Christmas is upon us. Whether you’re heading to the office party, a family gathering or planning the main event, food and drink is on everybody’s mind. But while most people are becoming increasingly aware of the value of homemade mince pies, or willing to order a ‘heritage’ variety turkey, the question of sourcing sustainably produced alcohol often gets overlooked.

So why is it worth making the extra effort to ensure that good alcohol is on your Christmas table? Unfortunately, like almost everything else we do, what we drink has a substantial impact on the environment. According to Grist, a 2012 report on the Carbon Footprint of Spirits found that a 750ml bottle of liquor produces, on average, 6.30 pounds of CO2. That’s the equivalent of six giant exercise balls full of carbon dioxide.

Distillation is the number one contributing factor to a spirit’s carbon footprint, accounting for more than a third of emissions, largely because of the energy needed to power the process. Distillation creates a lot of waste in the leftover mash, including wastewater and general gunk, which varies depending on the alcohol you’re making.

As with any form of production, problems tend to increase when you start producing on a mass scale, such as replacing sugar with high-fructose corn syrup. The general rule of thumb is that a cheap, mass-produced product, tends to be cheap for a reason.

However, with speciality food products, less usually equates to more. Where possible, stretching to alcohol made on a small scale, with love and integrity by those who have a passion for what they do, is a good choice. It might mean forking out a bit more cash, but these drinks are to be savoured slowly, adding a gentle glow to the Christmas festivities, rather than consumed speedily by those seeking oblivion.

A boozy revolution

Luckily, for those of us who want to feel good about our Christmas tipple, the last five years have witnessed a veritable renaissance for the craft drinks industry. Plus, a shift in the right direction by some large-scale operations.

In America, good progress has been made by the larger distilleries, which are now tackling their waste issues by recycling production leftovers for other uses. Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark both distribute their leftover mash as animal feed, and recycle large amounts of waste water, creating grey-water that can be put back onto the land. Maker’s Mark is a good example of a large distillery, producing a million cases a year, but committed to the tradition and heritage of the drink they produce. Corn is locally sourced, and bottles hand-dipped to wax their tops.

In the UK, a boom in the number of small independent brewers and distilleries give customers plenty of choice when it comes to selecting booze with a better story. A report released to mark the launch of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide 2016, revealed that 204 new breweries have opened in the past 12 months, taking the total to 1,424 – the highest that it’s been since the 1930s.

This explosion has led to the successful expansion of independent breweries like Scottish craft beer company Brewdog and the rise of seasonal, small-batch releases based on unusual ingredients. One exciting brewery focused on seasonal tipples is Wild Beer Co, whose 2015 collection included Sourdough made in collaboration with Hobbs House Bakery, and Redwood 2015 an annual, autumnal barrel aged fruit beer, using locally foraged red fruits from the hedgerows around the brewery.

It isn’t just the rise of the craft-brewing industry that gives UK drinkers a lot to be excited about. Over the last few years, we’ve had a real explosion in the number of small-batch distillers, breathing new life into the idea of seasonal spirits that reflect the available produce of a particular place. There is a new wave of amazing gin distilleries in London, as well as independent Bristol distillers such as Psychopomp Gin and The Collector Vermouth, whose stocks sell out so fast, they are almost impossible to get hold of.

Some of these new spirits are particularly interesting from a sustainability point of view, because they are being made by farmers, who have seized the opportunity to add significant value to the transformation of their primary produce into highly-prized liquors.

William Chase, of both Tyrrells Crisps and Chase Distillery fame had been farming potatoes in Hereford for more than 20 years, mostly supplying supermarkets as a commodity. He was left feeling increasingly detached from his customers, pressured by the supermarkets and questioning whether or not the daily toil was really worthwhile. Knowing that he wanted to keep farming, Chase realised that he had to change direction. So in 2002, he started turning potatoes into potato chips, and so ‘Tyrrells’ was born. By 2008 the national crisp brand had moved into producing vodka. The shock was how little vodka they got for their potatoes, with 16 tonnes of potatoes distilled for 40 hours, producing just 1000 litres of vodka. As Chase says, “so little vodka for all that work was quite disheartening, but it’s a testament to the quality of our vodka. With this supreme quality over all the other mass produced vodka I was sure it would work.” Which indeed it did, Chase’s vodka and gin are now stocked up and down the country in supermarkets and independent off-licenses. Production is still situated on their Hereford farm, and all waste goes to feed a herd of pedigree Hereford cattle. As far as possible, the fresh ingredients used are sourced from the family farm.

Another farmer turned distiller, is West Dorset dairy farmer, Jason Barber of Black Cow Vodka. Black Cow claims to be the world’s first pure milk vodka, made of the whey leftover from the farm’s cheese production. Barber was inspired to create his innovative new spirit, after learning that Mongolian nomads made rough alcohol from the milk of their mares. While the full method of production is a closely guarded secret, writing in the Guardian in 2013, Barber said:

Our family has been involved in milk since 1833 so I thought: let’s use the milk I already have… I sell my milk to my cousins who make Barber’s 1833 vintage cheddar. They use the curds to make the cheese and I take back the whey to make the vodka. First we ferment it into a beer using special yeast that converts the milk sugar into alcohol. It’s then distilled, blended, triple-filtered and bottled by hand. We can’t give away too much because the curiosity factor helps us. And we were messing about for 3 years figuring out our final recipe.

