A Matter of Spirits

A passionate group of farmers, distillers, and bartenders across the US and beyond are seeking to reduce the environmental footprint of alcoholic beverages.

Listen to editor Maureen Nandini Mitra’s conversation with Farrell about her book on Terra Verde at KPFA Public Radio.

In my early twenties, during the nights I spent in dark, sweaty rock clubs where the walls pulsed in time with the bass guitar, I exclusively drank Jack and Gingers. As I got a little older and traded bars with loud music for those with flickering candles and leather furniture, I upgraded to Whiskey Sours. When I got behind the bar myself, shaking tins and gliding long spoons through liquid and ice, I switched to Old Fashioneds. It became part of my job to taste spirits, learn their stories, and sell them to guests.

At the bar — the profit center of a restaurant — sustainability is an afterthought. ​Photo by Malmaison Hotels.

The stories that stuck with me always concerned how the spirits were made. I often forgot the proof or price of a particular brand, but I’d remember minute details about the water used to distill or bottle it. I preferred the spirits whose labels told us about the hands that created them and the ingredients from which they were born.

Many years ago, one whiskey in particular caught my eye. It had been on the shelf since the little corner cocktail bar where I worked had opened, but it was expensive and my humble graduate school bank account didn’t allow me to buy a pour. I didn’t try it until months after I started working there, instead settling for holding the elegant bottle in my hands and reading the label over and over. It was made with 100 percent New York State grains, something I’d never seen advertised before. When I finally did try it, the flavor was hot and unbalanced, but the grain fought its way through, adding depth to the flavor. Though it didn’t turn out to be my favorite whiskey, it started me thinking about the crops that were used to make it.

Later, in my early thirties and now an interviewer with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, I became curious about cocktail culture and the sustainability of the spirits industry. I interviewed distillers, bartenders, and cocktail historians. I learned the details of distilling and how the grains used to make alcohol are grown. I read about the effects of mono-cropping on farmland; considered the tremendous amount of wastewater created by distilleries; and saw the mountains of trash thrown out by bars each night. I watched as some brands began to tout their eco-consciousness. I noticed as trends came and went. I lived through seasons of drought, rain, and wildfire. I wondered what the disrupted climate meant for the future of alcohol.

In 2016, I found myself in Charleston, South Carolina, at a beverage conference aptly called BevCon. I was among others who, like me, were curious about issues facing the spirit industry. Though I had friends and colleagues in attendance, one specific seminar caused me to fly across the country in August to a place where the air was thick enough to cut with a knife. The session was called “Drinking as an Agricultural Act,” and, on the last day of BevCon, I sat in a hotel conference room with the air-conditioner soothing my sunburnt skin, listening to a beer brewer, a cider maker, and a whiskey producer talk about the crops they used to make their drinks.

Ann Marshall, co-owner and distiller of High Wire Distilling Co., described planting an heirloom corn that had teetered on the brink of extinction, working with farmers to manage the crop, and gathering a group of friends to harvest it before a hurricane blew in. To her, whiskey was an agricultural product and, therefore, it was tied to environmental health. Just as we need biodiversity in wild plants, we also need it in cultivated crops. Among other benefits, genetic diversity in the foods we eat and the drinks we sip protects against crop diseases, improves soil health, and creates resilience to climate change.

Part of the issue may be that we simply don’t see spirits as food, though they come from the same crops, like sugarcane, corn, apples as those that feed us. Photo of farmworkers harvesting sugarcane in The Philippines by Brian Evans.

Given spirits are essentially agricultural products, they are tied to environmental health. Photo by Mattia Panciroli.

​But while we may insist on organic, locally grown produce, we’ve yet to engage with spirits at the same level. Photo by Sue Thompson.

Yet almost all corn-based whiskey is sourced from a single variety: yellow dent field corn. Ann and her husband, Scott Blackwell, with whom she owns High Wire, didn’t want to use it. Instead, they opted to plant Jimmy Red corn, a legendary moonshiner’s corn that had dwindled down to two cobs following the death of the last man known to grow it. Starting with just two and a half acres, Ann and Scott set out to make a small dent in yellow dent’s stranglehold on the whiskey market.

With her Southern drawl and her excitement about Jimmy Red corn, Ann sparked something in me that day. I knew I needed to try her bourbon to see if it lived up to its story. When I finally got my hands on some, the first thing I did was read the bottle, letting the anticipation build. It read: “new southern revival / straight bourbon whiskey / made with 100% jimmy red corn / distilled with pride by high wire distilling co.” I turned the bottle over to read the other side. “New Southern Revival Brand is a celebration of the diverse agricultural traditions of our region. A true revival spirit, this whiskey began as a labor of love to save Jimmy Red corn from near extinction.”

