The conscious sourcing of ingredients for gin distillation has never been more important
We are in the midst of a climate emergency, and well-informed consumers are increasingly aware of this fact. They are actively seeking out sustainable brands, and are also willing to pay more for sustainable products. So, as gin makers find themselves in an increasingly competitive market, committing psychologically and economically to reducing their impact on the planet may also be the only means to make their businesses sustainable in the long run.
Despite its fundamental reliance on successful crop yields, the drinks industry – with a few notable exceptions – still lags behind other sectors when it comes to sustainability and carbon reduction. The Footprint Drinks Industry Sustainability Index Trends Report 2020 leaves little doubt as to the importance of the industry addressing the climate crisis: “Ensuring the sustainability of the raw materials throughout the supply chain is essential to protect the longevity of the sector – and the human race.”
It is a hugely complex subject. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ guide to environmental sustainability best practice includes land stewardship to reduce impact on local ecosystems and circular material syncing to reuse valuable resources.
Bombay Sapphire leads the way, having recently announced that eight of its botanicals are certified sustainably sourced, while the final two producers – for grains of paradise from Ghana and liquorice from China – will be awarded Ecocert’s For Life certification by the end of the year, guaranteeing that suppliers are committed to continuous reduction of environmental impact, responsible purchasing practices and sustainable development.
Even on a smaller scale, responsible sourcing and/or foraging is paramount to protecting vulnerable environments; Venezula’s Canaïma Gin and Africa’s Procera Gin work directly with indigenous people and local communities in, respectively, the Amazon and the Kijabe forest, to harvest botanicals in ways that limit environmental impacts.
A growing number of distilleries are recognising the marketing power of eco-credentials and, no doubt also motivated by consumers’ interest in botanicals, are promoting their use of local or home-grown botanicals. Such commitments can support local farmers, have a positive impact on local biodiversity and reduce a brand’s carbon footprint by lowering food miles, but unless these businesses also focus on other areas of the distillation process – in particular the use of green energy and the reduction of water use – such efforts provide little more than a positive provenance story.
Will Edge of Kent’s Greensand Ridge chooses not to promote the fact that he grows some of his botanicals on site for this very reason: “Talking only about botanicals from a sustainability point of view is one of the main ways of greenwashing a gin,” he says, “while taking attention away from the things that really matter.”
The one thing that really matters, in terms of raw materials, is the fermentables that create the base spirit, long before the botanicals get anywhere near the still. According to research from spiritsEUROPE published in May 2020, farming contributes around 25-30 per cent of the total carbon footprint of a spirit.
The production of grain neutral spirit (the most commonly used base spirit) is not only energy intensive and expensive, but also incredibly hard to achieve sustainably on a small scale. Such factors persuaded Yorkshire’s Cooper King Distillery to source its spirit – made only from Yorkshire-grown grain – from a larger, local distillery, saving hundreds of transport miles. A life cycle assessment, voluntarily undertaken by the distillery’s supplier, brought the base spirit’s footprint down from 1.3kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) – based on government-approved £/carbon conversion factors – to just 0.4 kg CO2e.
That’s not to say it is impossible to produce a neutral spirit sustainably. Ramsbury Estate in Wiltshire creates its own base spirit using Horatio wheat grown on its 19,000 acres of land. The entire process – from sowing and growing, to harvesting, distilling and even bottling – takes place on the same site, dramatically reducing transportation costs and, consequently, food miles. Better yet, the copper stills are powered by a biomass boiler, which is fuelled by trees from its sustainable woodland.
However, most grain production still relies on chemicals made from fossil fuels, such as pesticides and fungicides. For that reason, The Oxford Artisan Distillery takes a different approach, using organic heirloom cereals grown within 50 miles of its site to create its base spirit. These, the distillery says, offer both a better flavour profile and important environmental benefits, including minimising the use of pesticides, improving soil quality, maximising genetic diversity within the crop, and enhancing biodiversity within the field.
Of course, fermentables are not limited to grains. Scotland’s field-to-bottle Arbikie Estate made headlines in 2020 when, after five years of research by master distiller and PhD student, Kirsty Black, it released Nàdar Gin, made from peas. With the crop taking nitrogen out of the air and fixing it in the ground, peas remove the need for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and mitigate its negative impact on waterways, air and soil. Research confirms that a spirit produced from peas has a smaller environmental footprint in 12 different areas, including global warming, resource depletion and acidification, which all contribute to Nàdar’s negative carbon footprint of -1.54kg of CO2e per 700ml bottle.
However, it is estimated that one-third of the food produced globally goes to waste, therefore any distiller that can hark back to the industry’s origins – by using produce that can be neither eaten nor sold – has a real opportunity to take a lead in sustainability. To that end, Greensand Ridge creates all its distilled spirits from locally sourced food waste, and though it currently purchases UK-produced neutral spirit for gin production, Will Edge hopes in the coming years to produce a neutral spirit from food waste using 100 per cent renewable power.
Foxhole’s HYKE Gin was created specifically to tackle food waste, and is produced from the fresh table grapes that simply don’t fit into supermarket punnets. The large juicy grapes are pressed to create a grape spirit that is dialled down with UK grain neutral spirit to allow the botanicals to shine through. Working with international fruit importer Richard Hochfeld, Foxhole has saved more than five million grapes from going to waste in the last two years alone.
As well as working with supply chains to reduce waste at every step of the production process, innovative brands are also finding sustainable ways to deal with spent raw materials. Large quantities might be repurposed as cattle feed, compost or in anaerobic digestion to produce biogas and biofertiliser, but more creative uses for waste streams include truly circular reuse in the food industry.
London’s 58 Gin donates its gin-soaked sloe berries to Spitalfield’s Humble Crumble, while Cooper King sends its spent botanicals to Haxby Bakehouse to be upcycled into breads and pastry glazes. Fermanagh’s Boatyard Distillery launched The Proper Chocolate Company to make use of its spent botanicals, and Australia’s Four Pillars created an entire Made From Gin product range including Breakfast Negroni Marmalade, Gin Botanical Curry Powder and Rare Dry Gin Salt. Suffolk brewer and distiller Adnams is even exploring skin moisturiser as the latest venture for part of its waste stream.
Distilleries always have been at the end of the food chain, elevating raw materials that were not good enough for other purposes into something delicious. Now many are doing that with a more environmentally conscious focus, while also transforming the resulting waste into something more valuable too. In doing so, distilleries are not only reducing their impact on the planet but also increasing the value of their own brands, and what could be more sustainable than that?