There’s a big, steaming pile of decomposing organic matter just behind the stately, bucolic Patron tequila distillery. Walk past the impressive hacienda and its well-manicured grounds, through the main hall where there's a Patron bottle made entirely out of crayons, and along the main distillery floor where baked agave is slowly crushed in the old-school style by a two-ton volcanic rock Tahona wheel. Head out the back doors, past the loading docks, and you’ll find a massive compost heap, where the main waste products from distilling, vinasse (residual liquid) and bagasse (solid waste), are combined in giant heaps within a five-hectare outdoor space.
“This is a work in progress,” says Paco Soltero, director of strategic planning and public affairs for Patron. We’re standing outside the distillery, located a couple of hours outside of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. “The technology of how to treat your waste and be more sustainable is changing constantly. So we are establishing processes, but also checking [if we should do] something different.”
Odds are you are not thinking much about environmental waste when you’re drinking tequila, or any other spirit for that matter. But, like any industry, there are plenty of byproducts that need to be dealt with, especially when the product is made on a large scale. With bourbon, for example, the spent mash that is separated from the liquid during distillation is often given to local farmers to feed their pigs and other livestock. In the case of tequila, at least at Patron, the compost is given to local farmers who grow the agave used to make the spirit — a reciprocal relationship that initially took some convincing.
“There [has been] some misunderstanding about what vinasse is,” says Soltero. “We’re not talking about chemicals; it’s just concentrated organic material.” The farmers were hesitant to use the compost produced by the Patron distillery at first, afraid of what effect it might have on their soil and crops. So Patron decided to use it in their own experimental garden, proving that the compost could indeed be used to grow vegetables that are safe to consume. “We documented it and took pictures, and that helped to change perceptions,” says Soltero. “It’s a matter of educating people [about] what we are doing.”
The waste from a distillery, if left untreated and not disposed of properly, will eventually make its way into rivers and contaminate the water. As the organic material decomposes, it leaches oxygen from the water and kills fish and plant life. The vinasse is subjected to a reverse osmosis process, which cleans up to 70 percent of it. It is then used for cleaning the distillery or put into the cooling towers, while the remainder is added to the bagasse to create compost. Patron has been recognized by the Mexican government as being a leader in implementing efforts to help protect the environment and reduce waste, and has earned ISO 14001 status — an internationally recognized measure of conservation.
Of course, Patron isn’t the only distillery or spirits brand involved with environmental initiatives. Brazil’s Novo Fogo cachaca distillery grows organic sugarcane without using pesticides or fertilizers, and has built its distillery on the slope of a hill so that gravity can send liquid from room to room instead of using electric pumps. Bacardi has pledged to get 100 percent of its sugar cane–derived products for producing rum from certified sustainable sources by the year 2022, as well as eliminating all landfill waste from its distilleries. Single-malt scotch distillery Glenmorangie has teamed up with the U.K.’s Marine Conservation Society on an effort called the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), which will bring back local oysters to the nearby sea to help filter the water. They will also soon be adding an anaerobic plant to the distillery’s organic waste to remove most of the chemical oxygen. And Pernod Ricard has a “Roadmap for 2020” policy that involves efforts promoting sustainable agriculture, measuring water consumption, and reducing CO2 emissions.
It appears that the spirits industry has figured out that environmental sustainability is not just a noble pursuit, but is actually a beneficial strategy. Yes, there are costs that must be incurred, but ultimately savings are to be gained — not to mention, you know, a less bleak future. And this is all in the industry’s best interest. After all, there are many distilleries in Scotland that are right on the coast and could be dramatically affected by rising sea levels.
“Right now we can assure that all the waste is treated and disposed of correctly,” says Soltero, as we walk out of the Patron warehouse where anejo and reposado tequilas patiently age. “We don’t see the byproducts of distillation as waste, but as a product that can add value.” And that might just be the key to future efforts from spirits brands to support the environment. If overhead costs can be kept low, as well as global temperatures, everybody benefits.