How green is my whisky?

How green is my whisky?

Though progress has been slow, some American distillers are doing all they can to minimise their environmental impact

Sustainability | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 178 | By Lincoln Chinnery

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Nearly two decades ago, former vice president of the United States Al Gore and film director Davis Guggenheim teamed up to make a documentary about climate change titled An Inconvenient Truth. Released in 2006, the film detailed what was happening to planet Earth as a result of the unchecked and barely regulated polluting by corporations and individuals. The documentary pointed out the planetary emergency we were (and still are) facing due to human-induced global warming, and it was a serious wake-up call to the world about the devastating effects of pollution and human-induced climate change. The film was adored by critics, yielded two Oscars (Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Score), and unintentionally provided a litany of material to late-night talk show hosts.
Getting back in touch with nature

One of the key areas focused on by the film was the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the Earth’s atmosphere and its role as a primary contributor to the rising levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs). These gases seal in the Earth’s heat, causing a spike in temperature that is melting the Arctic polar ice cap, which in turn is impacting global sea levels. Any sharp rise in the CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere and subsequent climate change will affect all areas of agriculture – particularly soil quality, water supply and seasonal temperatures – so is a threat to the very building blocks of whiskey: trees, grain and water.

“We have everything that we need to reduce carbon emissions, everything but political will. But in America, the will to act is a renewable resource,” said Mr Gore during the film’s conclusion. Fifteen years later, the documentary remains a call for change toward environmental protection and sustainability. Unfortunately, political and economic change of that magnitude moves at the same speed as oak grows.
Outside Frey Ranch Distillery

Fortunately, some key players in the spirits industry have the will. These US whiskey distilleries, both large and small, have imbued sustainability and regeneration practices throughout most (if not all) aspects of their production. What makes the world better and whiskey ‘greener’ is forging that will to change into action and making sure everyone employed, from the CEOs to the label makers, across the entire industry can be held accountable.

A distillery that practices land stewardship – that is to say, one that leaves the soil in which its crops are grown useable for future generations by reducing the use of fertilisers and pesticides – makes a commitment to the Earth’s future. This leads into soil regeneration – giving the earth a better chance at revitalising soil health by reducing the loss of topsoil and retaining more CO2 than is released.
Colby Frey at work on the ranch

When a distillery exercises responsible water usage with smart irrigation designs for improved use of local water sources and meticulously oversees wastewater by reducing fertiliser practices, those are steps in the right direction. Evaluating transportation burdens is another key part of the healing process. Buying local while using energy-friendly vehicles is a key to reducing a distillery’s carbon footprint. Another positive practice is circular material syncing – a fancy term for supplying local farmers with spent grains to feed livestock. This avoids contributing waste materials to landfills and provides a low-cost food supply to local cattle.

The terror facing planet Earth regarding climate change is beyond real. It is a several scores-old reality that just recently everyday people, politicians, the media, and corporations have started to acknowledge. Thankfully, there are impactful organisations that are willing to take the helm and guide the spirits industry toward a more sustainable future. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) is one of those groups. Formed in 1973 as a nationwide trade alliance representing producers and marketers of distilled spirits sold in the United States, DISCUS has crafted various eco-friendly policies and practices.

“The careful stewardship of the environment and natural resources is essential for the US distilled spirits industry, due to the very nature of our agriculturally based products,” argues Chris Swonger, president and CEO of DISCUS. He explains that DISCUS recently announced a joint venture with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to create energy-saving tools for distilleries. One aspect of these tools is an energy performance indicator (EPI): a benchmarking method which will allow distillers to pinpoint and communicate positive and negative energy spikes for cost saving strategies.

Another organisation helping whiskey distillers and the beverage industry as whole is the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER). It is a coalition of prominent global beverage companies working to improve environmental sustainability within the sector. Members include the American Beverage Association, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Constellation Brands, Diageo, and Pernod Ricard – think of BIER as the United Nations of bottled beverages.

The organisation uses its combined might to form practical global strategies to identify climate change solutions and relay energy efficiency guidelines to the beverage industry. It has compiled multiple physical briefs on the key risk points of climate change, including extreme weather, floods, sea level rise, and carbon pricing mechanisms.

BIER has also done extensive research detailing the carbon footprints of several different beverage categories, including spirits. Each white paper contains a highly detailed breakdown of the GHGs emitted during production.
Becky Harris with husband Scott at the bar at Catoctin Creek

The husband and wife team of Scott (founder and general manager) and Becky (president and chief distiller) Harris at Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcelville, Virginia, are firm believers in sustainability. Using organic ingredients and production procedures to minimise their whiskey’s impact on the local environment is a cornerstone value for the couple.
The Catoctin Creek still room

In keeping their farmers’ soil as pesticide free as possible they are limiting any dangerous runoff. It is part of a regenerative agriculture practice, keeping the soil healthy for the future by restricting the amount of destruction in the present day. Donating the remains of their rye mash to Oakland Green Farm, a local cattle farm founded in the 1730s, to avoid adding to the local landfill, is another step they take to prevent soil damage. Recycling all their used glass and paper is one more commonsense step they’ve adopted. In summary, Scott and Becky are interested owners who are accountable for all the eco-friendly practices Catoctin engages in.

