Sustainability in California’s Distilleries

The hybrid pot still at Spirit Works Distillery

California has been a pioneer in sustainability and environmental practices for decades, as the first state to adopt appliance efficiency standards in 1977, or limit pollution from cars, or in San Francisco, to outlaw grocery store plastic bags in 2007, with the state following suit in 2016. 

California’s craft distilling pioneers in the early 1980s (St. George, Charbay, Germain-Robin) and 1990s (Anchor Distilling, now Hotaling & Co.; Oscocalis Distillery) pre-dated the global renaissance by decades, distilling local fruits and grapes. But moving the environmental distilling needle isn’t easy. Bay Area local Shanna Farrel’s book, A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits, released September 2021, digs into the complex difficulties of establishing environmental practices in spirits, cocktails, and farming.  

But this hasn’t deterred distilleries across the state, starting with trailblazers like the great St. George Spirits, just outside San Francisco on the island of Alameda. Since opening in 1982, they use local ingredients for fruit brandies; going on to source local peppers for Green Chile Vodka and Bay Area botanicals for their incomparable Terroir Gin. 

At Griffo Distillery in the Sonoma County town of Petaluma, Michael and Jenny Griffo built their business on sustainable principles prior to opening in 2015. “We believe deeply in ensuring we’re a part of leaving the earth better than we found it,” says Jenny. “That means each step of our spirit-making process is thoughtfully managed. Our proprietary automated still controls mean we are never wasting energy. We almost exclusively utilize local, organically grown grains. After we distill, our spent grains are sent to local pig farmers. Those pigs just love our grain. And our kids love the bacon the farmers send back to us in thanks. Full circle, baby.”

Just north of Petaluma in Rohnert Park, SF native Adam Spiegel’s Sonoma Distilling Company is another grain-to-glass Sonoma distillery making waves as a whiskey-only distillery since 2010. They use non-GMO raw materials, locally smoked malted barley, and mostly California grain.

Water is one of the key concerns now and going forward. Humboldt Distillery produces organic spirits in Humboldt County, far north near the coast, including a hemp vodka, a key crop of the region. “Living in California, we're especially attuned to water conservation,” explains founder/master distiller Abe Stevens. “Many distilleries use water as a source of coolant for their product condensers. It goes in cold and comes out hot. Unfortunately, at many distilleries, it then goes straight down the drain, wasting not just water but energy. We always capture our condenser water, enabling us to reuse it. It can be used for equipment cleaning, as a source of pre-heated water for the next [fermentation] batch, and latent heat can be used to pre-heat the fermented wash as it enters the still, reducing our energy usage.” Custom stills also aid in conservation: “One of our self-built continuous stills I designed runs without any external water source, having saved us thousands of gallons of water [compared to] a traditional still.”  

Since Timo and Ashby Marshall opened Spirit Works in 2013 — another Sonoma County trailblazer in Sebastopol — they’ve championed grain-to-glass and female distillers (Ashby is the master distiller who has trained and hired only female distillers over the years). Sourcing fully organic grain and as locally as possible (e.g. their rye grain is grown merely five miles from the distillery, while 70% of their spirits feature Organic Red Winter Wheat grown in the Sacramento Valley), they’re working towards all grain grown within 20 miles. They installed an advanced water recycling system, use an extractor fan on summer nights to bring in cool air and save daytime energy, updated their lighting system to California energy-efficient standards (a rarity in warehouses) and donate spent grain and water to local farmers to feed animals or as fertilizer. “We also believe in sustainability for our employees,” Ashby expounds. “[We] care for them like family, provide excellent benefits, and specifically designed the distillery to be able to process one of our batches in an 8-hour day.” 

Botanicals and flavors at Spirit Works Distillery; Above: Harvesting sweet potatoes, courtesy of Corbin Cash Distillery

The Marshalls worked for environmental non-profits for 10 years prior to founding Spirit Works, spanning environmental issues from oceans, forests and toxics, to climate change. “We’re in a climate crisis with extreme weather on both ends of the spectrum,” says Ashby. “In the past three years, our team has all been evacuated for both floods and fires. Luckily everyone — and the distillery — remained safe each time. Crops, especially organically grown crops, are not as tolerant to adverse conditions. Directly connected to this climate crisis is the drought we’re facing.” 

