From field to bottle: Where does our alcohol come from?

Words: Max Hayward

It’s not easy being“green”. If it were, everyone would do it. It’s all very well recycling waste, cutting down on single use products, and buying from sustainable sources, but once you begin down the rabbit-hole it’s hard to see where it ends. How far did your Fairtrade coffee travel to get to you? Is the plastic packaging on your organic carrots from recycled material? How long will the biodegradeable straw you’re drinking from really take to break down, and will it end up in the ocean? It can all become a bit overwhelming, and can leave us feeling a bit helpless.

As time goes on, we are certainly getting better at being “green”. One thing we seem to have collectively settled on is stocking our supermarkets with organic food, ranging from apples and oranges to bread and peanut butter. It is of course fantastic that we have easy access to such a wide variety of organic foods, but here at Lab 22, we like to ask the important questions; in this case “what about booze?” Food seems to get all the attention. It’s all very well sleeping soundly on a Sunday night knowing your roasties were from organic potatoes and your meat and vegetables were from a local farm, but what about the glass of wine you had with it? Or the gin and tonic the night before? There seems to be a sincere lack of knowledge of where the ingredients that make our alcohol come from. Is it just me, or is that more than a little concerning?

All across Europe, we love a drink; statistics from the World Health Organisation show that whilst our continent is home to 13.7% of the world’s population, we are responsible for over a fifth of global alcohol consumption (21.2%). In the UK, the average adult drinks around 13 litres of pure alcohol per year. To put that into perspective, that’s about 500 pints of beer. To some, that may sound like a fantastic year, but it also begs the question: where did it all come from? Be it made from grain, fruit, or even milk (looking at you, Black Cow), all alcohol begins its life on a farm of one kind or another, and it seems that many of us are very much in the dark on this matter; we don’t know where the produce is farmed, if it’s farmed sustainably, or what impact this has on the environment.

But what does it mean to farm sustainably, and why should we care? Well for starters, agriculture takes up 72% of the UK’s land area. That’s a vast amount of crops being grown, and this obviously doesn’t include what we import from abroad. Modern agriculture tends to be focussed on maximising crop yield (and therefore profits), which is often achieved through monocultural farming – growing large amounts of the same species of crop in the same area. The idea behind this is that the farmer needs only to care for one type of plant, making it easier both to care for its needs whilst growing and easier to harvest. While great for profits, the monocultural system has various detrimental impacts on the environment. Usually, a field is home to a variety of plants with different biological needs, which means a wider range of nutrients in the soil, more ground cover plants to improve water retention, and a more diverse insect population. With monocultural farming, these natural systems are removed, resulting in less nutritious soil, and the potential for specific species of insect to grow too large and damage crops. The solution to this is often to use chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, which cannot be processed into organic matter. The chemicals then sink through the soil into the groundwater, going back into the water cycle and negatively affecting ecosystems miles away from the farm on which they were first used. Furthermore, the widespread use of these chemicals means that organisms are adapting to and becoming resistant to them, meaning that each year we need to invent more chemicals to combat the adaption

Now, before we grab our pitchforks, lets take a step back for a second. This article is not a witch-hunt. At the end of a day, farming is a livelihood, and in the UK agriculture employs 1.48% of the population – that’s almost 1,000,000 people. To suggest that everyone stop what they’re doing and change their ways is quite frankly ridiculous. In an ideal world, all produce would be organic and sustainable, all the while keeping up with demand, but that isn’t the world we live in. It is very easy to focus on negatives and persecute people for things they aren’t doing, so let’s look at what people are doing – there are many amazing and positive changes being made in the worlds of both food and alcohol.

Although it isn’t seen as often as food, organic alcohol does exist. Enter Benromach Distillery. Established in 1898, the Speyside whisky started producing the world’s first organic single malt, Benromach Organic, in 2006. “Family ownership means we’ve always been unafraid to innovate” says distillery manager Keith Cruickshank. “In the mid-2000s, there was a growing movement towards the production of organic foods but this was less prevalent in the spirits category at the time. As with all new products in the whisky industry, our launch was years in the planning with our casks of organic new make spirit laid down many years before its first release.”

