In a new series, the Fortnum & Mason food writer of the year Clare Finney explores drinks at Borough Market that have been produced using ingredients and methods that put sustainability front and centre. This week: spirits
Let’s cut to the chase. No, not the vodka brand—the crux of the matter. Distilling is not an environmentally sustainable practice. It is energy intensive, demands vast quantities of water, and the results are almost always packaged in heavy glass. So when we talk—or indeed write—about sustainability in the spirits industry, we should do so “with self-awareness” says East London Liquor Company’s Ashley Hunka. “It’s a complex thing, but we do the best that we can, and we’re always looking at ways we can improve on that.”
“The best we can” is, in the case of East London Liquor Company, substantial. They recycle both heat and water from the distilling process. They use this to brew their London Rye Whisky, and the spent grain from their brew house is sent to local farmers for animal feed. Being a big supporter of local bars and businesses, many of their local deliveries are made with the cycle delivery service Pedal Me—and by the end of this year they will be sending all of their distillery effluent (waste liquid and pot ale from the distilling process), along with spent grain and used botanicals, to a specialist anaerobic digestion plant for processing into biogas. The biogas, which is carbon neutral, is sold back into the national grid by the plant: the perfect example of energy recycling.
There’s plenty more in the pipeline—but as Ashley points out, sustainability isn’t just about the environment, but about employees and the communities your business holds responsibility for. Here, the East London Liquor Company and its multifarious suppliers come into their own. They’ve been London living wage employers since day one—“we want our staff to be able to buy the spirits they make”—and their mezcal supplier, Verde Momento Mezcal, is a project entirely aimed at supporting Oaxaca’s local people and culture.
Beautiful inside and out
Their bottles are beautiful both inside and out: not only does the company pay 20 per cent over market price for raw materials and labour, but they collaborate with local artists to design labels for their bottles. “The town of Oaxaca has a history of great artists—the walls are covered with it. It’s such a colourful place,” explains Nicolai, East London Liquor Company’s shop manager, “and the collaboration allows them to support the local artists, as well as farmers and producers.”
Over at Cartwright Brothers, a mere couple of stalls away, the fair treatment of staff and community is quite literally the name of the game. FAIR, whose spirits and liqueurs Richard Cartwright proudly stocks, is the world's first Fairtrade certified spirits brand: their ingredients are fairly traded from independent farmers, who can as a result afford to practice sustainable farming methods. For example, the coffee beans that make their dark and intense coffee liqueur are organically grown by a co-op of more than 1,900 independent farmers in the Huatusco region of Veracruz, Mexico, and the sugar used in all their products comes from various co-ops in countries such as Belize and Paraguay.
“Paying the farmers a fair price enables them to cover their production costs, live off of farming, educate their children and build schools,” FAIR states—the central premise of the Fairtrade movement. Only once people are out of poverty can they help the environment. This too is the premise behind Verde Momento Mezcal, which has set out to plant 10 agave plants for every one they harvest, in an ambitious reforestation aimed at combating the rapid devastation of agave in pursuit of booze. “Two agave varieties are now extinct through over-production,” Nicolai points out. “They are a subset species and they take a long time to grow. It’s a long time before they can be harvested.” The clue’s in the name when it comes to Verde Momento Mezcal: it’s mezcal, and it’s environmentally green.
Uniting growers and producers
Not all farmers need the assistance of Fairtrade or another external scheme to improve their sustainability standing, however: for Enosis and Kentos Finest Mastihas, which you’ll find at Greek stall Oliveology, it was uniting as growers and producers that enabled them to protect their heritage and the 24 so-called ‘mastiha villages’ that have been dedicated to the cultivation of mastiha, after decades of exploitation by foreign traders.
Mastiha needs protecting: not only is the tree from which it originates, pistacia lentiscus, difficult to grow anywhere other than the island of Chios, the harvesting of the mastic resin is a craft that is said to date back to the Romans, and remains central to the islander identity, economy and culture. Their techniques of harvest, process and production are the work of generations, as is the land upon which they depend. It was this need for stability and sustainability that led to the formation of the Chios Mastiha Growers Association: an association that represents around 5,000 mastiha growers. who together safeguard both the growing and the method of production via their elect committee, and their hard-won PDO.
Perhaps one of the most important—and interesting—areas of sustainability within the spirits world is that of waste: its reduction, but also its reuse. The newly revamped East London Liquor Company store boasts two liquors which have incorporated waste products from other industries: the first ingredient is a biproduct of one of their own collaborations, the other they import from Scotland. The latter is called Discarded (they call things what they are, these sustainable spirits producers) and sees the fruit of the coffee cherry infused into a vermouth spirit.
What we call coffee is essentially the seeds of coffee cherries; the fruit, called ‘cascara’, is a waste product in coffee production, the majority of which is sent to landfill or in some instances, is recycled as fertiliser. Discarded was born when its inventor, Joe Petch, was given some cascara by a barista friend to experiment with. Playing around with various vermouths and distillates brought Joe to its current blend. Spirits producer William Grant and Sons scaled production, saving ever more cascara from landfill. “The cascara comes from their local roastery,” says Nicolai, “but they’re looking for other sources.”
The former ‘by-product booze’ is Bacchus to the Future: a pun-tastic collaboration between East London Liquor Company and their neighbour and urban winemaker, Renegade. The process of winemaking leaves a waste material called pomace: grape skins and bits of stalk that can be used as fertiliser. “But why use it as fertiliser you when you’ve a liquor company up the road?” grins Nicolai. “We distil a grappa-style spirit from Renegade’s 2017 Hereford Bacchus grape pomace, which is then rested for six months in a cask which previously held red wine.” The result makes for a great aperitif—sherry fans will approve, I’m advised—but is equally at home drizzled on ice cream.
Last but by no means least, for those looking for a simple, delicious method of reducing your environmental impact while looking for hard liquor, there are Borough Wines negroni and vermouth taps. “We make our own negroni and sell it in refillable bottles in various sizes, and we have our vermouth on tap as well,” says Ian—an ingenious, if dangerous, offering for those with a weakness for that bitter-sweet awakening.
Spirits aren’t very sustainable ventures. It’s unlikely they will ever be, environment-wise. But choose wisely and you’d be amazed at the difference you can make.