Bourbon & Sustainability
Updated: Mar 9
I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and like many proud Kentucky natives, I take pride in our state beverage: bourbon. For this piece, I decided to investigate bourbon and sustainability. People don't often jump to thinking about sustainability when they think about alcohol, but there are many impactful steps throughout the production process that can make or break sustainable production.
Sustainable Bourbon Production
There are many steps that go into producing a quality bourbon, from the water supply to the new charred white oak barrels to the grains used to make the mash. Each one of these steps has potential environmental impacts of varying degrees. Distilleries often pride themselves for having pure, all-natural inputs, resulting in many companies making innovative shifts to improve their overall impact.
Energy Used in Production
Most obviously, energy sources are critical in ensuring a greener supply chain, especially as Kentucky's electrical supply is 73% coal (only 3 states have more coal as a share of total generation). A few companies are entering Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) to buy electricity from renewables. Brown-Forman (which is the parent company of my personal favorite, Woodford Reserve, which is also produced in my hometown of Versailles) was the first US spirits company to enter into a renewables PPA (Sierra Club). The PPA involves a large wind project to help offset 90% of energy usage at the Brown-Forman facilities country-wide.
Bourbon Barrels: Production
Bourbon barrels are made out of new charred white oak, with new charred oak specifically required by law for producing bourbon. White oak is used due to its strength and chemistry, and it is charred to provide the tasting notes that make the spirit so unique (Go Bourbon). These trees can be found in the Ozark and Appalachian mountains (American Forests).
In 2019, 1.7 million barrels were filled, which is four times the amount filled twenty years ago (Vine Pair). However, barrels cannot be re-used in the production process, which means new wood must be used for each barrel. This requires careful management of white oak growth and the watersheds surrounding the forests. Currently, the white oak trees remain plentiful, but increasing demand may result in destruction of these reserves if not managed properly (Forest Foundation). Several groups, including those supported by the bourbon distilleries such as the White Oak Initiative, are working towards conservation efforts as these trees are central to bourbon production.
Bourbon Barrels: Recycling
After bourbon barrels are used, typically for 2-6 years (2 is the minimum bourbon can be aged), they must not be re-used in the bourbon distilling process (by law). This means over 1 million barrels need to find a second life each year.
The competition to acquire old barrels has become fairly intense. A few years ago, barrels were in low demand, and the used barrels were stockpiled or mulched. Now, a used barrel can be sold for $70 (a new barrel costs $160). This is due to an increase in demand for spirits as well as companies using old barrels for food and crafts. A lot of Scotch is actually matured in old bourbon barrels, as are some brands of tequila, rum, whiskey, and beer (the Daily Beast).
Companies like Bourbon Barrel Foods use old barrels to create everything from vanilla to soy sauce (Bourbon Barrel Foods). Other companies are making furniture and decorations from old barrels (Bourbon Barrel Rehab and Relic Lexington). I myself have a bourbon barrel bottle opener and a bourbon stave used as a base for a set of tasting glasses.
Sourcing raw materials is another potential issue, as long distance transport adds to the environmental footprint. Sourcing grain from local Kentucky farmers has become a popular option, rising from 40% of grain to over 65% just in a few years, as distilleries have made efforts to buy locally.
Finally, water use is a huge part of the distillation environmental footprint. Companies often use local springs and streams, filtered through the limestone that gives Kentucky bluegrass its intense color. Ensuring water isn't overdrawn is critical, and many distillers have made efforts to reduce water use and increase efficiency in the production process.
Next time you sip your bourbon, know that there are a lot of steps that go into making the product more sustainable. Check out details on your favorite brand to see how it stacks up!
Thanks for reading!
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA