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05/12/2014 11:10 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

How Green Booze Might Just Be the Future Of Drinking

Robert Haynes-Peterson is one of AskMen's favorite writers. He scribes about spirits, cocktails, wine, and, when he has time, luxury lifestyle.

Perhaps you thought "socially conscious" drinking meant you weren't an obnoxious jerk at the bar and you managed to stay upright all night. But it turns out there are actually an increasing number of liquors, mixers and cocktail products identified as organic, sustainable, fair trade, and other earth-friendly terms.

"People buy organic spirits and cocktails for the same reason they buy organic food," says Paul Abercrombie, author of Organic, Shaken and Stirred. "They want to consume better products and avoid additives, preservatives and pesticides." But as with foods -- particularly packaged and processed foods -- the concept of what's actually "organic," "fair trade" or "sustainable" is complex and loaded with social and political baggage. For producers large and small -- even with the best of intentions -- navigating the warren of legislation, certification processes and demanding hippies can make creating an earth-friendly spirit a challenge.

"I believe it's important to understand the reasons why someone wants to make an organic spirit," says Dragos Axinte, co-owner of Novo Fogo, a cachaça made at the edge of the southern Brazilian rainforest. "Sometimes people just want the bullet points on their label. But I think if you're trying to do things for profit, it just doesn't work out."

Novo Fogo is crafted from local organic cane sugar on the edge of the largest swath of preserved rainforest. Axinte (whose name sounds like a Game of Thrones character to us) says he feels there's almost a built-in obligation for his company to behave as responsibly as it can with regards to the surrounding environment: "The context is so important."

From a gravity-fed fermentation and distillation process (which not only cuts down on electricity and pollution, but reduces the noise impact on local endangered species), to capturing the heat produced from fermentation to reduce fuel costs, to a zero-waste policy for the entire distillery, "there's a social responsibility that comes with distilling here, for everyone."

Roberto Serralles, of Destileria Serralles in Puerto Rico -- which produces Don Q rum -- agrees. Into the 1970s, much of the island's wastewater runoff from rum production was redistributed into sugar cane fields. "It acts as a fairly good 'fertigation' -- fertilized irrigation," he explains. When the industry died out, there was no place to put the extra water (up to 350,000 gallons of wastewater per day just for Destileria Serralles, when they held the license to distill for Captain Morgan).

U.S. territories, like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are subject to the same rigorous environmental laws as the rest of the country, and the Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to critically examine companies who dump that extra water into the surrounding ocean or sewage systems. Serralles says giving a damn was an idea whose time had come. "I was a grad student, doing my Ph.D. in environmental stuff, and my dad said, 'Hey we have this issue, can you help us out?'"

The result was a "Frankenstein hybrid" of a management system that creates a zero wastewater solution. The two-stage process involves an anaerobic system, removing about 60 percent of the organic content (and producing methane, used as a biofuel), and an aerobic process to polish off the other 40 percent, producing clean water. "It took us awhile to get adjusted," says Serralles, "but now it's very robust."

All well and good. But why should anyone care, beyond patting themselves on the back for drinking (socially) responsibly? One reason is the global angle. Organic asparagus at your farmers' market helps a smidgen of local land, which is probably in relatively good shape already. Certified organic or sustainable spirits, on the other hand, are often made in economically and environmentally challenged hotspots around the world. In rural areas, where young people often flee traditional trades, the increased demand for premium and unusual spirits helps encourage a new generation of craftspeople and agriculturalists. It's possible you could be making more of an impact with a decent bottle of tequila than with your free-range eggs.

The concerns are different for different spirit categories. Where rum and cachaça must deal with wastewater amid environmentally fragile ecosystems, vodka distillers' focus is primarily on organic grains or using locally sourced grains to reduce the carbon emissions caused by transportation. Producers also deal with the complexities of flavored expressions (could there ever be an organic cotton-candy vodka, for example?).

For tequila, "it's about respect for the earth," says Jose Hermosillo, CEO of Casa Noble tequila. "By being organic, we are committing to not using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers." The process requires a double certification covering the fields and the vehicles and tools used (to avoid cross-contamination). The distillery's tanks, tools and facilities are also certified organic for the same reason, so that "the steps and controls taken are a huge list that is then checked by the certifier."

This concept of environmentally friendly and socially responsible booze is moving beyond the little guys. Diageo (Captain Morgan's parent company) has installed Veolia brand evaporators at its rum-production facilities to help reduce wastewater and plans to install more. Islay-based Scotch whisky producer Bruichladdich recently repositioned the brand as "Progressive Hebridean Distillers," using a variety of local and organic barleys and promoting organic farming for single malts. Wild Turkey's master distiller Jimmy Russell has been quoted as saying he's stayed away from genetically modified corn in a large part due to ever-evolving government regulations on GMO products, which may restrict what the brand's able to do with an end product that ages two to 10 years or more.

The consumer seems, gradually, to be paying attention. Vodka has done particularly well with the eco-friendly market. Crop Organic has produced innovative, organic, GMO-free flavors like Meyer Lemon, Cucumber and Tomato. American Harvest, in addition to being organic, sources a third of its electricity from wind power. Fair Spirits, producers of Fair Quinoa Vodka and Fair Rum, focuses on ensuring fair trade compensation to farmers in Bolivia and Belize, while Prairie Spirits sources its 100 percent organic grains from family farmers.

Bars are beginning to become proselytizers as well. Houston's The Pastry War and Anvil Bar each make a point of carrying sustainably produced and socially responsible mezcals and tequilas, for example. There's still work to be done on the awareness front, says Serralles. "Bartenders, at the moment, care more about sustainable products than organic. In part because it's a more tangible concept and in part because they've seen a lot of organic products that are not that great. But the two concepts go hand-in-hand."

As with any corporate attempt at social responsibility, there are detractors who cry greenwashing. Some point out that U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling laws allow for creative marketing. For example, a product labeled "organic" on the bottle's front must be made from at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients, but a bottle that lists "organic ingredients" on the back may have less than 70 percent organically produced ingredients and doesn't have to break down the exact percentages of organic versus non-organic ingredients. As with food, the words "all natural" mean absolutely nothing. And there are other issues. In the case of tequila, the long growing period for agave (seven to 10 years) and understaffed inspection offices lead some to ponder how frequently inspectors can monitor the fields for infractions.

Casa Noble's Hermosillo also points out that organic certification doesn't monitor wastewater spillage (a significant issue in the fragile high deserts of western Mexico) or energy consumption. "That's why we are not only organic but also green. We spent five years working with the Mexican government agency that oversees environmental regulations, to become one of only 17 industries in the country to be certified clean." He also acknowledges there is still much to do to improve the quality and nature of the agave harvests in Mexico, from which tequila and mezcal are made. "I think as an industry, we need to get better at planting agave versus harvesting, as we continue with a cycle of shortages every 10 years. It hurts us all at some point."

And Don Q's Serralles observes that humans haven't yet perfected nature's cycle of ecological sustainability, where everything, even waste product, is used to maximum efficiency. "It's more of a commitment to sustainability than actual sustainability," he says. "Whenever someone says, 'We're sustainable,' I say, 'Bullsh*t.'"

Continuously re-examining and fine-tuning the process is key, according to Serralles. "You have to put your money where your mouth is. At the end of the day, it makes my rum more expensive, but I think eventually other people are going to have to catch up. And that's going to be costly for them. It's one of those things where it's really about being ahead of the curve: You have to keep trying."

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