Climate-Friendly Spirits Production Is Possible. These Distilleries Are Demonstrating How

On a spring day, cofounders Lars Hubbard and Chuck Burkins were showing off Vermont’s Appalachian Gap Distillery. Next to the stills stood tanks clad with what looked like cake frosting. They were the closed-circuit system for the chill water that cools the distillate. 

“A traditional Kentucky distillery would pull cold water out of a river,” says Hubbard. “We’re using the same water we have since we started. It’s super insulated, so we get it down to about 34 degrees and keep it there.” 

The chiller, like the rest of the building, is run on electricity from their solar array. In winter, a “free air chiller” kicks in, pulling the cold air from outside. The chill water’s counterpart—steam for vaporizing the mash—is produced, in part, using the distillery’s spent grain and stillage. The waste is shipped to a biogas plant in South Burlington that converts it to renewable energy, which then supplies the distillery. “We output less waste than a standard residential home,” says Hubbard.  

In the store room reflective pipes with translucent, weatherproof caps are bored into the roof to let in concentrated daylight. “There are no lights on in here,” says Burkins, gesturing to the roof. “It’s illuminated by sun tubes.” Then there are the things that aren’t visible: 24 inches of dense-packed cellulose in the ceiling, thermal paint-coated windows. All of it is why, in 2020, Climate Neutral certified Appalachian Gap as the nation’s first carbon-neutral distillery. 

“Energy is one of the biggest costs, so any place we can reduce it is a win,” says Burkins. “It’s also the right thing to do for the planet. We’re not leaving a very good place for our kids as it stands now. The least we can do is try not to make it worse.” 

Appalachian Gap Distillery.
Photo courtesy of Appalachian Gap Distillery.

The spirits industry struggles with its significant carbon footprint. A 2012 study by the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), a sustainability coalition of big beverage companies, showed that a 750-milliliter bottle of column-still liquor was responsible for six pounds of greenhouse gases (GHGs). From sourcing to packaging disposal, pot-still spirits were even dirtier, at 6.5 pounds. That’s equal to charging a cell phone 359 times. With every bottle, we’re pouring carbon into the atmosphere.

Spirits producers, however, are waking up. Adjusted for six percent industry-wide growth, BIER found a 17-percent decrease in emissions across nearly 2,000 facilities that reported data between 2015 and 2020. As BIER literature makes clear, that’s good for the planet and for business. According to their numerous climate change risk briefs, the effects of climate change can cause supply chain and operational interruptions and lead to increased insurance, repair, and mitigation costs.

Climate action is also good for sales. The newest drinking public—millennials and Gen Z—rate climate change and the environment as their top concern, and these consumers are three times as likely as their parents’ generation to drop a brand that doesn’t share their values. New research shows that a brand’s commitment to sustainability positively influences purchasing decisions for 48 percent of stateside spirits consumers. In China and Brazil, big markets with a thirst for new products, those numbers rise to 70 and 72 percent. The planet is burning, and drinkers care. 

Given these factors, some producers are examining every aspect of their business to see where they can cut carbon emissions. Announcements come regularly from big players—such as the Scotch Whisky Association, whose members have pledged to go net zero by 2040, and Diageo, which is building a carbon-neutral distillery in Kentucky in its quest to go renewable by 2030—while the craft spirits sector has been jerryrigging creative solutions from the get-go. Forward-thinking distillers across the board are taking action to get more climate friendly.

Decreasing Distilling’s Energy Use

Unlike with wine, for which glass is the major culprit, the biggest share of spirits emissions—36 percent for column stills and 40 percent for pots—comes from distillation itself. GHG savings lie in employing renewable energy and maximizing efficiency in the process. This year, Tattersall Distilling installed the nation’s largest solar array in a distillery on its new Wisconsin facility. The 1,000 panels produce 475 annual kilowatt hours of electricity—enough to run the works and send power back to the grid. “With federal credits and accelerated depreciation, you can make the monetary rationale for a solar investment add up pretty quickly,” says Jon Kriedler, the chief officer at Tattersall. 

Tattersall Distilling
The nation’s largest solar array at a distillery at Tattersall’s new Wisconsin facility. Photo courtesy of Tattersall Distilling.

Then there are the boilers and condensers, which gobble up energy for heating and cooling. Tattersall harnesses the heat and transfers it to water stored in tanks for use in subsequent batches. The new Village Garage Distillery in Bennington, Vermont, uses a heat exchanger in a closed-loop system that funnels the hot water mixed with glycol into radiant tubing beneath sidewalks and patios, where it melts winter snow and improves safety. Further north in Montpelier, Caledonia Spirits uses heat from its boilers to warm the water in the sinks at its bar, where ingredients that don’t get upcycled into syrups and infusions are sent to the local biodigester to be composted for energy to supply to the city. 