Megan Perry has written previously on the SFT site about the crisis facing the British dairy industry. Half of Britain’s dairy farms have gone out of business in the last 10 years, and those surviving are accepting significantly less than the cost of production for their milk. As the industry faces increasingly extreme pressure to reduce costs, along with competition from the European mega-dairies to improve ‘efficiencies’, it seems that the future survival of the small family dairy farm in Britain will be dependent on those willing to adapt, innovate, and develop direct relationships with a public that want to buy local. From micro-dairies, to vodka production, those that manage the shift to a higher value, on-farm processing, will find themselves better equipped to weather the industry’s current crisis.

What does the expert recommend?

We caught up with Jack Adair Bevan, Co-Owner of The Ethicurean Restaurant and award-winning overseer of The Collector Vermouth, to find out more about what it means to revive the tradition of a product in a new environment.

So, tell us a bit about how a group of young chefs from Bristol end up making an Italian spirit in the Somerset countryside?

11321446955_ddf5326793_kJack: The whole idea behind The Ethicurean was one of taking a recipe from another country or culture, and amending it to make use of the ingredients that we find around us. We started playing around with the creation of food and drink made with the herbs, botanicals and ingredients growing outside our door. Eventually we began producing The Collector. Vermouth is originally an Italian product, but we wanted to explore the possibility of creating a drink that used as many raw ingredients as possible from our garden at The Ethicurean, or growing in the nearby Mendips.

Why do you think the UK has seen such an explosion in the number of breweries and independent distilleries over the last few years?

Jack: In the UK we have a great history of really good, infused alcohol. Vermouth and wormwood wine were being drunk in the UK from the time of Samuel Pepys. Mechanisation and the growth of the industrial food system obviously played a huge role in reducing the number of unique, regional drinks in this country. In recent years the British public have started to reconnect with the drinks that would have been made here, but disappeared.

In the UK, you can create a great imitation of something more mainstream. With vermouth this really works. Our product is a vermouth that is specifically tied to the place where it comes from. So while Vermouth is originally Italian, this is still a truly English version of that product.

Is it a challenge using foraged ingredients in terms of ensuring a consistent production process and flavour of the end product?

Jack: There is always a subtle difference in the end product, due to the weather or season or mix of ingredients, but we find that the differences are so small that most people wouldn’t notice them. We pick when an item is in season and then distil it into a tincture so that we can use it all year round. Our Wormwood, for example, is grown for us on a farm in Somerset, we get it green, but then we also get it dried to use out of season.

What drinks would you consider to be quintessentially English?

Jack: A particularly British drink would be sloe gin. Gin is originally from Holland, but we know that London gin has been a part of our culture going back to the 17th century. Sloes are synonymous with the British countryside, and what I love about sloe gin is that everybody has their own recipe. Do you pick with the first frost, do you pick and just put the berries in the freezer, do you spike or prick them, add sugar after the sloes have infused in alcohol or just throw it all in together?

With British drinks popping up everywhere. Which are your ones to watch in 2015?

Jack: It’s hard to choose from so much talent, but if I had to select three I’d say:

  • Psychopomp Gin – they have the potential to be such an amazing company, but they’ve been really reluctant to expand, preferring to just make small batches of an exceptionally high-quality product. However, demand has now got so high that they are being forced into making more, which can only be a good thing for the rest of us!
  • Wiper & True – fantastic people, dedicated to making really interesting beers in the heart of Bristol. They source wild ingredients, and always go the extra mile to find something local or sustainably produced. Their branding is obviously excellent as well.
  • Square Root – this is a brilliant non-alcoholic option for those who still want something a bit special. It won a Food & Farming Award last year, and they’re sourcing all their fruit and ingredients seasonally. They aren’t afraid to make tarter, lower sugar drinks, and I think it’s really important that we challenge people’s palettes like that, and remind people of how drinks should taste without tonnes of added sugar. 

Jack’s Orange, Cardamom & Rosemary G&T

11321602633_1165505702_zThis perfectly proportioned G&T evokes, for me, the flavours of Christmas. Choose a large wine glass as your drinking vessel and have plenty of ice at the ready.

35ml Sipsmith Gin
125ml Fevertree Tonic
orange peel
1 green cardamom pod
1 sprig of rosemary

Fill your glass with ice and add the gin and tonic. Pinch the cardamom so that it splits and drop it in with the rosemary sprig. Now give a gentle stir. Next use a peeler for the orange, making sure not to peel the bitter pith. Hold this over the glass with the peel facing the liquid and pinch your fingers together, this will spray all of the aromatic oils over the surface of the G&T. Drink immediately, followed by another!

Photograph: Black Cow Vodka

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