Inviting Sustainability into The Vodka Industry

By: Tina Karras, Founder & Owner — Tina’s Vodka

As a founder and owner of a vodka distillery, I regularly contemplate our industry’s sustainability. I want people to have what they enjoy, but I also want a future for our planet.

  The process of sourcing, making, and packaging alcohol has environmental implications that we can no longer afford to ignore. It varies by the liquor and production method, but the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable’s research reveals that each 750-milliliter bottle of liquor produces an average of 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. This cannot continue.

Sourcing Sustainable Ingredients Through Regenerative Agriculture

  I’ve always been disheartened by the nagging fear that nothing I did as a single business owner would impact the global environment. However, after watching the documentary “Kiss the Ground,” I am hopeful at last. This film asserts that if we commit to changes that regenerate our planet’s soil, we will simultaneously balance our changing climate, replenish the Earth’s water supply, prevent species extinction, and raise more abundant crops. Here, at last, is a film with solutions that leaves me optimistic about our planet’s future.

  The documentary inspired me to embrace regenerative agriculture in my vodka production process and spread the news to others. This type of farming is not new by any means. Instead of industrial farming methods that deplete the land with a lack of biodiversity, pesticides, and fertilizers, regenerative agriculture applies traditional farming methods to maintain healthy soil, plants, and water. It seeks to reverse environmental damage through no-till systems, crop diversity, planned livestock grazing, and biosequestration (the method of trapping and storing carbon in plants, microbes, and other organisms).

If We Implement These Solutions, We Will See A Rapid Shift In Our Planet’s Health

  Regenerative agriculture is the simplest way to heal the soil, and soil health is the key to solving the climate problem. If every alcoholic beverage producer sourced grain from fields farmed with regenerative agriculture and bio-sequestration, massive amounts of CO2 would be drawn down into the soil and out of the atmosphere. Tilling fields for corn, wheat, barley, rice, and other ingredients we source for our products releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. No-till plows can plant those seeds without allowing CO2 to escape. The healthy soil that resulted would capture carbon and reduce runoff. If we keep the soil covered and healthy, CO2 remains in the ground where it belongs.

Resistance to Regenerative Farming and Organic Ingredients in the Liquor Industry

  Leading scientists and soil experts claim that capturing atmospheric carbon and replenishing the Earth is possible with the technology we already have. Unfortunately, this type of farming faces strong opposition, and many remain resistant to change. I haven’t yet seen regenerative agriculture become a significant part of the spirits industry. Perhaps this is because organic, non-GMO corn is simply more expensive to produce than GMO corn.

  Today’s farmers are able to keep the cost of industrial agriculture low through the extensive use of harmful chemicals. These become necessary because their way of farming creates an ecosystem centered around only one crop. Over time, it depletes the soil of nutrients and throws the environment out of balance. Natural ecosystems are filled with a variety of plants and animals, each designed to keep the others in harmony. When massive amounts of one plant cover an area, it is natural for predatory insects and weeds to move in and take advantage of the surplus. In an effort to protect their crops, farmers spray tons of poisonous pesticides and herbicides on the fields. To replace nutrients in the soil, they turn to harmful fertilizers. 

  For example, glyphosate has had a major impact on the production of corn for vodka. For over four decades, this chemical has been the leading tool farmers in the United States used for killing weeds before planting their corn. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), glyphosate — the main ingredient in Roundup — has become the most widely-used herbicide in the US since 2001.

  The problem was that this chemical killed all plants indiscriminately. In response, scientists created “Roundup-Ready” crops in 1996. Genetically engineered plants were then able to tolerate the herbicide. After this, farmers could spray their entire cornfield without worrying about being selective. Today, farmers who grow Roundup-Ready GMO crops use glyphosate as a desiccant to speed up their harvesting timetable. Spraying their plants with the herbicide kills the crop, causes it to dry out sooner, and produces more consistent yields. This allows them to harvest crops as much as two weeks earlier than they could have otherwise, which proves to be an advantage in colder climates.

