How your favourite tipple could help remove CO2 and boost biodiversity

‘Climatarianism’ may be the latest thinking for planet-conscious diners, but what about when it comes to drinks? These spirit brands are focused on nature, climate, and pollinators

What are you drinking? This is a simple question. But I’m clinking through my booze cupboard – three types of whisky, two half-drunk bottles of gin, a cheap bottle of brandy used for a cake – and I’m still not entirely sure. 

Barley? Juniper berries? The bottles don’t say. It seems there’s a large disconnect between agriculture and alcohol, a point that Stephanie Jordan, the CEO of Avallen Spirits, makes: we no longer really know what we’re drinking. 

“Take out a bottle of vodka, gin or whisky,” says Jordan, “and virtually none have ingredients listed.” 

She’s right. Spirit brands are not required to identify their ingredients. But even if they did, drinkers looking to make climate-friendly choices wouldn’t likely be particularly inspired. 

Avallen set itself the challenge to make alcohol industry transparent. Image: Avallen

Industrial-scale agriculture is the main problem. Monocultures are often used to grow grains for alcohol, such two-row spring barsley for whisky. This usually means that more pesticides are used, soil degradation is greater, and water demand is higher. 

“Alcohol is not this accidental thing that man just invented,” believes Jordan. “It’s a gift – the gift of nature.” And it’s that gift that a new generation of climate-positive spirit brands are harnessing. They want biodiversity to be a priority. 

What are the ingredients in Avallen calvados bottles? Crisp French apples. Oh, and water. That’s it. 

Originating from Normandy’s orchards where wildflowers are abundant, grasses and grasses thrive among the trees, cattle roam freely in the fields, and rainwater is used for irrigation. A lifecycle analysis determined that each bottle removes 2.73kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e), out of the atmosphere. This is because apple trees sequester carbon. 

Alcohol isn’t an accidental thing that man invented. It’s a gift – the gift of nature

Calvados is also produced in the region of France, which is also designated as an area of exceptional beauty. appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). This means it is easy to produce. 

“Consumers have the power to demand transparency and change,” says Jordan, “and if that isn’t forthcoming from one brand, then go find one that is.” 

Arbikie DistilleryScotland could be a potential contender. It runs a single-estate, ‘field-to-bottle’ operation. This means that all the ingredients needed to make its gins and vodkas can be grown on-site. 

Normandy law requires that orchards be naturally irrigated, and left unmown. Image: Marina Khrapova

“We want to become one of the world’s most sustainable distilleries,” says founder Iain Stirling. “[But] like everyone else, we are on a journey and will continue to innovate and improve.” 

Made from peas, the company’s Nàdar Gin is the world’s first climate-positive gin. The legumes pull nitrogen from the air, which reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer. The ‘pot ale’ – a co-product of the first distillation – is then used to feed the farm’s cows, instead of imported soy, which is linked to deforestation. An independent life-cycle analysis revealed that each bottle prevented 1.54kg of CO2e from entering into the atmosphere. 

“As a farm-based distillery, we start with the soil, seed and our natural environment. This sets the tone for our whole growing and production process,” says Stirling. It’s been difficult at times, he admits, including financially. But he now sees more diversity in the fields and more pollinators, as well as a better soil structure. The farm uses fewer chemicals. 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery cultivates heritage grains to increase biodiversity. Image: Oxford Artisan Distillery

How can we encourage more people to drink spirits that fight climate change? “Seek out those producers that are making the effort,” he says. 

Listen to the science. Climatarian diets – food that puts the planet first – are becoming more popular as scientists urge us to eat a wider variety of plants and grains to help meet climate goals. 

The Oxford Artisan DistilleryThe UK is now able to grow varieties of wheat, rye and other grains that are not available elsewhere in the country since the late medieval period. 

“We always wanted to do things a little bit differently,” says the company’s head of distilling Francisco Rosa, “so we were lucky to find our archaeobotanist, John Letts: a kind of Canadian mad scientist.” 

Consumers have the power and ability to demand change. If that isn’t forthcoming from one brand, then find one that is

Letts has been collecting ancient varieties of grain from gene banks around the world for more than 20 years. Letts also found some 200 in thatched roofs throughout Oxfordshire. 

They can now be found within 50 miles of the distillery. Rosa believes that their spirits have a better flavour because of the heritage gains. 

“The grains might be smaller, but their nutrient density is incredible,” he says. “They’re rich with amino acids, vitamins and sugars. It gives our spirits a more concentrated flavour.” 

Oxford Rye Organic Vodka can still have complex tastes even though it is distilled with the highest alcohol concentration. 

John Letts is one of the’mad scientists” at Oxford Artisan Distillery. Image: Oxford Artisan Distillery

“It has notes of chocolate and caramel. It’s creamy, it’s milky,” says Rosa. 

Regenerative farming techniques are used to grow the grains. Multiple crops can also be planted in the same field. 

“Every year, we see amazing diversity in the plants that return year after year.,” says Rosa. “We’re talking poppies, thistles – plants a farmer often thinks of as weeds. They help with diversity and attract bugs to help us achieve a balanced ecosystem.” 

We see a wonderful diversity of plants returning year after year

This method of farming has increased drought resistance and flood protection. It has also led to higher yields. 

“Growing rye with wheat stems boosted our yield by 30 per cent thanks to the synergy between the plants,” says Rosa. 

Nature’s gifts indeed. 

Main image: Johann Trasch