Sustainable dining is well established, with nose-to-tail eating, local sourcing and waste reduction adopted by chefs across the UK. Look at zero-waste restaurant Silo, Thomasina Miers’ carbon-neutral Mexican street food chain Wahaca, or Ugly Butterfly in St.Ives.
But the drinks industry – largely controlled by a handful of multinational companies – has been slower to wake up, bleary-eyed, to the demand for sustainable options. White Lyan opened in 2013, and its founder Ryan Chetiyawardana was a pioneer championing a zero-waste philosophy with his experimental ‘closed-loop’ cocktails. But since then, there’s been little visible proactivity to reduce the waste in both the consumption and creation of the UK’s favourite tipples.
But is there a new awakening?
Russ and Gemma Wakeham started Two Drifters in April 2019, selling their house to buy the equipment and rent a unit near Exeter Airport with a distillery for their carbon negative rum range, now producing 2,500 bottles a week.
Rum is inextricably linked to food waste. The key ingredient, molasses, is a syrupy substance left over when crystallised sugar is refined and removed. Two Drifters’ molasses come from the Tate & Lyle refinery in London and, although a by-product, are still the largest cause of emissions in the process, as the cane is grown in Central America. “Rum has to be made from something derived from a sugar cane,” Russ Wakeham explains. “Which is about the only rule there is in rum making.”
But despite those constraints, Wakeham wanted to show that it was “entirely possible” to make a rum with a smaller footprint. And with his background in carbon capture research, he was well placed. He tracks the emissions at every stage, from irrigating sugar cane fields, to last-mile shipping. They partner with a company called Climeworks, which “sucks the CO2 straight out of the air and turns it into stone that’s put into the ground”, Russ says. Known as direct air capture, it’s described by the Financial Times as the “forefront of carbon removal technology”, capable of storing CO2 below ground for thousands of years.
They partner with a company called Climeworks, which “sucks the CO2 straight out of the air and turns it into stone that’s put into the ground”.
Sound expensive? It is. “It’s a very expensive way to reduce carbon. A self-imposed tax,” says Wakeham. This forced them to find ways to reduce the bill.
Switching to narrow, lighter bottles produced in the UK (rather than traditional shorter, wider, heavier ones made in Italy) has cut emissions by about 230 grams per bottle. That’s equivalent to driving a petrol car for about 1,500 miles.
But how much difference can a rum really make?
Wakeham hopes his model shows that a carbon tax “makes you innovate in ways you haven’t thought of”. It’s an experiment that knocks the environmental impact of production squarely into the world of cold, hard capitalism. “If you price in carbon for what you’re doing, the market will act like a market,” he says, arguing that linking carbon with cash in this way forces businesses to trim unnecessary emissions, just as they would with any other production costs. “It’s going to need to be really justifiable to have that for the cost, and it almost certainly won’t be”.
William Grant & Sons, one of the world’s biggest spirit producers, has ventured into sustainability through its Discarded Spirits brand. According to Sam Trevethyen, Global Brand Ambassador, Discarded started in 2018 as an internal experiment by an individual employee (“a very creative dude”), who was given some cascara (the discarded fruit of the coffee cherry) and challenged to do “something cool” with it.
“Most people are either talking about heritage, or provenance. We want to change the idea of what people perceive waste to be.”
He mixed it with vermouth, a sherry that’s used by the whisky business in single malt whisky casks. Once a by-product, the result is now Discarded Vermouth. The brand wants to change the perception of waste in the drinks industry. “Our message is very different from any other spirits company,” Trevelyn explains. “Most people are either talking about heritage, or provenance. We want to change the idea of what people perceive waste to be.” Enter the Discarded Banana Peel Rum, because “banana peels are synonymous with waste”.
The banana peels come from a flavour house in the Netherlands. They make banana flavour from the fruit, and used to discard the peels. Now they dehydrate and grind them, before sending them to Discarded, where they’re soaked in alcohol to create an extract, before being blended with Caribbean Rum. Similar to the sherry for the Discarded Vermouth, once used to flavour whisky casks, the rum was shipped back to the Caribbean; costly for the planet as well as William Grant’s profit margin.
But has Discarded had an impact on the rest of the industry, or even within William Grant? “We like to think of ourselves as a beating heart of change within the business,” says Trevelyn. It’s a romantic thought, but they haven’t yet measured that impact. They don’t claim to be carbon neutral, and “change takes time” – but it’s a good, and tasty, start…
In 2013 the founders of Cooper King were living in Tasmania when wildfires ripped through the country, filling the “orange sky with smoke”. Now back in the UK, they always wanted to make whisky, but as co-founder Chris Jaume explains, they were set on “being able to protect the environment that we’d seen destroyed”.
“They’re getting a sustainable product that they know their customers want, but at a price point that can compete with the less sustainable products that cost less.”