The couple invested in renewable energy back in 2013 by putting solar panels on a Prohibition-era structure they acquired. A 44,000-watt array on the roof generates roughly 80 per cent of their energy needs. Whatever energy they don’t use at the distillery is utilised to power the electric vehicles at the plant. They are part of a growing number of distilleries that realises the future of energy lies in renewable sources, be it solar or wind.

The Frey Ranch Distillery (FRD) in Northern Nevada is run by another couple, Colby (CEO, co-founder, and ‘whiskey farmer’) and Ashley (co-founder) Frey. Colby, as a fifth-generation farmer, lays out FRD’s goals towards sustainability with a simple but impactful thought: “Farmers are sustainable by nature.”

The Freys and their team are all about saving the future of farming by utilising the natural resources to the best of their ability in the here and now. Colby calls it ‘common sense sustainability.’ The Frey Ranch Distillery borders a dairy farm where they, like Catoctin Creek, also donate their spent grain as feed to the cows. Indeed, it’s a commonsense practice done by distillers all over. However, this is where the circular material syncing, and a bit of land stewarding, comes into play:
the spent grain feeds the cows next door, the cows produce manure, and the team at FRD then spreads the manure on the fields.
Becky inspecting the rye field

According to the Freys, cow manure is the best natural fertiliser a farmer could ask for – nutrient rich and 100 per cent natural, it’s a plant’s dream food. This removes the need for (and nasty side effects of) commercially produced fertiliser. Typically, fertiliser is bought and brought from Europe or Asia. That takes a tremendous amount of fuel and resources to deliver to the US. Eliminating that financial and ecological expenditure shrinks the Frey Ranch’s carbon footprint, as well as saving them money.
Colby Frey of Frey Ranch Distillery

DISCUS is an invaluable source of information about how today’s distilleries and producers are working towards sustainability. Each spirit producer rises to the challenge of climate change in their own way. It is a point that gets lost in the haze of fighting climate change: looking out for the future of land and maintaining a profitable business is a balancing act not many can do without fail. All agree, however, that it is a fight for the future – a fight we all have a stake in.
A golden opportunity to help the planet

Brown-Forman, one of the largest American-owned spirits producers, has set sustainability and regeneration goals at 10-year intervals starting back in 2010. Its work towards switching to more eco-friendly fuels and energy-efficient practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has helped the company come close to its target goal of a 15 per cent decrease in GHG. The only stumbling blocks in the pursuit of this goal were the acquisition of new international operations and overall growth in the industry.

In response, Brown-Forman made a major investment in renewable power in 2018 to put itself back on track. By joining forces with the Solomon Forks Wind Project in Kansas to produce 30 megawatts of power annually, Brown-Forman became the first US wine and spirits producer to enter the renewable energy business. This relationship will provide the distiller with roughly 90 per cent of its yearly electricity needs, thereby reducing its output of greenhouse gases.

One of Woodford Reserve’s contributions to the climate change fight is its commitment to reducing GHG by growing rye in Kentucky rather than shipping it from Canada. It is a domestic and international reduction of transportation burdens that will bring its total emissions down by 6.2 per cent per pot still. Another of Woodford’s sustainability contributions is its work with the Dendri Fund, which has soil regenerative priorities based on wood, grain, and water. Each priority promotes a healthy ecosystem for regional economic and environmental improvement.

Elsewhere, Maker’s Mark established a 33-acre natural water sanctuary on its property to protect the supply for years to come. It is a two-tiered defence – land stewardship and responsible water use that will provide safe and consistent groundwater to the facility and the surrounding forest. Meanwhile, a decision taken at Koval Distillery in Chicago, Illinois, to source all its grains from local, organic Midwestern farms eased the transportation burden, cut GHG emissions and put money back into the local economy.
Ashley and Colby Frey inspect their corn

By investing in six solar arrays, Appalachian Gap Distillery (AGD) in Middlebury, Vermont, was able to reduce its carbon footprint and energy dependency to the point where energy credits can now be passed on to employees. It’s a clean energy programme that benefits everyone from the CEO to the custodial engineer. AGD also practises circular material syncing and has a next-level wastewater reduction programme that ensures oxygen-poor pollutants are not being fed into the waste stream.

The phrase ‘things are bigger in Texas’ plays into the energy reduction practices at Acre Distillery, Fort Worth. In 2020 the team there installed 320 solar panels that generate 115 per cent of the distillery’s energy requirements, building on the dramatic global reduction in fossil fuel pollution one sunrise at a time. Part of the distillery’s waste reduction plan is a reusable bottle programme allowing customers to get discounts when bottles are returned – contributing less waste to the nearby landfill.

How each distiller will handle the coming ecological changes is something that no one person or organisation can predict. The ongoing loss of wooden acreage to fire and floods is an environmental and ecological disaster that should make every whiskey lover and barrel nerd shake in their boots. It must be a call to action for whiskey makers and drinkers alike to do all they can to protect Earth and save it from a very final last call.
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