Can Craft Cocktails Push Spirits to Be More Sustainable?

In a world rife with environmental concerns, allocating agricultural resources to fuel $15 craft cocktails is difficult to justify. Bartender Bobby Heugel presents the environmental, economic & social challenges to sustainable drinking.

At my bar, Anvil Bar & Refuge, we serve about 207 liters worth of alcohol every week. This is great news for our little Texas watering hole, but unfortunate news for the environment. Studies show that for every liter of spirit distilled, 13 liters of distillery waste are produced. This means that each year, Anvil’s spirit consumption accounts for half an Olympic size pool’s worth of distillery waste.

As a bar owner overrun with problems ranging from broken ice machines to my scheduled staff being arrested on their shift day (that was yesterday, by the way), finding the bandwidth to discuss the sustainability of our bar inventory can be challenging. But this conversation should be more important than ever to modern drinking culture.

In 1987, the UN Environment Commission headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland defined sustainable development as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This simple definition established a general standard for all future discussions of sustainability.

But let’s face it: alcoholic consumption is anything but a human need, and the process of distillation—craft or industrial—is detrimental to the environment at almost every stage. In a world rife with escalating environmental concerns, allocating agricultural resources to $15 craft cocktails is hard to justify from any ethical perspective. So, I hate to say it, but if you have plans to start a “sustainable bar program,” it’s almost as oxymoronic as claiming you’re opening a “casual cocktail bar” in New York City. Almost.

Simply put, the leisurely activity of drinking cocktails will never reconcile itself completely with the environment, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make better decisions to limit our global impact. As a bar professional, my role is to improve the lives of my guests through hospitality. But what about the lives of those impacted by our well-intended act of serving a proper Tom Collins—namely those that farm the agricultural products used to create spirits? If craft bartenders invested just a fraction of the time Googling “Rum Sugarcane Environment” as they do researching the history of the Daiquiri, it would change the industry.

So, if the goal is inspire a more globally conscious approach to drinking (or owning a bar) being mindful of the three tenants—environmental, economic and social—of Sustainability 101 is an excellent place to start.

Environmental Sustainability

Spirits impact the environment in two ways: through the harvest of agricultural crops and the generation of environmental waste during distillation.

Every spirit category has its own agricultural issues. Rum? Slash and burn farming techniques devastate local environments. Tequila? The genetic diversity of the blue agave species is in jeopardy as brands attempt to meet global demand. Bourbon? Genetically modified corn has entered the distillation conversation. In other words, those pretty bottles us bartenders routinely polish off often have a complicated and disastrous agricultural history that precedes our nightly ritual.

In terms of waste generation, while perusing the Google search results for “Rum Sugarcane Environment,” one is likely to encounter the term vinaza, a Spanish word for distillery wastewater that primarily relates to rum and agave spirit production in Latin America. With their massive production levels, the amount of vinazas that large distilleries—rum and otherwise—generate makes than an easy target for environmentalists. But in all fairness, this isn’t just a big brand problem either.

In 2010, independently-owned Tito’s Vodka agreed to pay $50,000 in damages for improperly dumping water into a nearby creek, while nearly every beloved traditional distillery in Mexico has been doing the same for centuries. Recently, global conglomerates, amid increasing environmental standards, have begun to invest in distillery waste processing research.

After decades of environmental abuse, these new technologies have become powerful sales tools. And while the motivation behind the narrative may be more a product of marketing than genuine concern, these sales pitches have finally given the environment a stronger voice within the spirits industry. Progress is progress.

Economic Sustainability

Most environmental concerns today focus on the development of commodities into economic growth. Petroleum’s transition into gasoline is perhaps the most widely known, but the economic conditions under which this evolution develops aren’t dissimilar to those made by global spirit conglomerates.

There is no better current example of the intersection between sustainability and global demand than the mezcal category. As mezcal’s popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade global conglomerates have invested heavily into brands like Zignum Mezcal, which is distributed by Bacardi and has become the world’s best selling mezcal since debuting in February 2011. While representatives of global portfolios reassure enthusiasts that sustainability is always a concern, those actually living in Oaxaca fear mezcal will never be the same again. Millions of agave plants are being harvested at unprecedented rates to capitalize on the mezcal boom—an opportunity a poor Oaxacan farmer can’t pass up, but may never be able to cash in on again.

Thus, the delicate balance between agricultural growth cycles and mezcal production, passed on from one generation to the next, has been displaced by spreadsheets generated by those who see agave crops as nothing more than a commodity. Like oil reserves, Oaxacan agave crops certainly help CEOs meet shareholder expectations for global growth.

Alternatively, a more sustainable economic decision would be to invest in practices that better balance agricultural cycles with production, as single-village mezcal producer Del Maguey has done for years. Developing economic conditions under which mezcal as a category may grow organically has countless economic benefits for one of Mexico’s poorest states. In the long run, it will improve net profits for global companies that might reap the benefits of agave harvests over time as opposed to literally liquidating current stocks. Unfortunately, the need for immediate gratification in the spirits industry extends beyond the casual shot of Fernet.

Social Sustainability

An industry that prides itself on “hospitality” should also be at least minimally conscious of the millions of lives—and labor conditions for farmers to distillery employees to brand representatives—that are touched by the brands we choose to carry. For example, Flor de Caña Rum alone represents 17% of the GDP of Nicaragua—a country with a population of over 6 million people! As bartenders, we see Flor de Caña as a great rum, but for better or worse, millions of Nicaraguans view the brand as one of the most powerful forces in their society.

If you’re concerned about your pour-cost like any good bar manager, are you just as concerned about the social impact of pouring a spirit that somehow manages to maintain an unbelievable price of $14 a liter? That’s 41 cents an ounce, but who’s counting?

Moreover, like juleps in the South, spirits are often cultural symbols for nationalities around the globe. Single malt scotch, for example, is reflective of Scotland’s tumultuous history under English rule. Heavily peated scotch? Residents of Islay weren’t trying to burn your nose hairs out 250 years ago, they were bootleggers simply using the only fuel source available on Islay, where distillation was strictly prohibited by English law.

Fortunately, the modern cocktail movement does deserve some social sustainability bonus points. Our incessant need for authentic agricole rhum (and Ti’Punch)—thanks to the advocacy of rum champion Ed Hamilton—has turned countless bartenders into intercultural ambassadors for the nation of Martinique. Likewise, mezclaerias, like Mayauel in New York City, make it possible for the next generation of mezcaleros to stay in Oaxaca. As it grows in size and impact, the modern cocktail movement’s preferences for a traditionally produced spirit like mezcal or rhum agricole have the power to positively sustain the culture of a foreign region, provided we’re conscious of how these spirits impact, and reflect, the people who make them.

The challenge we face every day in trying to execute globally conscious bar programs is bridging the gap between the responsibility we feel to make ethical decisions about our spirits inventory and serving guests who often want nothing more than to relax and enjoy their night off. Most bartenders I’ve spoken with cite this as the primary reason why they don’t integrate concerns about sustainability into their bar programs with more rigor. But from personal experience, I can tell you that the enthusiasm I feel for the products we carry in our bars has reinvigorated my passion for bartending. And closing down the bar at 4 a.m. sure feels a lot more personally sustainable when you’re proud of everything you poured that night.