Can Sustainability Exist in the Spirits Industry?

Sustainability has long played a role in shaping the way we shop when it comes to wine. Strangely, even the most conscious of consumers seem to lower their standards when it comes to selecting spirits. We think that's largely due to a lack of education on and awareness around spirit producers working hard to place sustainability at the heart of their distilleries. Tom sat down with some of the producers we're fortunate enough to work with, to dig into the philosophies shaping their bottles.

 

What makes a spirit sustainable? 

Natural, minimal intervention, sustainable, organic, and biodynamic: words that grow with importance day by day in the wine world. Far more than just buzz words though, these philosophies and practices shape the direction of many of the world’s most important wineries. Producers understand the importance of caring for the planet and notice the positive impact this can have on the flavours of their products. 

 

Why then can the same broad shift not be said for the spirits world? The big brands that dominate supermarket shelves have little obvious policies toward sustainability and organic practices. A very different landscape to wines, the spirits world is still dominated by a few large, multi-national players (cue Pernod Ricard, LVMH, Campari) and brands play a much more central role in consumer consciousness. Next time you pass by your favourite natural wine bar, take a look what they’re pouring from behind the bar in their Spritz, the chances are it’ll be Aperol or Campari… 

 

Seeking out sustainably produced spirits is a little harder than for wines, and it is fair to say that there is more of a price jump from your Smirnoff Triple Distilled to your Grain to Glass Artisanal Vodka, than there is from your Prosecco to your organic Col Fondo. The production of spirits is less reliant on agriculture, any carbohydrate or sugar can, in theory, be fermented as the base for a spirit, so when we talk about sustainability in spirits production, the focus also turns to how producers work with energy, the transparency of their supply chain, and their employment practices. In fact, the International Wine and Spirits Commission recently set a standard a brand must meet to be considered sustainable. This encompasses repurposing efforts (including recycling casks, sourcing alternative energy, reducing plastics), supporting local economy, and conscious ingredient sourcing and use. A welcomed introduction, as to date ‘sustainable’ was a word producers could brandish without consideration for meeting any actual standards, in other a title that could be self-awarded. 

 

Sustainable spirits

 

Tom caught up with three of our independent spirits producers to get their take on sustainability, how important it is to their business, and how it is impacting their plans for the future. 

 

 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery – Vodka, Gin, Whisky 

 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) is a pioneering spirits production house based in the heart of Oxford. Working against monocultural grain production and for biodiversity, TOAD has developed a range of spirits based entirely around ancient heritage grains that were almost completely lost to the monoculture farming techniques of the past few centuries. Monocultural farming – i.e. removing all crop diversity in a field to funnel and increase the production of one specific culture - was seen as a more economical method, maximising space and output. However, all biodiversity was wiped out to plant thousands of rows of the same grain. Diseases are rife in monocultures as there are no natural defences to stop the spread across the entire crop and the selected seed varieties that dominate production in the UK and across the world are designed for intensive, high-input production methods that require lots of non-renewable energy.  

 

"zero intervention, no chemicals, no watering, no ploughing….as far as we’re concerned working with bio-diversity is the only option. We are farming a new approach to spirits”.

 

In the mid-2000s, founders of TOAD began working with archaebotanist and grain expert John Letts. John worked on thatched rooves in Oxfordshire and he discovered that there were individual ancient grains stored within the thatch. An unbelievable finding, John and colleagues meticulously studied the grains and began planting the individual seeds for germination. Not only can these ancient grains thrive in a biodiverse environment, they are larger plants, leading to more grain for production. As TOAD explains "The tall stems of older cereals are matched by their much larger root systems, which allows them to absorb moisture and nutrients from deep below the soil surface. This means they are better at surviving drought but will also grow very tall and fall over if grown with fertilisers or in rich soil." 

 

Heritage grain spirits

 

Not only are these ancient grains better adapted to quality growth and production, the flavours that The Oxford Artisan Distillers are able to achieve across their range is a testament to the health of their raw materials. Charlie Echlin, Head of Whisky at The Oxford Artisan Distillery tells me that they are "zero intervention, no chemicals, no watering, no ploughing….as far as we’re concerned working with bio-diversity is the only option. We are farming a new approach to spirits”. 

 

The Oxford Artisan Distiller are the UK’s first, organic certified, grain-to-glass distillery. The Oxford Rye Vodka and Oxford Dry Gin both have their ancient Rye grain at their heart. Two unusually flavoursome spirits, full of complex savoury characteristics which accompany beautiful mouthfeels and seamless balance. The recently released Oxford Rye Whisky has stopped whisky lovers in their tracks, the bottle being lauded for its complexity, balance, and totally unique personality. If you’re lucky enough to find a bottle, get hold of it! 

