October 25, 2013

Sustainable booze?

Just in case you ponder the effect of spirits on the environment, I have some interesting tidbits, thanks to Grist's Deena Shanker..

In their June 2012 Research on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits report, the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), the average 750-milliliter bottle of liquor produces about 6.3 pounds of CO2.

Yikes. Is that a reason to quit drinking? According to the BIER report (I love that acronym), distillation is the number one contributor to a spirit’s carbon footprint--more than a third of its emissions--because distillation. creates a lot of waste in the form of spent mash, wastewater, and liquor "goop" such as tequila’s pulp and rum’s fibrous leftovers.

But a number of distilleries are now following the lead of the beer industry and converting spent grain into livestock feed. Do you conjure up visions of happy smiling swine and swooning cows?

Wastewater can be recycled as well and grey water can return to the soil. Bacardi has used an anaerobic digester system since 1992 to turn 1.2 million gallons of still bottoms, unfermented molasses, and water into 7 million cubic meters of biogas, which is then used to distill more rum. That almost excuses them facing a 2001 EPA lawsuit when it was accused of violating the Clean Water Act with a 3,000-gallon discharge of industrial waste near the San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico. They settled in 2008 with a $550,000 fine and a $1 million land preservation donation.

Whiskey producers also find it easy to source their grain locally. Maker’s Mark claims that all its grains come from within a 30-mile radius. Most American sugarcane is grown in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii but growing sugarcane can be tough on the environment if soil erosion and water pollution are not mitigated.

On the other hand, tequila is never going to be locally sourced because international law requires that anything calling itself “tequila” be produced in certain areas of Mexico.

What about organic ingredients? Even if they can’t find certified organic ingredients, most small distillers prefer to steer clear of GMOs. So support your local small producer if possible.

Not surprisingly, 20 percent of a distillery’s carbon footprint comes from packaging. Everything from the bottles to the labels to the glue holding the two together and the boxes carrying them to the liquor store has an environmental impact. Some are turning to glass that is 25 percent lighter than average, 35 percent post-consumer waste cardboard, 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper labels, and even soy-based inks. Some are producing their own bottles instead of importing them. And SF Vodka goes the milkman route, trading empties for discounts on a bar or restaurant’s next round.

But buyer beware: If a company touts how “sustainable” or “green” its liquor is, look carefully. They may be green-washing their product.