While there’s no single definition of what makes a whiskey “sustainable,” that hasn’t stopped producers from trying to make a dram that’s better for the environment.
Of note, barrel-aged spirits—and whiskey in particular—face headwinds. Many have tremendous carbon footprints as they’re made with grains grown far from the distillery. While others start with distillate sourced elsewhere, which is then transported for blending and aging.
Barrel sourcing creates another environmental headache. Consider the environmental impact of brand-new oak barrels required to make bourbon, and the space and energy needed to store barrels while they age—for years or even decades. Add to that how whiskeys are often packaged: in weighty glass bottles, encased in flashy but wasteful boxes.
However, some are taking on the challenge to make more sustainable whiskey products. These four whiskey makers are helping change the narrative and taking steps toward improving sustainability.
When the legacy Kentucky bourbon maker earned B Corp certification in 2022, it was a landmark moment. To obtain the certification, companies must meet a series of environmental, social and legal standards. Not only did Maker’s become the largest distillery in the world with the B Corp stamp of approval but it also set an example for other distilleries to follow.
Among the initiatives that helped them earn the status: a distillery-wide zero-landfill initiative; an on-site recycling program; implementation of extensive solar installations to power the warehouses where the barrels age; and the establishment of a 33-acre water sanctuary program.
Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark, said it took the company “almost a year” to obtain that certification, requiring a cross-functional team to dedicate most of their time to assess key impact areas across the company. Re-certification is required every three years. In other words, it’s a huge commitment, which is why only a handful of distilleries are B Corp certified.
Try it: Maker’s Mark Bourbon
Some might argue that craft distillers—at least, those that source, distill and bottle locally—can offer the ultimate low-carbon footprint option. Minnesota craft distiller Far North certainly fits that. While it makes a wide array of spirits, its rye is particularly notable for its hyper-local emphasis. All grains (except malted barley—which represents 10% of its Minnesota rye, along with 80% rye grain and 10% corn) are grown within a mile of the distillery. The grains are stored on-site, which eliminates the need for shipping. After distillation, spent grains are recycled as cattle feed or spread on nearby fields as fertilizer.
Similar to other regional rye styles like Maryland, Pennsylvania or New York’s Empire rye, head distiller and farmer Mike Swanson envisions a “Minnesota rye” one day. Toward that end, he has undertaken a series of experiments centered around local and heirloom rye varieties, which you can check out here.
“Drinking is an agricultural act,” says Swanson. “The hybrids are what farmers want to grow because [they] grow faster and their profit margins are better. Are you growing [rye] for yield or for flavor? We’re in the flavor camp up here.”
Try it: Roknar Minnesota Rye
Love Irish whiskey? This distillery offers an interesting option, focusing on single-farm whiskeys, all made using 100% Irish barley.
The point is to focus on the terroir of individual farms and harvests. In addition, a new line-up from Waterford, called Arcadian Farm Origin, spotlights farmers using organic (meaning no added chemicals or pesticides) and biodynamic practices. This incorporates organic growing, along with a holistic approach that includes locally-sourced materials for fertilizer and soil conditioning, and lunar planting cycles–practices popularized by the wine world. Some of the farmers also raise heritage varieties of barley, while others are creating smoky flavors using Irish peat, rarely seen in Irish whiskey.
“We never set out to be sustainable or for that to be our marketing play,” says Neil Conway, Waterford’s head brewer. “The practices our farmers have adopted leads to us being a more sustainable distillery.”
That said, the distillery has achieved Origin Green accreditation, Ireland’s national food and drink sustainability program, and is working toward B Corp certification.
This producer of Islay single malts has long been noted as a leader in its sustainable efforts. Now, it’s stepping up even further. Already B Corp certified, Bruichladdich recently released the industry’s first biodynamic Scotch, Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2014.
“Since 2004, we’ve been working with growers on the island to grow barley for us,” says Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s head distiller. “The environmental aspect is one thing. The commitment to sourcing as much from the island as we can is important, to continue making whiskey for generations to come.”
While Hannett dismisses any claim that the distillery is fully sustainable he adds, “It’s something we are working toward with a lot of passion and enthusiasm.” He points to recent advances in “drastic” reduction of carbon dioxide output, use of biofuels and reliance on oil.
Another notable innovation: the new Port Charlotte expression. It will be packaged in a lighter bottle made from recycled materials and omits secondary packaging, meaning no tins or cardboard boxes. This will apply to all the whiskies in the Port Charlotte Line going forward. “It looks good, but it also has a real impact” in terms of reducing carbon footprint, Hannett notes.