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GOOD Would Like to Turn Your Well Drink Good

September 26, 2020

Story: Talia Baiocchi

photo: Lizzie Munro

Tristan Willey and Mark Byrne’s carbon-negative vodka distilled from coffee waste has big flavor and even bigger ambitions.

Vodka’s great virtue is to be the spirits world’s version of “a girl has no name.” To not have to explain its provenance, its methods, what it’s made from or even how it tastes (“smooth” “clean” “pure” more than suffice for a spirit defined by not tasting like much of anything) has given vodka the opportunity to remake itself for any cultural moment. This is perhaps why, as our collective tastes for spirits have shifted over the last half-decade, vodka has stayed put—a stealth operator always ready to reflect our current fashions back to us.

To wit, those of us keeping score have seen how the category has sought to rebrand—to slowly shed, on the lower end, its club-kid image, and on the top-end, an outmoded idea of “luxury” in favor of putting a face to the liquid in the bottle. Brands from Belvedere on down to Tito’s would now like us to know where their single-origin wheat comes from, that their potatoes are organically grown or, in the case of the aforementioned Tito’s, that the millions of bottles they produce each year are “handmade” and fashioned in a pot still (spoiler: they are not). As craft gradually became the new luxury, vodka was, of course, here for it.

In the early days of that shift, it became increasingly clear that after years of stealthily avoiding substance, becoming substantive wasn’t all that easy. Much of the marketing was, well, marketing. But the fact remained that vodka as a category still had a stranglehold on the spirits market overall, and it was only a matter of time before smaller distillers with a real mission tried to harness its scale for genuine good. None, so far, have been quite as good as GOOD, which soft-launched this month.

Tristan Willey, one half of the duo behind the vodka, began conceptualizing GOOD seven years ago. A former bartender at some of New York’s top cocktail bars, Willey was consulting on a coffee-focused cocktail program when his research took him all the way to a coffee farm in Guatemala. There, he recognized a fact rarely considered even by many who drink it every day: Coffee is a fruit, one whose sugary mass is mostly discarded in the coffee-making process. Further, he recognized that the sheer volume of that waste was becoming an environmental issue in coffee-producing countries like Colombia, polluting rivers and lakes, as well as an economic one—farmers simply didn’t have the income to pay the fines imposed by the government, let alone pay for someone to properly discard the waste for them. Willey saw an opportunity. “I just dove in,” he says. “I said, ‘I know what to do with fruit if the coffee industry doesn’t; let’s just distill it.’”

Willey connected with Mark Byrne, a friend and former editor at GQ who has also worked in spirits branding and distilling. They spent the next six years working with the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia) to create a process for purchasing discarded cascara, the fruit that bears the coffee bean, and distilling it in a way that would be not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

For two guys with a background in craft cocktails and spirits, making vodka—the punchline to countless insider industry jokes—might not seem the obvious choice. (Brandy, a spirit designed to truly showcase a particular ingredient, was. Willey and Byrne made that too, and hope to express the diversity of cascara across its different varieties and growing regions with a future line of brandies.) But vodka had scale, and when it comes to distilling cascara, the two insist that the more they can produce, the lower the carbon footprint and the greater the economic impact on its farmers.

“When you grow up [in craft spirits and cocktails], that ambition means selling out,” says Willey of producing at scale. But GOOD is an oxymoron in more ways than one. Not only is it a product whose environmental impact improves as output increases, it’s a vodka that, in a sea of neutrality, boldly delivers flavor. In fact, the two worried that it was too flavorful. “When I got that first bottle back, honestly, I was a little scared,” says Willey. He and Byrne distilled the cascara to the legal definition for vodka (minimum 80 proof, and effectively neutral, though that is up for debate), but what came out was robust, both in its creamy, almost oily, texture but also in its aromatics; it’s at once earthy, peppery and almost kirsch-like in its fruit-forward profile. It’s the rare vodka you can sip neat. “I’m running with it,” says Willey, insisting that even he, as a longtime advocate of the gin Martini, was surprised that it made a good one. “It has the presence, the backbone, the viscosity that I think a Martini should have.”

More importantly, says Willey, the vodka has enough carbon-emission-saving power that it can offset the impact of other ingredients, like juices and vermouth, to make the entire drink carbon-neutral or even negative. (According to Ecovent, the average U.S.-produced, corn-based vodka has a carbon footprint of 0.55 kgCO2e per liter, while the average potato-based vodka clocks in at 1.52 kgCO2e per liter; GOOD's number, by comparison, is -15.76 kgCO2e.) One key point of differentiation from other premium spirits centered on sustainability: GOOD does not aspire to the top shelf, nor are they asking that we reconsider vodka as a spirit worthy of meditation. They prefer to be in the well, at an accessible price point, edging out the competition where it really matters. Sure, the hope is that GOOD can inspire more ethical consumer behavior, but the brand does not depend on it. The idea is to sneak into your vodka-soda and make it good whether you know it or not.

“That’s why we went with a vodka,” says Willey. “We wanted to loop in everybody.”

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