A New Wave of Spirits Is Good for the Planet
A new wave of craft distilleries are using salvaged ingredients to brew up spirits
The spirits industry is keen to position itself as sustainable. But a bottle of alcohol made via a solar-powered distillation process doesn’t undo the fact that all the raw materials for that drink were grown, harvested, and trucked to the distillery, turned into liquor, and then, finally, hauled away to the store. That’s a lot of energy for something auxiliary to survival.
At the same time, expecting everyone to swear off booze to fight climate change (as fossil-fuel companies continue refining oil and global capitalist leaders fly all over the world in private jets) seems unlikely. It also feels a bit cruel. If we must watch our world burn, can we at least have a cocktail to take the edge off?
Here’s one solution: let’s drink more spirits made from salvaged ingredients. This is not a new idea. “Rum goes back to sugar-refining plantations in the Caribbean,” says Henry Tarmy, one of the cofounders of the Ventura Spirits Company in California. Molasses was a by-product of the sugar-refining process, and the refineries had more of it than they knew what to do with, he says. Someone discovered that you could ferment and distill the stuff, and thus, a bar star was born. God bless human ingenuity.
Here are four spirits made from salvaged ingredients worth adding to your liquor cabinet.
Caledonia Spirits Gobo
Not too far from Caledonia Spirits’ headquarters in Vermont, a local farmer grows burdock, a root used in Japanese cuisine. The farmer has no trouble selling the beautiful roots, but he approached Ryan Christiansen, the company’s head distiller, and asked if he’d be interested in the gnarly ones. “I laughed out loud and said, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea, but let’s try it,’” he remembers. Because Christiansen thought its earthy flavor wouldn’t work in a spirit, the original plan was to distill the fermented burdock to neutral. But just for kicks, they stopped and gave it a taste halfway through. “The flavor blew us away. It produced this spirit that shocked us. It’s almost like a tequila or a mezcal.”
Have you ever looked at packaged bread or the baked-goods aisle at your local grocery store and wondered what happens to all the stuff that doesn’t get sold? For corporations working on a massive scale, water, salt, flour, and yeast are so cheap that it’s more lucrative to bake too much than miss a sale because a shelf is empty, says Sam Chereskin, one of the founders of Misadventure and Co. Which means a ton of bread and doughnuts get sent to food banks. And since food banks try to offer people the most nutritious food possible, white bread, cookies, and cakes usually do not work for them, says Whit Rigali, Misadventure’s other founder. Much of that starch ends up in landfills, creating a ton of methane as it decomposes.
So Misadventure, located in greater San Diego, is doing that water-to-wine thing but with trash-bound cookies. It’s taken 100,000 pounds of unwanted carbs and turned them into bottles of vodka. The only problem the company has run into with the method is all the plastic packaging—it takes a tremendous amount of time to pull the baked goods out of their wrappers. Misadventure runs 2,000-pound batches of bread, cookies, and bagels, each of which results in a full 200 pounds of plastic waste. In the company’s defense, it’s not creating this waste (it was landfill-bound anyway), but it’s still a nightmare to see it in those quantities, Chereskin and Rigali say.
The bread is turned into “bread soup,” pasteurized (in case any of it is moldy), fermented, and then distilled. Because it’s vodka, the final product doesn’t taste at all like onion bagels or cinnamon toast—its distilled until it’s smooth and completely neutral.
Ventura Spirits Company Strawberry Brandy
Strawberries may be delicious, but tons of them never make it to market. Maybe they ripen too late in the field, or they’re too small or ugly. Sometimes they’re frozen for smoothies, but then the smoothie company discontinues the flavor. Or maybe they get frozen but the freezer malfunctions just long enough to make them unsafe to sell. That’s when the Ventura Spirits Company swoops in. Since 2014, the craft distillery has been creating spirits using ingredients found along California’s central coast. “We asked ourselves, What would we be drinking if distilling had been developed here in our part of the world?” says Henry Tarmy. The answer is strawberry brandy, of course.
Tarmy wants to stress one thing: this is a true brandy, a strong spirit that’s more like whiskey than a fruit liqueur. “We ferment strawberries into wine and then distill that,” he explains. However, they don’t take the distillation process so far that it goes neutral, so there are clear strawberry notes in the final product. “It’s like vanilla notes on a whiskey,” not sweet, but definitely noticeable, he says. Finally, they age the spirit for four years in either French oak wine casks or recoopered barrels. The end product is something that makes a truly unique old-fashioned.
Desert Door Texas Sotol
In arid West Texas, few things grow well. But Sotol, a distant cousin of agave, thrives there. The spiky plant is found everywhere on ranches, but there’s little farmers can do with it, says Courtney Hickey, marketing manager for Desert Door, an Austin-based distillery.
Sotol contains carbs, and cutting the plant back doesn’t harm it at all. If you leave the roots intact, they regenerate, says Hickey. This is different from agave, which dies after harvest and which farmers often grow in giant monocultures. And Desert Door doesn’t farm sotol; it’s all wild-harvested off existing ranches.
The idea to turn these wild plants into booze came from family lore. One of the company’s founders remembered an uncle rambling on about moonshining sotol plants during Prohibition. So they tried it, and it worked. The final product is like a mix between a desert-inspired gin and tequila, says Hickey. The company also has an oak-aged option, which adds some spice and oak notes. The original version is perfect in a margarita or paloma. The oak-aged sotol makes a great hot toddy. Desert Door isn’t currently selling online, but you can find its sotol in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Colorado, and Nevada.