A similar process is repeated at distilleries that convert leftover fibers from their base ingredients into fuel onsite, saving on both fossil fuel use and methane emissions from food waste. Finland’s Nordic Spirits produces over 30 million liters of ethanol annually, distilling 12 percent of the national barley harvest. Husks from milled grains fuel a biopower plant that creates enough steam for 70 percent of the distillation, leaving ashes that fertilize barley fields and recirculate carbon back into the ground. Gunning for net zero by 2025, the distillery has reduced emissions by 58 percent in eight years.

Each year, Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña distills 30,000 acres of sugarcane, certified sustainable by Bonsucro. In creating a product that is certified carbon neutral by the Carbon Trust, the rum producer makes so much cane-fiber biogas—an environmentally friendly, energy-rich gas that is created when bacteria break down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment—that it provides 20 percent of Nicaragua’s overall clean energy. 

Arbikie Distillery
Photo courtesy of Arbikie Distillery.

New clean energy technologies are currently being developed and deployed by some spirits producers. Arbikie Distillery was among 11 Scottish facilities to receive a Green Distilleries grant from the United Kingdom to promote low-carbon distilling, which will go toward developing clean hydrogen burners to generate steam. 

When we built our distillery in 2012, we couldn’t find a big enough renewable solution, so we had to default to oil—hence our excitement at the potential of green hydrogen,says Iain Stirling, the director of Arbikie. Going online in summer 2023, the project will help the U.K. meet its 2050 net-zero mandate.

Distillery emissions aren’t just from energy use; after all, fermentation creates CO2. Rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, Flor de Caña and Nordic Spirits capture carbon dioxide to sell to soda and beer producers for carbonation. Nordic Spirits’ CO2 is also used in greenhouses to grow the plants that will, in turn, sequester more carbon.

Improving Base-Material Agriculture

A 2008 U.K. study found that agriculture accounts for nearly 17 percent of spirits’ GHG emissions. Partnering with the Baltic Sea Action Group, Nordic Spirits aims to keep nutrients in the soil and out of the ocean by converting all of its 1,500 barley growers to regenerative agriculture by 2030. 

“The process is simple. You make sure that your farm has something green on it the whole growing season,” says Mikael Karttunen, the global brand ambassador of Nordic Spirits’ Koskenkorva Vodka, who points to cover crops’ CO2-storing capabilities. “If every farm in the world turns regenerative, we could remove up to 322 billion tons of CO2. That’s 10 times the world’s yearly emissions. Yields improve, quality improves, and we make a product that commercializes regenerative farming. Everybody wins.” 

Similarly, as part of its mission to highlight the flavor of its base ingredient, Waterford Whisky is transforming Irish whisky grain farming by creating a market for organic and biodynamic barley. Every bottle of Waterford’s Biodynamic Luna 1.1 Whisky comes with a “téireoir code” that links online to extensive information about its provenance. That level of transparency is intended to shore up consumer understanding that “the best results in barley flavor come from using regenerative farming techniques,” according to Neil Conway, Waterford’s head brewer.  

Waterford Whisky
Photo courtesy of Waterford Whisky.

Arbikie’s master distiller Kirsty Black devised a way of distilling peas. “Legumes and peas take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the soil,” explains Stirling. “They don’t need artificial nitrogen. They create their own, so they’re brilliant in crop rotation.” Arbikie’s barley gets nitrogen from undersown peas, and the peas are subsequently fermented for the distillery’s Nàdar gin and vodka, which removes 1.54 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere with every bottle. 

Tattersall is experimenting with distilling kernza, a perennial wheat relative, in a collaboration with The Land Institute and University of Wisconsin. Kernza’s 15-foot tap roots makes it drought resistant and, thus, suited to no-till farming. “You’re not turning up soil every year, which releases carbon,” says Kriedler. The brandy-like spirit, which will be released next year, “helps develop a market for these perennial grains, so people can grow them.”  

Greening Ecosystems and Helping Communities

Many brands buy carbon credits from organizations that promise GHG-sequestering projects. Some dismiss this as greenwashing for distilleries reluctant to clean up their own emissions, but for smaller brands that do their due diligence, the practice provides a meaningful way to expand the reach of their carbon sequestration. Los Angeles’ tiny, organic Greenbar Distillery supports Sustainable Harvest International, which treats carbon credits holistically, helping small-scale Central American farmers earn a viable living through regenerative agriculture and rainforest restoration.

“They don’t take money from lumber industries or spray trees out of planes,” says Greenbar co-owner Litty Mathew. “When trees make a difference in people’s lives, our support matters. And how much the trees are taking out of the atmosphere makes our product radically carbon negative.”

Some producers do their own reforestation. One thing that helps make organic cachaça producer Novo Fogo carbon negative is its Un-Endangered Forest project, which repopulates depleted native trees in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, where the distillery is located. “We’ve seen overplanting of non-native pine and eucalyptus in our part of Brazil,” says Novo Fogo founder Dragos Axinte. “Our reforestation project has quality-over-quantity objectives: Rather than planting large numbers of seedlings on big swathes of land, we target the noble tropical hardwoods that are critical for a vibrant forest ecosystem.” 

