Over the last few years, going green has become one of the biggest trends in the drinks world—and we’re not talking about chartreuse. As climate change continues to threaten the planet, spirits brands are making conscious efforts to reduce their waste, swap in alternative energy sources, and smarten up the sourcing of their raw materials.
But what makes a brand truly sustainable?
“Sustainability is a holistic idea which covers every part of a brand from production to packaging, freight, and marketing,” explains spirit expert Jon Gray, the co-founder of the Bartender's Benevolent Fund founder of Drink Tank. “But it also covers the human aspect; fair pay and workplace safety.”
Tim Etherington-Judge, a former national brand ambassador at Diageo and now-founder of Avallen believes, “Alcohol starts its life in orchards, fields, farms, so sustainability has to start there. If you're not addressing the impact your raw material is having on biodiversity loss, carbon emissions through soil tillage, or fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers, then anything you do at the distillery is messing around the edges.”
Achieving this sustainability isn’t an easy feat. “Spirits production starts with a huge hill to climb in terms of sustainability,” explains Gray. “Each 750mL bottle of spirit costs about 6.5 pounds of carbon. Distilleries are highly water-intensive; around 15 liters of waste material are produced per liter of alcohol.”
And different categories face their own unique hurdles. With tequila production, for instance, agave fibers take 15 years to decompose after distillation. Faced with these challenges, brands are getting creative.
“Some distilleries have developed methods to convert this waste into field fertilizer in just four months—Tequila Cazadores has achieved carbon neutrality by using the dried fibers of spent agave to power parts of the distillery. Any remaining fibers are turned into fertilizer and put back into the agave fields.”
How to Spot Greenwashing
While more and more brands are adopting green distilling practices, not all are done equally. Etherington-Judge says the industry has largely “been co-opted by greenwashers looking to jump on a trend.”
Greenwashing is inherently tricky to spot. Many major brands are loud about bare-minimum sustainable practices—like donating to earth-conscious causes or using locally-grown raw materials—to distract from other spotty business practices.
“A whiskey brand who's excited to talk about the fact that its corn is organic cannot omit the fact that it ships its bottles from mainland China to cut costs,” points out Gray.
“People have the misconception that true sustainability is just about what happens at the distillery or in headline-grabbing innovations,” continues Etherington-Judge. “Limited edition paper bottles won't make a dent in CO2 emissions just like banning plastic straws won't change the vast quantities of plastic in our oceans.”
“Brands love to focus on and romanticize a story and their base ingredients—think abundant fields of wheat for vodka brands or rolling hills of agave with tequila—but their whole production method should be in line with this ethos,” Gray explains. “If a brand is going to talk about sustainability, every element of its production should be sustainable."
So how do you tell if a brand truly practices what it preaches? Gray recommends looking for brands that are happy to talk about the nitty-gritty details of sustainability, even less appealing topics like waste management.
Holistically sustainable brands extend efforts to supporting employees. “Being sustainable is about more than just initiatives, it’s about culture," he adds. "If a company wants to build profit in harmony with our planet, and many companies have shown this is perfectly possible, then it has to be embedded into the very fiber of the company.”
To put more green in your glass, we’ve laid out some of our favorite sustainable brands below.
To make Avallen, Etherington-Judge and co-founder Stephanie Jordan aimed to find the most environmentally-friendly raw materials to make the most planet-positive spirit possible.
The answer? Apples.
Avallen is born from apples raised in biodynamic orchards in Normandy and turned into fresh, vibrant Calvados. Not only do these apples make a very solid Calvados but the brand practices sustainability across all touchpoints, from shipping plastic-free to supporting and restoring bee habitats. $47
Novo Fogo Cachaça
“Novo Fogo cachaca is produced in a carbon-negative, zero-waste distillery in the Brazilian rainforest and supports reforestation efforts in the region,” says Gray.
The building sits on a slope, allowing the liquid to flow naturally through the distillation process, and a heat transfer process keeps energy use to a minimum. The brand has invested heavily in Brazilian reforestation efforts to preserve and restore the native trees that surround the 100% organic distillery. (Not to mention it makes a very solid caipirinha.) $32
“While people often perceive small-batch, craft brands to be more sustainable—and accept the price tag that goes along with that— sustainability is demonstrated equally in high-volume brands,” Gray notes. “Patron has long standing relationships with select agave farmers, a replicated small batch production system, and a world class waste management system, while offering local residents an opportunity for flexible work in hand labeling their bottles.” $49
Good Vodka is the brainchild of former bartender Tristan Willey and ex-GQ editor Mark Byrne.
The duo worked with the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia) to buy ripe, discarded coffee fruit from farms all over South America, compensating farmers for their fruit waste. The waste is concentrated then turned into vodka in upstate New York. The resulting liquid is unbelievably flavorful, plus every bottle purchased carbon offsets the equivalent of a gasoline-powered car driving 40 miles. $35
Marble Distillery Espresso Liqueur
Nestled into a Colorado mountain range, Marble Distillery turns out stand-up vodkas and whiskeys, but keep an eye out for their out-of-the-box liqueurs, including a ginger-based limoncello and a coffee liqueur made with locally-roasted coffee beans. All of this is made with no waste; they recapture all process water and reuse the energy harvested to heat their facility and power the distillation process. $26
Don Q Gran Reserva Anejo
When sixth-generation rum maker Roberto Serrallés stepped into his role as leader of the distillery, he also set out on a mission to make a more meaningful impact at the famed Puerto Rican distillery. So he went back to school, attending the University of Oregon to earn his Ph.D. in environmental science.
Now, Don Q boasts an innovative wastewater management and reclamation system that supports a healthy ocean ecosystem. The distillery hopes gunning to be completely closed loop in the near future. $54
Bently Heritage Source One Vodka
Folks here spent five years redesigning the 100-year-old mill and creamery buildings to the highest standards of environmental responsibility, preserving the historic building and implementing intensive waste management plans to divert or recycled all construction waste in the process.
To craft their spirits, the distillery uses a condensate recovery system to save thermal energy and reduce water consumption.
Sustainability aside, Bently Heritage crafts a lovely single estate vodka, made with a blend of wheat and oat farmed directly from their ranch and water fed by Nevada mountain snow melt. $32
Frey Ranch Bourbon
Frey Ranch does things old school; owner Colby Frey’s family has been tending to the land for over 165 years. He maintains this heritage by sourcing everything the grain-to-glass farm distillery makes from the land; growing corn, oats, barley, and rye to limit transportation-related emissions. Lots of good stuff comes out of this camp, from quirky absinthe to velvety bourbons. $57
Jack Rabbit Hill Farm’s CapRock Spirits
All of Jack Rabbit Hill’s ciders, gins, vodkas, and wines are born on the farm's 70 acres of land and grown using holistic regenerative and biodynamic farming practices. Take their CapRock vodka for instance —it's made with Chambourcin grapes and organic winter wheat while the gin is made with locally-grown apples.
If you empty one of their bottles, bring it back to the distillery; they are happy to refill and reuse—they have an extensive bottle reuse program where bars and restaurants can return their empties to be refilled. $30
Air Co Vodka
Carbon-negative Air Vodka is only made with two ingredients: carbon dioxide (CO2) and water—no grains, no potatoes, no flavoring. The elegant sipping spirit is born from a patented distillation system powered by renewable solar energy. For every bottle produced, a pound of greenhouse gas is removed from the air. $74