The more I read, the more I liked it. Learning its history made me feel connected to this whiskey. I swirled the liquid around in my glass and immediately noticed the viscosity. It was slightly thicker than average, which made it almost slick on my tongue, like glycerin but with none of the soapy taste. It reminded me of nuts, banana, and grass, with a hint of brine and minerality. At 102 proof, I expected it to be hot, but instead it slid down my throat with no trace of burn. I had never tasted anything like it. It felt special. I felt special for drinking it.

That feeling of connection is at the heart of terroir, the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a crop by the environment where it was grown, linking a spirit to the place where it was created. Maybe the search for connection is why alcohol aficionados tend not just to enjoy a good drink, but also to want to know everything about it. Indeed, a whole genre of writing has taught us about the history of spirits, the science behind how they are made, how they should taste, and what cocktails they complement best. But such curiosity hasn’t usually extended to how alcohol fits into our food system, and what that means for the environment.

As eaters, we have become aware of the environmental problems created by industrial agriculture, and we have started to question where our food comes from. We are concerned about the health effects of pesticides, the dead zones created by chemical fertilizers, and the carbon footprint of shipping out-of-season food all over the planet. Each of these problems dogs the spirits industry, just as it does the food system. But while we may insist on organic, locally grown produce, we’ve yet to engage with spirits at the same level. We know some distillers, but not the farmers who supply them with the ingredients that enable their work.

Part of the issue may be that we simply don’t see spirits as food, though they come from the same crops as those that feed us at our dinner tables. They aren’t regulated the same way, by the same governmental department, with the Food and Drug Administration being responsible for oversight of food production, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for oversight of spirits. And not everyone drinks alcohol, which we don’t need for survival like we do food. These factors drive a wedge between how we treat food and how we treat alcohol.

This disconnect extends to restaurants, too. In the age of celebrity chefs and farm-to-table eating, restaurants are lauded for the way they source their ingredients. These days, most of the menus I’m handed proudly declare the restaurant’s purveyors; restauranteurs know that customers appreciate transparency. I now instantly recognize the names of farms. I can visit their websites, read about who works there, and look at pictures illustrating their operations. It makes me feel good about what I’m eating—that I’m being responsible, that I’m connected to them in some way.

But this doesn’t happen at the bar. My years of bartending have taught me that the big brands found in nearly every cocktail bar across the globe — Campari, Aperol, Luxardo Maraschino — are mass-produced and full of artificial ingredients. Their production methods contribute to climate change, water pollution, and pesticide resistance. This wouldn’t be tolerated in the farms that supply the ingredients used in the kitchen. Yet at the bar — the profit center of a restaurant — sustainability is an afterthought. Nine times out of ten, I’m disappointed when I scan the bottles at a high-end bar or read the cocktail menu at a restaurant known for their responsible sourcing.

After my trip to Charleston, I was left with questions: Can spirits be produced without harming the environment? Who are the eco-conscious producers? Why does sustainability matter to them? What does it mean to be truly sustainable? How can we, as consumers, support their efforts? What will it take for us to think about alcohol the same way we think about food?

It’s these questions that led me to different parts of the world, to conversations with people who are thinking deeply about these issues. They led me to Charleston, where it all started, to visit a farm where Jimmy Red corn grows. They took me to Guadalajara, Mexico, where I met distillers and farmers working to preserve traditional methods of making mezcal and sustainable ways of growing agave. I flew to Denver, Colorado, to visit the only distillery in the United States that malts its own barley and uses solar power. I drove across the Bay Bridge to Alameda, California, to talk with brandy producers about how climate change affects their supply chain. I went to Portland, Oregon, to learn about training programs that teach bartenders around the world to reduce waste. I had coffee with a bartender who works at a “farm bar” that carries only spirits made with responsibly grown ingredients. I went to Kentucky to visit Maker’s Mark and see if it’s possible to preserve local ecology while producing spirits on a large scale.

And then the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. This left us all grounded and the industry reeling, trying to make sense of the present and how to move forward in the future. My travels became virtual. I spoke to a rum maker to learn about the spirit’s fraught colonial history and his company’s decision not to use additives. I interviewed a distiller about sourcing American-grown sugarcane and the process of becoming a certified B Corp. I talked to one of the most acclaimed bar operators in the business, who has made a career of combining sustainability and luxury.

In short, I went in search of a good drink. And I found it in abundance. I met people who are sourcing, distilling, and bartending sustainably, creating models that will redefine the industry. They, along with many others who aren’t featured here, are transforming how spirits are made — and the consequences for people and the planet — one bottle at a time.

Excerpted from A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits. Copyright © 2021 by Shanna Farrell. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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