A guide to sustainable spirits

27 February 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Big changes are afoot across the drinks industry, with a push to create products that meet consumer demands for eco-friendly options
A guide to sustainable spirits

‘Clean’. It’s THE buzzword making headway in the drinks industry. Consumers are no longer satisfied simply by great taste. They want lower ABVs, naturally-sweetened lower sugar options, and spirits that show provenance, heritage, and a commitment to lessening their impact on the environment.

This consumer-led desire has driven huge overhauls in existing businesses, while new drinks manufacturers put sustainability at the centre of their operations from the outset.

Innovation in the UK is proving strong. We’ve got vodkas made using whey (a waste product from the cheesemaking process) from the likes of Isle of Mull and Ewenique. B Corps certified Nc’Nean produces net zero organic whisky, delivered in 100% recycled glass. And Pod Pea Vodka is using British-grown, nitrogen fixing peas to create a unique spirit that’s distilled using steam, lowering emissions, while waste pulp from the process provides protein for the pet food industry.

Miranda Hayman, co-owner of Hayman Distillers, creator of what they claim to be the world’s first sustainable vodka (Respirited) says the business has become increasingly aware of the number of conscious consumers seeking out sustainable brands. “Not only do they expect sustainable packaging, but also innovation. The perception of premium is changing, and is becoming more values-based. The consumer today is wanting more transparency in how products are made and we, the spirits sector, need to reflect this,” she adds.

Shamara Hammonds, sustainability advisor at Adnams, agrees. “I think there are plenty of moral and ethical reasons why sustainability should be important to us all,” she says, citing using less resource (therefore reducing cost), and customer expectations as two reasons why spirits businesses need to up their game environmentally. “This is even more important to younger generations, so even if you don’t think it’s important to your customer right now, it absolutely is to your customer tomorrow!”

There are ways traditional businesses can adapt and move towards more sustainable practices, as Adnams (a brewing company with a long heritage) can attest. It’s one of very few distilleries to have a brewery on site, which has brought many efficiencies, says head of production Fergus Fitzgerald – particularly when it comes to saving water. “Often the challenge isn’t how to recover energy or water, but what to do with it once you have it,” he explains. “Having a brewery and distillery on the same site gives us opportunities for saving energy and water across a variety of areas. So, we use the cooling system in the brewery to recover cooling water in the distillery and keep it cool so it can be re-used. Most distilleries don’t have that option.” 

Adnams has also been committed for many years to buying 100% renewable energy. And “we work with barley growers locally, not just to have that connection with where the raw material comes from, but also so we can agree directly what the best varieties are to trial for the grower, maltster and the distiller,” adds Fergus. Sustainability runs a thread here too, with the team considering drought tolerance, low fertiliser inputs and better yields.

Producers need to act now

For Chris Jaume, co-founder of Yorkshire-based zero waste, carbon negative distillery Cooper King, there is no Plan B, and spirit producers who don’t already have the environment on their agenda are on a backfoot.

The architect, and his scientist wife and co-founder Abbie, saw first-hand the devastating effects of climate change while living in Australia, learning their trade from a master whisky maker.

Their experience informs every part of Cooper King. “Sustainability underpins everything we do,” Chris explains, revealing the terror he and Abbie felt witnessing fires that ripped through Tasmania. “They came quite close to us. It was scary to see the damage. We also lived alongside the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. Seeing the damage there too was eye-opening. The idea was if we were going to come back and build a business, it had to be one where we’d be able to give back and protect the environment.”

There’s no part of the distillery that hasn’t been assessed for impact, though Chris admits he’s sure he’ll find more to improve along the way. Around 26 tonnes of water per year are saved by using vacuum rather than copper stills. Wheat is grown 50 to 60 miles away. Honey comes from beehives on site. Fruits are Yorkshire grown. And the team grow their own botanicals, from lemongrass, to juniper, using homemade compost as fertiliser.

Additionally, spent botanicals go to a local bakery for glazes and breads, cardboard waste from suppliers is shredded for packing the lightweight bottles (made from 55% recycled glass), shrink wrap over the stoppers is home compostable cellulose, and the distillery operates an onsite refill scheme, which has grown by 20% since launching.