Cooper King’s carbon negative gin contains zero discarded ingredients. Instead, they turn their attention to the whole production process to ensure its carbon negative accreditation. They grow their own ingredients where they can, like honey from on-site hives; and their wheat (required for the neutral grain spirit that’s the base for gin) is grown nearby in Yorkshire. They use vacuum gin stills in their distillery (run using 100% green energy) to enable distillation at cooler temperatures.
According to a report they recently published, Cooper King also works with a tree-planting scheme, and invests money into projects that remove 1kg more CO2 from the atmosphere than the gin emits. Closing the loop is the focus, and their own waste is upcycled: the spent botanicals – juniper “and everything” – are sent to a local bakery and used in pastries.
They were also the first spirit company in the UK to offer a refill scheme. This has created a bit of a breakthrough with on-trade suppliers, like bars and restaurants, where there wasn’t, according to Jaume, “a huge desire to source sustainable spirits” until it was introduced. Again, the cut-through lies in linking sustainable benefits to financial ones. As Jaume says, “they’re getting a sustainable product that they know their customers want, but at a price point that can compete with the less sustainable products that cost less.”
TOAST: Beer made from waste bread.
Black Cow: Vodka made from whey: the waste from dairy farming and cheese making process.
Climate Positive ‘Nadar’ Gin: Another gin, this time made from peas (high in nitrogen, and as such requiring no nitrogen fertiliser), to avoid more carbon emissions than they produce.
7Brothers beers: Making the milk go chocolatey, their ‘Sling it Stout’ is made from upcycled Coco Pops.
Two Drifters Rum | Photography by Christian Banfield
Discarded | Assets created by Discarded Sprit Co.
Cooper King | All images supplied by Cooper King Distillery
What we eat, and where it’s come from, is a hot (and hefty) topic that can leave a bad taste in our mouths. From toxic farming to climate change, corporate greed to rising hunger, our industrialised global food systems are broke and need fixing. But there’s a sweet smell of change in the air, and it’s getting ever stronger. We meet some of the inspiring folk working tirelessly to grow better, fairer, cleaner, healthier, climate-fixing ways of feeding ourselves…
From Kelis donning a make-do bin liner glove and birthing rams to Terminator X's disastrous ostrich farm; reimagining the wheat industry to sudden realisations on a tour bus porta-potty; Dave Waller delves into an eclectic lineage of rockstars turned farmers…
Deeply entwined with empire, a diaspora of exotic species populates our horticulture. From the Victorian plant hunters who brought botanical incomers to Britain to the #decolonisethegarden movement, we unearth ancestral roots and explore how a more inclusive approach to gardening is flourishing, thanks to people like grower and author Claire Ratinon…
The tiny feelings that stay with us. The ripples from a pebble dropped in an ocean. Papercuts in our lives. For author Huma Qureshi, the everyday holds wonder and endless inspiration. She talks to Lucy Beckley about the roots of her inspiration, what drives her to write and how pigeonholing will never serve the story.
Cycling, holidays, good food. Wildflowers, fresh produce, fun walks. Farming, craftspeople, early morning roosters. The word ‘countryside’ means different things to different people, but deprivation, conflict, and communities struggling to evolve in the modern world may not spring to mind so easily. Photographer Oliver Udy introduces his decade-long portrait project exploring cultural change in rural areas across Europe.
Rosanna Morris’s linocut and woodcut illustrations are traditional yet contemporary, delicately floral and yet full of the power and strength of revolution. Her creative process is rooted in community, and she aims to bring people together through her work. We spoke to the Bristol-based printmaker, illustrator, allotment grower and mother about sowing the seeds of change through her art.
With the boom in bitters still going strong and a constant cocktail thirst to sate, Clare Howdle experiments with making her own bitters. Starting with sampling the bitterest of roots – gentian. Not to be advised.
Lucy Jane and Joya Berrow make up The Right to Roam, a film duo committed to telling stories from the source, and in the process, shaking up the foundations of the industry as we know it. Fascinated by their projects and approach to making film production sustainable, Ellie Russell caught up with them to find out more…
Entrenched gender inequality in farming is slowly changing, but it is underrepresented and little researched change. Photographer Amy Bullock has embarked on a thought-provoking portrait series to find England’s female farmers…
The Modern Classic by Rachel Carson was pivotal in changing society’s approach to nature management. Paul Dicken wonders how much it informed his earliest ideas about farming, unknown to him…
What helps you create? Whether it’s writing, drawing, shooting or even whittling, for so many of us, music makes the world go round. In fact, we couldn’t imagine working without it. Fascinated by how other creative souls get stuff done, we decided to unpick this causal connection by speaking to different creators about their practice, process and how music fuels their fire. This issue, it's Syrian-born storyteller, writer, dramaturg, performer and director, Ammar Haj Ahmad...