online interview. She noted in her book that in the past, many white distillers unjustly claimed credit for enslaved people’s knowledge of making alcohol.
“The spirits industry wouldn’t exist without them”, Ms Farrell continued, “and it is crucial that their contributions be recognized, as well as the systems of power, such as colonialism, that impact their place on the global stage.”
This book is not a comprehensive investigation into sustainability in the spirits industry, but it is an eye-opening collection of case histories that highlight sustainability in the spirits industry from a variety of viewpoints. In one particularly thought-provoking chapter, the author chats with mezcaleros in Guadalajara who are working to preserve their traditional ways of producing mezcal, which is a process that safeguards the health of their land, the incomes of the local farmers, and the culture of their community. In another chapter, the author visits a distiller in South Carolina who helped a nearby farmer resurrect a variety of garnet-red heirloom corn from near extinction to make one of the most sought-after bourbons in the world. (I was very surprised that Ms Farrell repeatedly referred to this corn as ‘Johnny red corn’ whereas a Google search reveals it is known as ‘Jimmy red corn’.)
This approachable and delightfully written book is an informative way to better understand agricultural and environmental issues and how our choices in spirits can have powerful, although often unseen, effects on the ecosystem. And unexpectedly (for me), A Good Drink is an inspirational collection of the many contributions by many thousands of people in this industry who are serious about sustainability and about protecting the future of our planet.
NOTE: This piece is © Copyright by GrrlScientist. Unless otherwise stated, all material hosted by Forbes on this Forbes website is © copyright GrrlScientist. No individual or entity is permitted to copy, publish, commercially use or to claim authorship of any information contained on this Forbes website without the express written permission of GrrlScientist.