  Exactly how glyphosate impacts long-term human health is still being debated, even though its use has increased almost 20-fold during the last two decades. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declares that glyphosate is a carcinogen. The IARC also claims that Roundup is linked to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism.

  Regenerative farming employs biodiversity to control weeds and pests. It is more expensive, but the cost is worth it. When spirit brands embrace this way of farming, they discover exciting benefits. In addition to the environmental gains, they will also be pleasantly surprised by a vast improvement in the quality of their product. Vodka made with organic corn and without added sugar simply tastes better, since it has its own natural sweetness. There are no additives — just organic corn and water.

  The best way to ensure the corn and grains sourced for the production of spirits are organic and farmed sustainably is to purchase them locally. Eliminating the need for transporting large volumes of grain over long distances is also a way to reduce the liquor industry’s carbon footprint.

  Despite the cost, a growing number of farmers are looking into the possibility of producing their crops with sustainable farming methods and regenerative practices. Because of the damage that has already been inflicted on our planet and the harmful practices still going on today, regenerative farming requires commitment. Some of these farmers have to spend up to three seasons restoring the soil in their fields. On top of this, many are forced to plant a 25-foot buffer crop to block the overspray of pesticides from neighboring farms. It is time for the liquor industry to show these farmers our support.

  Farming is inherently risky, and farmers are resistant to change. When you ask them to do something they have never done before, especially when neighboring farmers aren’t doing it, you are asking a lot of them. It’s hard for farmers to learn new techniques because so many of them are already working another job to avoid losing their farm. Greater education is key to getting more farmers to adopt regenerative practices.

  The best means of persuading large farms to commit to regenerative agriculture is by demonstrating that it makes financial sense. If large distilleries can work out long-term contracts to source grains directly from the farm, it could be a win-win scenario for both parties. The distillery could share a regenerative story about the farm and about their product. Likewise, if a farmer knows there is demand for sustainable ingredients, they will be willing to meet it. There are so many positive stories that can come out of these partnerships.

Reducing Waste in the Distilling Process

  Sourcing quality ingredients is paramount because it offers us a chance to restore our planet’s health. However, the most unsustainable part of liquor production is distillation. It leaves us with waste products that are harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly.

  Inspired by shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic, some distilleries began turning these waste products into hand sanitizer and are still doing so even after the commercial producers restocked the shelves. I have known certain distilleries to give away a bottle of sanitizer with every purchase.

  Distilleries are also forming partnerships with industries such as fish farms, livestock farmers, and bakeries to put waste grain and water products to good use. At TimberFish Technologies, spent grain is converted into fish food and pumped into growth tanks brimming with speckled trout, Atlantic salmon, and shrimp. Distilleries also send waste products to farms that raise livestock — often the same farms where they purchased their grain initially. Upcycled waste products are not just for animals. Bakeries use mash to make sourdough bread and grain byproducts to make flour.

  Other distilleries are exploring ways of reusing their waste products to keep the machines running. Converting waste into energy can be achieved by an anaerobic digester system that uses waste to produce methane. Cyclically, this methane helps to fuel the very distillation process that produces it.

Reducing The Impact Of The Liquor Industry’s Packaging Materials

  After distillation, packaging is the second most significant environmental challenge in our industry. A 2019 assessment finds the carbon footprint of glass vodka bottles accounts for 43 percent of the product’s carbon footprint. Recyclable PET plastic bottles account for around 27%.

  Ideas for making the packaging of our products more sustainable include recycled glass and cork. Larger distilleries are funding research into biodegradable bottles, recycled paper-plastic hybrid bottles, and plastic bottles made from wood pulp.

Hope for a Sustainable Future in the Liquor Industry

  As more and more of our consumers become aware of climate change and its implications, they are adopting a new understanding of what it means to drink responsibly. Today, people are reading labels. They are aware that their purchases have an impact on our planet and want to know where their food and beverages come from. We should give them the opportunity to make a difference with the products we provide.

  There is a new climate story that is optimistic and simple, and the liquor industry can be part of it. If we learn how to support sustainably-farmed ingredients, manage our waste products responsibly, and package our products in environmentally-conscious ways, we don’t have to live in fear.

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