Does American Whiskey Have A More Sustainable Future?

We live in an age where questions of sustainability are brought up for nearly every product we consume, and whiskey is no exception. When you're sipping your favorite whiskey, you might not give too much thought to how sustainably made your beverage is, but today, there are more and more distilleries brainstorming how to make products greener in the coming years. Whether that be through farming, packaging, distribution, or even the creation of the whiskey itself, a new approach to whiskey-making is beginning to take root.

These sustainable means of production have not become the norm for creating the product yet, but as resources and knowledge of how to achieve these sustainable results spread, we might begin to see an uptick in these methods. One company already beginning to implement these sustainable practices is Frey Ranch Distillery. Tasting Table had the opportunity to speak with whiskey farmer and co-founder of Frey Ranch Distillery Colby Frey about how the business is using sustainability in its production.

Colby's approach to sustainability starts with farming first. "At Frey Ranch Distillery we are all about taking a common-sense approach to sustainability," says Frey. "This means leaning into farming practices that make good business sense."

What does sustainability in whiskey production look like?

Sustainability in whiskey production can take on many forms. Some of the biggest sustainable changes that can be made are mindful sourcing of ingredients, water conservation, waste reduction, and recycling. Sustainable ingredient sourcing means using a more intentional approach to where ingredients come from. For example, because Frey Ranch Distillery uses its own farmed grains for production, the carbon footprint to transport these grains is significantly less. Greener farming also includes taking a more organic approach to what products are being put into the soil.

Sustainability through water conservation refers to how distilleries can cut down on water consumption. Maker's Mark has taken steps to improve its water conservation by building a pond to hold runoff rainwater and repurposing it for whiskey making. Some distilleries will bring in outside environmental agencies for guidance on how to do better for the surrounding land, particularly for local water sources. Waste reduction and recycling is a form of sustainability many distilleries have already begun to adopt into their processes. Spent grain doesn't have to go to waste, it can be repurposed as livestock feed, creating a more environmentally friendly production loop from farm to distillery.

Why are some distilleries more sustainable than others?

Frey Ranch has the unique benefit of being able to produce all of the grains used for its whiskey making. One of the company's major goals is to "leave the land better than we found it," says Colby Frey. This farming mantra drives Frey Ranch to use careful consideration while farming and has allowed the company to cut down on its carbon footprint.

Despite the commitment to sustainability, Frey Ranch acknowledges that through the farming end of whiskey production, it can be difficult for other businesses to commit. "At the end of the day, sustainability is measured in how much you can offset your environmental impact, and if you don't have the instruments and fundamentals in place at the very beginning, it's extremely costly and inefficient to create those measures once your distilling business is up and running," says Frey.

That doesn't mean sustainability is impossible, but generating similar results as Frey Ranch would require a great deal of effort. Most distilleries have to rely on outside grains for production, which can't be changed easily. It may be a gradual shift as we begin to see sustainable practices implemented in whiskey production, but with major whiskey brands like Maker's Mark already beginning to take steps, it lets other brands know that even small changes can be made.