IT’S 9:30 ON A CRISP MORNING IN HUDSON, New York, and after lowering my mask and tightening my scarf against the chill, I lift a glass, pantomime a clink, and take a gulp of vodka. The 80-proof liquor is sweeter than I expected, with pleasant undertones of dark fruit. This isn’t the most productive start to a workday—I have just dropped my son at preschool—but it’s the least I can do to save the planet. Sobriety is a small price to pay for carbon sequestration.
How am I sequestering carbon by drinking vodka? My husband asks this question, too, when I stumble home after my tasting. It’s about which vodka I was drinking: Good Vodka from distiller and former GQ editor Mark Byrne. Good Vodka isn’t made from fermented potatoes or wheat or corn, but from the mucilaginous wastewater produced by processing coffee beans.
Does mucilaginous wastewater sound like something you don’t want in your cocktail? Before you answer, consider the methods by which conventional spirits are produced. Sugar, such as fruit and grain, must be grown in a field, then harvested, processed, stored, bottled, and distributed—which can translate into vast monocrops of grapes, wheat, and corn, dependent on millions of gallons of water and pounds of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and fossil fuels. What’s left behind is depleted topsoil and runoff. Simply putting spirits into heavy glass bottles has a massive carbon impact. And did you know that distillation itself—particularly of whiskey—creates toxic chemicals that seep into waterways and cause hypoxia zones in which fish perish? Doesn’t mucilaginous coffee-bean wastewater sound better now?
I’d always thought of myself as a conscientious consumer. I’m apparently not alone in that delusion. Claire Sprouse, owner of Brooklyn’s low-waste, high-consciousness bar Hunky Dory, says most ethical eaters ignore the provenance of hard liquor. “There’s been this shift in our eating and drinking culture: people buying fair-trade coffee and local produce. But there’s a disconnect when it comes to spirits. We don’t think of them as part of agriculture.”
They are very much part of agriculture. And as many of us know, conventional agriculture can be wasteful to an extreme. “I started off by asking the question, Why would you make a spirit from a purpose-grown crop when you can make it from a byproduct?” Byrne told me during our tasting. In coffee production, for every pound of coffee beans, there are five pounds of coffee waste. By rerouting that waste from rivers, where it would turn into methane, Good Vodka saves some 15.76 kilograms of CO2 emissions per bottle.
Who else is making booze to feel good about? With cold months coming and the specter of another lockdown hovering, what better time to find out? A quick internet search reveals that a healthy number of familiar spirits have begun to take environmental impacts seriously. Absolut Elyx is carbon neutral, and its stillage goes to feed local cows and pigs. Maker’s Mark has founded a water sanctuary and plants American white oaks to protect native animal species. Casa Sauza recycles its wastewater.
I call Alicia Kennedy, a Puerto Rico–based food and drink writer, to help me sort the wheat from the chaff. She advises me to take a finer lens to the question of what’s sustainable. “I’d first examine the agricultural practices to see whether the agriculture is exhaustive or regenerative and leading to soil productivity.” She says I must consider the choice of crop, whether labor is being compensated properly, whether the water is being recycled or repurposed, whether the yeast is naturally occurring, and whether the spirit is being made at a rate and scale conducive to all the other conditions.
I decide to assemble a slate of spirits with a true dedication to planetary health, and a week later, I am sitting on a porch, six feet apart from Rosie Ward, bartender at Hudson Food Studio, and beside Piper Olf, the mother of my son’s best friend. Before us is somewhere in the realm of 1,000 glasses, plus ample ice and mixers ranging from Dolin dry vermouth to limes to various juices, freshly pressed for the occasion.
We begin our tasting. And we hit an immediate speed bump: Spirits that are made differently taste different from their conventional peers. A martini made with one part vermouth to four parts Scottish Nàdar “climate-positive” gin (saves 1.54 kilograms of CO2 per bottle; distilled from green peas!) tastes off-balance, sharp at the end, and ethanol-y in the middle. A boulevardier with Arbikie’s rye scotch whisky is unusually sweet.
I place an emergency call to Sprouse, who offers sage advice. “Don’t assume you know what they taste like or what they’ll go with,” she directs. “Think of making cocktails with these spirits as cooking.” So we settle in to calmly taste each spirit on its own. The Nàdar gin tastes the way freshly cut grass smells. Combined and shaken with ice and cucumber-watermelon juice, it is a revelation, fragrant and green-tasting. Two rums from the low-waste Montanya distillery seem to demand extra sourness. We double the lime juice in a traditional daiquiri recipe. We’re elated. Both Good Vodka and Vodkow’s vodkas are sweeter than conventional versions and make almost frighteningly delicious vodka tonics. The biggest surprises are Nàdar vodka––made, like its gin, from green peas—and Vodkow’s cream liqueur. The pea vodka tastes like it’s been plucked from the soil. Vodkow’s cream liqueur is simply the most delicious coffee creamer I’ve tasted. It is also lactose-free. I pour it heavily over a small shot of espresso and have to be reminded several times to go inside and feed my son dinner.
THE FOLLOWING DAY AT NOON, a box containing a dozen dark-glass apothecary bottles arrives via FedEx. They’re from Leslie Merinoff-Kwasnieski, a cofounder and distiller of Matchbook Distilling Co. on Long Island’s North Fork. Merinoff-Kwasnieski happens to be a great-great-great-granddaughter of the founder of Canadian Club Whisky. She’s also, at age 33, a veteran of William Grant & Sons, maker of Hendrick’s Gin, Glenfiddich, Milagro Tequila, and a dozen more. She explains to me that traditionally, it takes about 1,000 pounds of mixed grains to produce 53 gallons of whiskey. She calls the entire practice unsustainable. “If we keep making the same spirits again and again, we’re asking our fields to be monocrops,” she says. “In a world where we’ve got rising temperatures and diminishing topsoil, maybe distilleries as they exist today aren’t an efficient or productive use of land.” Merinoff-Kwasnieski instead distills what she encounters on her visits to Long Island farms. She checks in on what is growing well and asks farmers to send her whatever excess they have during the harvest season.
First up is a muskmelon-whey-hop leaf-juniper spirit made with both beach and damask roses. It’s transportive, with a nose of dusky garden flowers and a savory, ginny finish. Then a grapefruit “eau-de-milk punch” made from leftover whey from Brooklyn’s White Moustache yogurt, which tastes like a fruit ice cream. Next is Sole Mio, made from a mold grown on organic rice from California and excess butternut squash, which leaves the buzz on the tongue that Sichuan cuisine calls “mala.” Another is made from leftover bread from Carissa Waechter’s East Hampton bakery; it smells like olives and tastes like pickles and caraway. The last, Ritual Sister, a distillation made from pineapples Merinoff-Kwasnieski and her partners buried in coals in an eight-foot wide earth oven and tended through the early days of COVID, tastes like a mescal I once sampled on the roadside in Baja California. It tastes like the joy of experiment and a willingness to adjust and adapt. It tastes like the future.