Says Un-Endangered Forest project manager Dr. Silvia Ziller, a renowned expert on forest ecology, “These are the species that will develop into the mature forest. From a carbon offset standpoint, these forests will be capturing carbon for a long time.”

Novo Fogo
Photo courtesy of Novo Fogo.

Along with the World Wildlife Fund, Oaxaca’s organic Mezcal Amarás is bringing “eco-technological” tools and training to climate work in three agave-farming villages. While providing the agave seedlings, which are otherwise a grower’s biggest expense, the company has installed rainwater catchment and bio-filters, dry bathrooms for supplying a bio-factory for natural fertilizers, and a nursery that establishes 7,500 trees annually in the area. “It’s a holistic model. In six years, the income, landscape, temperature, and ecology will change dramatically,” says founder Luis Niño de Rivera. “Building loyalty this way has helped us keep mezcaleros, rather than them selling to someone else.”

Procera, Kenya’s first gin producer, launched four years ago and is creating income for the town of Kijabe through climate-smart sourcing. “We thought it was silly to send botanicals to London to have them send gin back,” says cofounder Guy Brennan. Local production, including in recycled glass bottles, is just the start of the Procera’s carbon savings. The operation preserves and restores the decimated African juniper tree, which is often logged by villagers to sell its termite-resistant wood (despite a moratorium). 

Paying a fair market price for hand-harvested juniper, Procera is creating a sustainable cash crop from living trees. “This will stop people cutting down current trees because they’re the goose that lays the golden egg,” says Brennan. At the same time, they partner with the Kijabe Forest Trust to restore these tree populations. “We give them money, and they plant trees, hire rangers, and work with communities to harvest juniper from them,” adds Brennan. “We can’t reforest Kenya without communities’ help. Social and environmental impact must go hand in hand.” 

Procera Gin
Photo courtesy of Procera Gin.

The producers of Flor de Caña agree. Their rum is the only spirit in the world to be certified both carbon neutral and Fair Trade. “We’ve had free education for our employees since 1913, free medical since 1958, and Fair Trade empowers employees because a portion of sales go into a community fund run by them,” says global brand ambassador Luis Baez. But that’s not all Fair Trade addresses; the certification requires over 300 rigorous labor, environmental, and social standards, according to Baez. The sustainable symbiosis of carbon neutrality and Fair Trade has helped Flor de Caña garner green acclaim, with multiple industry-wide ethical and green awards. 

Copalli Rum started in 2005 when financier Todd Robinson was on a fishing trip in southern Belize. Locals said that the fish stock was low because deforestation had degraded ocean habitat. So Robinson bought up 22,200 acres of rainforest to protect it and secure nutrients in its soil. To replace logging with another livelihood, Robinson built three businesses that now employ 125 locals: an eco-tourist lodge, a chocolate factory, and an organic rum distillery, all created with the smallest carbon footprint. 

“We’re also working with the community for reforestation. We’re trying to leave a lasting legacy of rainforest preservation, marine conservation, and supporting education,” says Mark Breene, the CEO of Copalli USA. “The distillery is in trust to the people of southern Belize, and they’ll decide where the profits go.” 

Reaching Across the Bar 

Distilleries’ climate-smart campaigns can also have a real impact on the carbon footprint of the bar industry. Last year, Flor de Caña’s Zero Waste Cocktails initiative trained 400 bars on upcycling, reducing food waste by 10 tons. This year, they’re hoping to keep 15 tons of methane-releasing waste out of landfills by partnering with the food service sustainability program Food Made Good. The rum producer also sponsors a Sustainable Cocktail Challenge to inspire more climate-friendly use of bar ingredients. Contestants from 30 countries participate each year.

Caledonia Spirits, whose Barr Hill Gin is made with raw honey, throws an annual Bees Knees Week. Bars buy into the program, and for every Bees Knees cocktail photographed and hashtagged, Caledonia plants 10 square feet of pollinator habitat. Last year, nearly five acres were created. That might not seem like a lot, but pollinators are essential to the survival of nearly 90 percent of flowering plants, all of which sequester carbon. Bees Knees Week brings attention to that symbiosis between climate and biodiversity.

Decarbonizing distillation, regenerating soils, restoring carbon-sequestering ecosystems, and promoting emissions-lowering activities—these are just some ways that spirits producers are working to protect the climate. They’re also experimenting with packaging solutions like lighter weight, non-glass, and refillable bottles, and many have facilities that maximize energy efficiency. 

Of course, doing climate work is also self-serving. That’s how sustainability in the 21st century works. “Helping the world and making money at the same time: It’s a no brainer,” says Nordic Spirits’ Karttunen. You want to be the hero of the climate crisis while creating your brand.”

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.