Savvy distillers support organizations that are working towards conservation. “We support California Coast Keeper Alliance because of their advocacy at the state level promoting good policies that protect our waterways,” says Humboldt’s Stevens. Sourcing all their gin botanicals in California and Mexico, Gray Whale Gin founders Marsh and Jan Mokhtari support Oceana with every bottle sold, aiding in protecting and restoring the world's oceans.

For some, tragedy inspires invention. In 2020, Lindsay Hoopes, of Napa winery Hoopes Vineyard, and Kentucky distiller Marianne Eaves of Castle & Key, distilled their first round of innovative smoked brandies at Spirit Works. They continue to experiment with a range of grapes and age, inspired by peaty Islay Scotches and smoky mezcals, asking an exciting question for spirits geeks: why can't there be an equivalent style in brandy? (In another big win for brandy in the state pioneering American brandy for decades, the first stand-alone tasting room dedicated to California brandies opened November 2020 in downtown Napa). 

Released September 2021 as a limited edition bottling, Hangar 1 launched “an experiment in sustainability and terroir,” Smoke Point Vodka, the first vodka made using smoke-tinged grapes from the devastating 2020 California wildfires. As a collaboration with Crimson Wine Group, Hangar 1 distilled smoke-tinged Malbec and Merlot grapes from Napa, donating all proceeds to the California Fire Foundation.

Los Angeles  craft distilling   pioneers, Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, are also trailblazers in sustainability. Since opening Greenbar Distillery in 2004, they set the environmental bar high when in 2008, they morphed to organic ingredients, 100% recycled bottle labels and planting one tree for each bottle of spirits sold. They’re approaching one million trees planted since they started this campaign — an impressive feat, indeed. 

Just north of San Diego, Pacific Coast Spirits was essentially California’s first farm-to-table restaurant and grain-to-glass distillery under the same roof. Founder/head distiller Nicholas Hammond expounds, “sustainability is part of our core ethos. We reduce, reuse and recycle in every aspect from distilling to our bar and kitchen. We built a water recycling loop in our distilling process which allows us to reuse 98% of our water… We donate all of our spent grains to local ranchers for livestock feed. One of the most exciting aspects is that our bar and kitchen collaborate on byproducts to aim to have zero waste where possible.” 

In LA, Morgan McLachlan and Miller Duvall opened The Spirit Guild in 2016. Distilling their vodka and gin base from local clementines, they take advantage of California’s abundant citrus, calling on Duvall’s farming family roots in Central Cal. Duvall says, “Our products are already more gentle on the ecosystem by their very nature. That's because they're made from local produce, stuff that's being grown within just a hundred miles from us. Meanwhile, most gin and vodka is made from a base of corn ethanol that is trucked in from the Midwest and comes with a host of problems: pesticides, GMOs and the whole system of government subsidies and political patronage that keeps the corn economy afloat. Moreover, [California] citrus farms tend to be family-owned operations. When you support local agriculture, you're keeping these families in the business of growing and more able to resist the temptation to sell out to a developer.”

As Duvall points out, in addition to water, the relationship of farming to distilling is crucial. Inland near Yosemite in Atwater, Corbin Cash Distillery’s David John Souza distills farm-to-bottle whiskeys, bourbons, gins and their signature sweet potato liqueur and vodka from the farm where the Souza family has grown sweet potatoes and Merced rye since 1917. “As a farmer turned master distiller,” says Souza, “I’m always looking for new ways to cut our environmental impact as well as reduce waste. Our key focus is always water. Distilleries use a large amount of water to operate, even a small-scale operation like ours in full production can consume upwards of 3000 gallons a day to produce 60,000 cases a year.” As cooling water runs through their stills, they keep temperature and proof consistent, captured in an insulated tank, saving hundreds of gallons of propane per year by not starting with cold water. They also use their spent grain/mash as a feed supplement or fertilizer for their farm. 

It’s thanks to these conscientious, resourceful distilleries — and many others in the state — that we can celebrate our rich array of California spirits without worrying of destruction to our unparalleled crops and soil. There is much still to be done to reverse the effects of global warming, topsoil erosion, drought and beyond, but these distilleries model the kind of businesses we need to move forward. •


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