Here’s One More Reason To Pour A Vodka Martini Tonight

by Amanda Arnold

September 26, 2016

It’s no secret that the food world has become Mother Nature’s best friend in all sorts of ways. From waste-centric pop-up wastED to massive chains such as Chipotle using local, organic produce, feel-good food is everywhere. However, while the restaurant industry is busy pushing its way into new sustainable ground, the $110 billion spirit industry has failed to follow suit.

Between the distillation process, packaging, and the transportation of materials, liquor’s carbon footprint is not insignificant. Spirit distilleries have very large carbon footprints, accounting for as much as 1.5 percent of the United Kingdom’s entire carbon output alone. While all food and drink have at least some carbon footprint due to growth, packaging, and shipping, vodka’s footprint tends to be one of the highest in the industry.

The majority of emissions comes from the distillation process, according to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable’s research on the carbon footprint of spirits, specifically, from the large amount of grains and water required, which then have to be purified—a process that requires high levels of energy.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a guilt-free vodka martini tonight.

In the perfectly preserved medieval town of Åhus in southern Sweden, a place that fewer than 10,000 people call home, a not-so-little vodka company has been dedicated to sustainability for nearly 20 years.

Absolut and its luxury brand Elyx is one of the most environmentally conscious alcohol corporations of its size. 

“It’s the way we’re brought up, not just our company,” says Krister Asplund, Elyx’s master distiller, who has been with Absolut since 1982. “It’s natural for our employees and management team to not make environmental issues worse.”

Elyx keeps its vodka production sustainable, starting with the wheat. Photo by Amanda Arnold

According to Environmental Leader, Sweden is the most sustainable country in the world, so Absolut’s initiatives just came naturally. It’s not hard to see why when you visit Åhus, which is an incredibly picturesque, pleasantly sleepy town with cobbled streets that wind past churches, galleries, and residential homes with bikes propped up against fences. Situated right on the river is the Absolut distillery, a large, red-brick building where both Absolut and Elyx vodka are distilled. Though this is where the raw materials—winter wheat and naturally filtered Swedish water—take shape into a recognizable form, you have to start at the source of those raw materials to be truly sustainable.

The single-estate winter wheat used in Elyx is grown naturally with no artificial irrigation, and waste is used to feed the 7,000 animals on the estate. In turn, their waste fertilizes the wheat—a complete cycle that is oftendiscarded in traditional industrial agriculture. Once those ingredients are transformed into vodka, the spirit is packaged in bottles made from at least 50 percent recycled glass. Within the distillery, all electricity is green and generated by hydropower. Outside the distillery, Elyx captures rainwater runoff from their roof and gives it back to local farmers.

Asplund says Absolut is one of the most “energy efficient distillation operations in the world” and meets the requirements for ISO 14001, which is “the international standard for environmental management systems.” However, Asplund notes there’s always room for improvement. By 2020, he hopes to have a minimum of 80 percent of domestic transportation fossil fuel free for Absolut and Elyx.

There’s something missing from Absolut and Elyx’s bottles, though: an organic certification. More and more brands, such as American Harvest Organic Vodka, are made from organic winter wheat and water from nearby aquifers.

“We decided that organic was not the right way for a commercial industrial distillery of our size,” Asplund says. “We need [the company] to be efficient, but more importantly, we need to have it be sustainable.”

Luckily, for environmentally conscious spirit lovers everywhere, more and more vodka makers are trying to lessen their environmental impact in the same way that Absolut is. Square One Organic Vodka saves water by going through a single distillation process, while Prairie Vodka, produced in Minnesota, uses organic corn and turns the leftover corncobs into biofuel. But for Absolut, working toward an organic label at a distillery of its size can actually negate other sustainable pursuits. That isn’t to say that the company won’t become organic or add on new environmental initiatives in future.

“As we improve, we learn more about the impact that we make,” Asplund says of his sustainable pursuit, adding, “I think this will be a forever ongoing story.”

Header Photo via Flickr

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