When sourcing spirits for the bar, we take into account flavor, quality, price, and popularity/branding. We can also take into account their environmental impact, but it's a complicated issue with few easy answers.
We have chosen on this website not to write about brand-specific production, as brands have an incentive to emphasize the good things they do in terms of sustainability and leave unmentioned where they have negative environmental impacts. On this page we'll talk generally about factors that can be used to make spirits purchasing decisions.
Note that in addition to spirits, beer and wine are included below.
- Local and Organic
- Bottle Weight
- Food Miles
- At the Distillery
- Distilling and Infusing Your Own
- Other Factors
The United States Food and Drug Administration states, "USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible."
Organic products may or may not taste any different from conventional/industrial ones, but they tend to treat the soil that the raw plants are grown in better. However products can be certified organic but also wasteful in other ways, such as the weight of the bottle organic spirits are sold in.
Local products are made closer to the point of purchase. In spirits, this could mean that a spirit is distilled locally but the raw materials come from far away. Or it could be grown and distilled within your area, which is better.
Local spirits might be bottled closeby, and thus reduce food miles (see below). This can reduce environmental impact further.
Some extremely local spirits producers have refill programs for their bottles. This cuts down on glass use.
According to the book How Bad Are Bananas, a locally brewed pint of beer purchased at a pub is 1/3 the impact of a bottle of beer purchased at a store. Locally made wine in a carton is about half the impact as a bottle of wine sent from a distance, and one-third the impact of wine shipped in an overly-elaborate heavy bottle. The road miles that your wine travels is more important than the origin of the wine, so French wine sent to New York is probably less impactful than California wine trucked to New York.
Heavy glass bottles not only use more raw material to produce, they cause more fuel use when they are shipped or trucked from where the bottles are made to where the spirit is bottled, and then from where the spirit is bottled to where it is sold. Many bottles of rare/luxury spirits are further packaged inside wooden boxes or cardboard tubes.
On the other hand, bottle shapes and weights are also an important part of branding and the perception of brand value.
Not all municipalities allow it (to prevent tampering), but if a spirit can be purchased in a larger container and used to refill smaller bottles at the bar, this can be more efficient than mailing/recycling more of the smaller bottles.
- In Singapore, Australia, and soon other countries, Proof & Company has launched refillable totes for spirits that hold 4.5 liters of spirits. These are filled from the "distillery’s intermediate bulk containers into ecoTOTES for the last mile. ecoTOTES are then sent to bars, where bartenders will fill their own bottles from [them], and when they’re empty, [they] are sent back". Read an article about this initiative.
- Bag-in-Box are pouches, typically with plastic taps, stored inside a box. These have most commonly been used for value wines. In places where allowed, these can be used to refill bottles for the bar. They cut down on glass shipping weight as well.
- One UK gin brand says their 10-liter bag-in-box allows for a 90% CO2 reduction, 74% plastic reduction, and 60% cardboard reduction (as bottles not packed in boxes). No glass is used.
- While spirits are not always available in bag-in-box formats, wine, vermouth, and sherry sometimes are.
- Bag-in-box wines/fortified wines reduce oxygen exposure after opening (as the bags contract unlike bottles that leave airspace), so they may help the wines stay fresher longer.
- Wine and beer on tap allow bars to avoid purchasing individual bottles and cans.
- Kegs for wine and beer in kegs can be refilled multiple times.
- As long as both are recycled, aluminum cans are slightly better than glass bottles, according to the book How Bad Are Bananas? (read the review here).
- Also, glass weighs much more than aluminum, so particularly for beers that are transported long distances to reach your bar, aluminum is the lighter choice.
To bring spirits to your bar:
- Plant materials are grown and transported to a distillery.
- They are fermented and distilled into a spirit.
- They may be watered down to bottle proof at the distillery, or transported in bulk to a bottling plant. Many products meant for the US market are distilled in one location but proofed and bottled on US shores. Wine is also sometimes shipped in bulk and bottled in the country where it will be sold.
- Spirits are put into bottles, which may be produced far away.
- From where the spirits are bottled, they are transported to the distributor's warehouse.
- Then they are delivered to the bar.
The closer these steps are to each other and to your bar, the less food miles will be spent transporting the spirit to your bar.
Furthermore, the method by which these parts are transported matters. They can be sent by plane, truck, train, or ship. These are in order of impact - "A big ship will emit about 0.4 ounces of carbon dioxide to transport 2 tons of cargo 1 mile. That’s roughly half as much as a train, one-fifth as much as a truck and nearly a fiftieth of what an airplane would emit to accomplish the same task." [link][link]
So it might be the case that a Japanese whisky shipped via ship to California would be less impactful that a Kentucky bourbon trucked to California, despite how much closer Kentucky is.
Of course, the amount of work for us to learn and calculate all the factors that go into every brand's footprint renders making decisions about one spirit over another nearly impossible. But it's something we can think about, especially the final shipping/trucking part.
Distilleries have many different ways to lessen their impact on the environment, from energy savings to raw material recycling. Most of these processes are also helpful for industrial efficiency and cost-savings, so the environmental impact savings are a bonus.
Below are some ways that various distilleries are lessening their impact.
- Using materials that are second-use from other industries, such as making rum from molasses or vodka from whey.
- Powering production with alternate sources such as burning vegetation used for raw materials or solar power.
- Reusing heat and hot water: Much water is needed to condense spirits and this water becomes very hot afterward. Distilleries use this hot water to heat warehouses, run it through outdoor piping to help it cool naturally, etc.
- Some distilleries capture the carbon dioxide from fermentation and sell it to soda companies to use for beverages.
- Waste products recycling - selling or donating spent grains or other ingredients for use as animal feed.
- Waste product pollution mitigation - treating liquid waste before disposal so that it doesn't impact the water system.
- Fertilizer from waste products - Some spirit production produces waste that can be spread over fields as fertilizer.
Distilling In House
- In regions where it is legal, some bars distill their own spirits.
- Often these venues begin with a neutral spirit (GNS) and redistill with ingredients in order to make flavored spirits such as flavored vodka, gin, and liqueurs.
Infusing to Make Your Own Spirits
- Even in areas where distillation at the bar is not legal, in many municipalities it is possible to make flavored spirits, infusions, and liqueurs.
- A bulk bottle (whether 1.75L in the US or larger) of high-proof spirit can be reduced in alcoholic strength and used to make flavored spirits such as flavored vodka, gin, and liqueurs.
- Homemade bitters are often made similarly.
- Recycled paper labels or boxes
- Donations to environmental causes