An alcohol enthusiast on how spirits like bourbon fit into our food system.
In 2016, I found myself in Charleston, SC at a beverage conference aptly called BevCon. I was among others who, like me, were curious about the issues in the spirits industry. Although I had friends and colleagues present, a specific seminar took me across the country by plane in August to a place where the air was thick enough to cut with a knife. The session was called “Drinking Alcohol as an Agricultural Act” and on the last day of BevCon I sat in a hotel conference room with the air conditioner soothing my sunburned skin. , listening to a beer brewer, cider maker and whiskey maker talk about the crops they used to make their drinks.
Ann Marshall, co-owner and distiller of High Wire Distilling Co., described planting an ancient corn that was on the verge of extinction, working with farmers to manage the harvest, and bringing together a group of friends. to harvest it before a hurricane blows. in. For her, whiskey was an agricultural product and, therefore, was linked to environmental health. Just as we need biodiversity in wild plants, we also need it in cultivated crops. Among other benefits, genetic diversity in the foods we eat and the drinks we sip protects against crop disease, improves soil health, and creates resilience to climate change.
Yet almost all corn-based whiskey comes from a single variety: yellow field corn. Ann and her husband Scott Blackwell, with whom she owns High Wire, didn’t want to use it. Instead, they chose to plant Jimmy Red corn, a legendary corn that had shrunk to two cobs after the death of the last known man to cultivate it. Starting with just two and a half acres, Ann and Scott set out to make a small dent in the yellow tooth’s grip on the whiskey market.
With her lingering southern accent and enthusiasm for Jimmy Red corn, Ann sparked something in me that day. I knew I had to try his bourbon to see if it lived up to its story. When I finally got my hands on some, the first thing I did was read the bottle, letting the anticipation build. It said: “New Southern Revival / Pure Bourbon Whiskey / Made from 100% Jimmy Red Corn / Proudly Distilled by High Wire Distilling Co.” I turned the bottle over to read the other side. “The new Southern Revival brand is a celebration of the diverse farming traditions of our region. A true spirit of renewal, this whiskey began as a labor of love to save Jimmy Red corn from near extinction.
The more I read, the more I liked it. Learning its history made me feel connected to this whiskey. I swirled the liquid in my glass and immediately noticed the stickiness. It was slightly thicker than average making it almost slippery on my tongue like glycerin but without the soapy taste. It reminded me of nuts, bananas and grass, with a hint of brine and minerality. At 102 degrees I expected it to be hot, but instead it slipped down my throat with no trace of a burn. I had never tasted anything like it. It was special. I felt special to drink it.
This sense of connection is at the heart of terroir, the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a culture by the environment in which it was cultivated, binding a spirit to the place where it was created. Maybe the connection search is the reason why alcohol lovers tend not only to enjoy a good drink, but also want to know everything about it. Indeed, a whole genre of writing has taught us the history of spirits, the science behind their manufacture, their taste and the cocktails they best complement. But such curiosity has generally not spread to how alcohol fits into our food system and what that means for the environment.
As eaters, we became aware of the environmental problems created by industrial agriculture, and we began to wonder where our food comes from. We are concerned about the health effects of pesticides, the dead zones created by chemical fertilizers and the carbon footprint of shipping out of season food around the globe. Each of these issues hampers the spirits industry, just like the food system. But while we may insist on locally grown organic produce, we still have to engage with spirits at the same level. We know some distillers, but not the farmers who provide them with the ingredients that enable their work.
Part of the problem may be that we just don’t view spirits as food, despite coming from the same cultures that feed us at our tables. They are not regulated in the same way or by the same government department, with the Food and Drug Administration responsible for monitoring food production, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for monitoring spirits. And not everyone drinks alcohol, which we don’t need to survive like we do for food. These factors create a wedge between the way we process food and the way we process alcohol.
This disconnection also extends to restaurants. In the age of celebrity chefs and farm-to-table catering, restaurants are lauded for how well they source their ingredients. Today, most of the menus that I am offered proudly declare the suppliers of the restaurant; restaurateurs know that customers appreciate transparency. I now instantly recognize the names of the farms. I can visit their websites, read who works there, and look at pictures of their operations. It makes me feel good about what I eat – that I’m responsible, that I’m connected to them in some way or another.
But that doesn’t happen at the bar. My years as a bartender have taught me that the big brands that can be found in almost every cocktail bar in the world – Campari, Aperol, Luxardo Maraschino – are mass produced and full of artificial ingredients. Their production methods contribute to climate change, water pollution and resistance to pesticides. This would not be tolerated on the farms which supply the ingredients used in the cooking. Yet at a bar, the profit center of a restaurant, sustainability is an afterthought. Nine times out of 10, I’m disappointed when I scan bottles at an upscale bar or read the cocktail menu of a restaurant known for its responsible sourcing.
After my trip to Charleston, I wondered: Can spirits be produced without harming the environment? Who are the eco-responsible producers? Why is sustainability important to them? What does it mean to be truly sustainable? How can we as consumers support their efforts? What will it take for us to think about alcohol the same way we think about food?
It is these questions that have led me in different parts of the world to conversations with people who think deeply about these issues. They drove me to Charleston, where it all began, to visit a farm where Jimmy Red corn grows. They took me to Guadalajara, Mexico, where I met distillers and farmers who were working to preserve traditional methods of making mezcal and sustainable methods of growing agave. I flew to Denver, Colorado to visit the only distillery in the United States that malts its own barley and uses solar power. I drove across the Bay Bridge to Alameda, Calif., To chat with brandy producers about how climate change is affecting their supply chain. I went to Portland, Oregon to find out more about training programs that teach bartenders around the world to reduce waste. I had coffee with a bartender who works at a “farm bar” that only offers spirits made with responsibly grown ingredients. I went to Kentucky to visit Maker’s Mark and see if it is possible to preserve the local ecology while producing spirits on a large scale.
And then the global COVID-19 pandemic struck. It left us all grounded and the industry faltering, trying to make sense of the present and how to move forward into the future. My trips have become virtual. I spoke to a rum maker to learn more about the alcohol-laden colonial history and his company’s decision not to use additives. I interviewed a distiller about sourcing sugarcane grown in the United States and the process of becoming a Certified B Company. I spoke to one of the industry’s most acclaimed bar operators, who has made a career of combining sustainability and luxury.
Anyway, I went in search of a good drink. And I found it in abundance. I have met people who source, distil and bar sustainably, creating models that will redefine the industry. Along with many more not featured here, they’re transforming the way spirits are made – and the consequences for people and the planet – one bottle at a time.
From A good drink: in pursuit of sustainable spirits by Shanna Farrell. Copyright © 2021 by Shanna Farrell. Reproduced with permission from Island Press, Washington, DC
is an interviewer, writer and audio producer. She is an interviewer at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, where she works on a wide variety of projects and specializes in contemporary cocktail culture. She is the author of Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community, and Craft. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, and you can occasionally hear it on the airwaves on shows like Gravy and The Prix Fixe.