 

We’re very happy to sell The Oxford Artisan Distillery Dry Gin and Rye Vodka, two unusually flavoursome spirits, full of complex savoury characters which accompany beautiful mouthfeels and seamless balance. We love the Vodka on the rocks! 

 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery

 

Antica Distilleria Quaglia – Vermouths, Aperitivo, Bitters, Liqueurs 

 

For Artisan, Piedmontese distillery Antica Distilleria Quaglia, sustainability isn’t something they’ve recently turned towards, it’s something that’s always been at the heart of their production. They firmly believe that locally sourced, organically farmed, natural ingredients are the key to the purest flavours. One of Italy’s best, natural spirits producers, Quaglia produce some of the most delicious, elegant, flavoursome spirits we’ve ever tried.  

 

Negroni Antica Distilleria Quaglia  

We want to make products that are true to the land” Quaglia export manage Luca Marchiaro tells me, “that means sourcing everything as local to us as possible. With very few exceptions, the raw ingredients, botanicals, fruits, flowers and spices we use in our production come from either our own land, or from local producers we have worked with for years”. Luca tells me that if one year the raspberry production is down due to unfavourable weather conditions, they simply won’t produce as much of their delicious Liquore di Lampone (raspberry liqueur).  

 

A truly artisan distiller - currently run by fourth generation patriarch Carlo – Quaglia can’t afford not to respect the land they work on. Luca explains passionately that “we can only be as good as the materials we work with. Yes, we can macerate for longer or we can experiment with different alcohol volumes to extract the purest flavours, but ultimately, we are at the mercy of our materials. If we don’t take care of the land and promote biodiversity, we won’t leave our children and grandchildren with the right soils to work with and continue our legacy".

 

Natural botanicals

 

Quaglia have recently released a new organic range of spirits, including a Limoncello, Vermouth and Amaro, which are the first of their production to be certified. Luca tells me that later this year, they will release an organic certified Aperitivo and Bitter. We’re huge fans of the naturally delicious products from Quaglia, they provide all the ingredients in our famed Negroni Kit, which we’re pretty sure makes one of the best drinks around! 

 

 

By the Dutch – Gin, Genever, Rum, Bitters 

 

Jos Zonneveld, owner and founder of By the Dutch (BTD) spirits brand, admits that sustainability wasn’t top of his priority list when he founded the company in 2015. "I was so passionate about shining a spotlight on Netherlands’ incredible spirits heritage that this was my only focus". Jos left a career in law to set up BTD who produce spirits that showcase some of the liquids that have played an important role in the history of the country.  

 

by the dutch 

 

"When we released our Old Genever in 2015, of course I was promoting the spirits of the Netherlands, so I knew the production would be here and I wanted to source as many ingredients as possible from local producers but working with a sustainable focus wasn’t as talked about in the spirits world, a lot has changed in the last 6 years!"  I asked Jos what, if anything had changed for him, and why and he cites having his first child as a pivotal moment. ”It just completely changed my perspective on everything I was doing. Even though my position is small from a global perspective, I knew that it was my duty to do all that I could to be respectful of our planet”. 

 

Except for the Indonesian rum central to the production of BTD’s intriguing two Batavia Arack bottles, all of Jos’s ingredients are now sourced as locally as possible. This year, By the Dutch will reduce the weight of the bottles they use from 800g to 500g and Jos explains that sustainability now has a serious impact on so many of his business decisions. "Scandinavia is definitely leading the way in terms of supply chain transparency, and I do a lot of business there. Even if it wasn’t important to me, I would have to be working with a sustainable supply chain, otherwise I wouldn’t stand a chance in succeeding in the tenders for product listings."

 

All alcohol sold to the Off Trade in Scandinavia passes through the government, this means their green agendas can be enforced all the way through to their suppliers from abroad. If you can’t prove the sustainability of your production, you can’t sell your products there. This monopoly system certainly has its negatives, but other western states could learn a lot from the Scandi approach to sustainable supply chain enforcement. 

 

"Even though my position is small from a global perspective, I knew that it was my duty to do all that I could to be respectful of our planet” 

 

You can try many of By the Dutch’s spirits through Sociovino, we particularly enjoy the white Batavia Arrack as the base for our Espresso Martini, we think you will too. 

 

Espresso Martini

 

As Sociovino looks forward to broadening our spirits range, the posture towards sustainability will be a key focus for us. In our tastings to date, the products that are most respectful of the planet are those which reap the rewards in terms of flavours and sticking to small, artisanal producers means that sustainable production can be a true focus of theirs, preferring slightly more expensive production methods and a positive attitude towards the planet. 
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