Chris is proud that, since day one, for every bottle of gin sold the business has pledged to plant 1sqm of woodland in the Yorkshire Dales. And this isn’t just lip service. Having partnered with a local charity, the team head out between November and February to directly help with planting. It’s imperative, he says, to be transparent, adding that greenwashing is one of the biggest challenges in the sector, and being clear with consumers is a moral obligation – especially as more of the public are showing an interest in the planet. “It’s the only way we would do this,” he reveals. “It’s a wholesome way to run a business. As with anything, when you start it can seem daunting to go on this journey, but by making small changes you can make a big difference.”

Don’t bottle it

While producers take strides to reduce their carbon footprint, manufacturers in the packing industry are also waking up to consumer demand for better practices.

World of Zing, a premium RTD cocktail brand, pays attention to sustainability across the chain, from limiting the use of high carbon footprint citrus fruits, to using sustainable spirit brands. The business also uses card bottles, with founder Pritesh Mody saying it was one of the most visible and impactful things he could have done. “These bottles are lighter, safer, and better for the environment than glass, whilst creating huge on-shelf impact and positive conversations amongst consumers.”

It’s essential, he says, “for the drinks industry to meet the rising consumer demand for eco-friendly products.”

Market disruptor Frugalpac is at the forefront of innovation in this sector, with hopes the Frugal Bottle represents the future for the drinks industry. With the ability to be flatpacked for transportation (requiring five times less space per lorry than glass bottles), Frugal Bottles comprise a strong recycled (94%) paper outer layer, that’s folded into shape, and lined with a travel safe, recyclable PET inner layer.

Malcolm Waugh, of Frugalpac, says the product deals with “the problem in the drinks industry, which is carbon. A lot of people don’t realise glass carries a huge carbon load due to the energy required to make it and, frankly, recycle it.”

Paper bottles, he adds, use six times less carbon to produce, are five times lighter, and require four times less water in manufacturing compared to glass.

The brand has customers across 25 countries, and grew 150% last year – 900% the year before - with machines also being sold so that bottles can be manufactured on site at distilleries, using local materials.

“This is the kind of innovation that really resonates with consumers. We need more of this,” Malcolm adds.

What’s trending in spirits?

1. Celebrity-backed bottles: There’s huge growth in celebrity owned or backed spirits, with tequila being the frontrunner, followed by gin, vodka and whisky. “Having a celebrity owner with a huge fanbase certainly helps to create immediate awareness of the brand, but authenticity is as important as ever,” says Michael Vachon of Maverick Drinks.

2. Whisky drinkers are diversifying: Whisky lovers are trying other aged spirits, largely driven by price. Armagnac sales, for example, have woken up, with a 25-year-old bottle being on average 90% cheaper than a single estate malt. Rum is also stepping up as an alternative choice for whisky fans, with vintages, age statements, single cask, single estate and premium rums coming to the fore. “We have seen massive 53% volume and 43% value growth in rum over £100,” says Lisa Halstead of Master of Malt. This is, she says, in stark contrast to whisky, with a move from consumers towards more affordable brands.

3. Sustainability: Brands are having to balance a line between sustainability and price to hit the sweet spot with consumers who are “looking for authentic sustainability claims. Clearly stated. No greenwashing,” says Mark Harvey of The Oxford Artisan Distillery. “Those brands making a clear and demonstrable positive impact are winning.

4. Vodka finds its roots: Vodka is being considered a ‘dark horse’ in spirits for 2024, says Master of Malts’ Adam O’Connell - with consumers seeking authentic flavours and provenance. “There is a growing appreciation for vodka because people are recognising its deep cultural and historical associations, and because a wave of modern producers are creating spirits with flavour and personality that use unique methods or ingredients,” he says.

5. Mexican drinks continue to appeal: While global spirits sales are predicted to rise by 3% by 2026, Mexican spirits are tipped to see category growth of 7% in the same period. “Mexico has come a more popular destination, and celebrity endorsed agave spirits have made tequila a sophisticated tipple of choice,” says industry insider Fenella Taylor.


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