The process of making an organic spirit is meticulous, which is perhaps why not many distilleries are doing it. “Our whisky meets rigorous UK Soil Association standards covering raw materials, distillation, maturation and bottling. Every step of its production is certified Organic by the UK Soil Association, starting with sourcing the barley from a local organic farmer in Speyside” Says Keith. As well as not being monoculturally farmed, the grain has an incredibly low carbon footprint. Being grown so locally, making it great for supporting local farmers and for the reassurance of knowing exactly where the grain for the alcohol comes from. The process does not end with the grain, though. Every element of the product is organic. The wood for the casks is virgin American Virgin Oak from environmentally-managed forests in Missouri. Benromach Organic is the only expression in the range not to use peat, as the UK Soil Association cannot classify the substance as being organic. This is because the age of peat means they cannot verify what has been in it through the years. The distillery even performs a thorough cleaning of all of the distillation apparatus before making the Organic expression, to avoid any cross contamination. It is incredibly admirable how much care is taken at Benromach to ensure that the product is 100% organic. The best part? Benromach Organic is just as delightful as all of the other expressions in the range. It just goes to show that crafting organic spirits doesn’t have to come at the expense of flavour and quality.

There is definitely a market for organic alcohol. Various distilleries have followed suit and gained organic certification in recent years, but it is still yet to be seen on a large scale. As the process of being certified organic is so fastidious, it is understandably difficult to produce huge quantities of organic alcohol. However there are other forms of sustainability, and one shining example of how to make high quality alcohol on a large scale whilst remaining ‘green’ can be found at Chase Distillery in Herefordshire. Situated in a beautiful rural setting, Chase was the first single-estate distillery in the UK – meaning all of the resources they use in their products from their own farm. To find out more about the farm and how they remain sustainable, I spoke to Will Jenkins, one of the Chase’s distillers.

“As farmers we have always relied on the land, so we have always been mindful to how we treat it and what condition we leave it in for future generations” he says. The potatoes grown to make the vodka and gin are not monoculturally farmed; the fields are rotated with livestock pastures to ensure the land is well looked after year after year. Furthermore, the orchards don’t use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides, and the leftovers from alcohol production are upcycled back into the land. “It’s the small things like using our spent mash as fertiliser for the next crop of potatoes and using our apple pomace as animal feed that help to keep us sustainable.”

Founded in 2008 by William Chase, the distillery has gone from strength to strength in its 10 year tenure, with Chase Vodka receiving the award for “Best Vodka” in the 2010 San Fransisco World Spirits Competition, and Chase GB Gin receiving double gold (the highest commendation) at the same competition in 2016. And coupled with the excellent standards of their spirits is the reassurance that you know where every last drop has come from – the Chase estate.“One of the benefits of being single estate is having control over the entire process from field to bottle. We aren’t governed by suppliers so will never have to accept sub-standard raw material to make our liquids” says Jenkins. “We wanted to showcase this small part of the world, and our spirits have such unique characteristics which really reflect the Herefordshire potatoes and apples which they come from. I think this is what makes them so unique in the marketplace.” The distillery is growing every year, at the point now where it can supply UK supermarkets as well as the global hospitality industry. Making such products available to the average consumer is an incredibly important step in bringing more sustainable alcohol into our lives, which is a task that Chase seem to have taken under their wing with determination.

The team at Chase are always innovating. They are not on mains water, taking the liquid for their products from a series of underground boreholes dotted around the farm, and have recently implemented a closed circuit system for their fermentation and distillation systems, reducing the water usage from 100,000 litres a day to between 2,000 and 6,000. And, according to Will, it doesn’t stop there. “Another project has been the introduction of our EcoBoiler, named Huxley, which uses reclaimed wood from the farm to provide steam for mashing, powering the stills, and a generator which supplies the farm offices with electricity. With on-site waste treatment we are completely self-sufficient which has been a big goal of ours for a number of years.” Chase is ever-expanding, meaning they have to constantly update the process and equipment to keep up with demand; something Will Jenkins says has “become the norm.” It is incredibly refreshing see a family-run business succeeding on such a large scale, whilst still retaining the family and close community aspects which define the brand.

The work that both these brands are doing is phenomenal, and the positive changes they are making in the industry are absolutely worth shouting about. Although we may be a long way off food and alcohol production being 100% organic, supporting pioneering brands such as Chase and Benromach is a giant leap in the right direction. They set a golden example of the direction in which the industry could progress, and in give a grounded, sensible solution to the quagmire that is large scale sustainable consumption. So what’s coming next? “In terms of future releases, our lips are firmly sealed” say Benromach. Whatever they and Chase have in store, we anticipate it eagerly. In the meantime, keep up the good work guys!

If you would like to know more about either of these brands, you can follow Benromach Distillery on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and follow Chase Distillery on Twitter, and on Facebook and Instagram