The simplest definition for the word sustainable is something that can be maintained. Beyond that, how deeply a business or individual values the term and how it translates to their daily operations, is largely self-defined.
This flexibility in definition often leads to a negative connotation. If everyone is free to put their own twist on it then how can it really mean anything at all?
The more you explore what businesses in the beverage industry are doing to achieve sustainability, though, the more you realize the definition is much broader than simply maintaining a brand or product. The various approaches of certain entrepreneurs are what give the word sustainability meaning.
“Sustainability really doesn’t have a strict definition, so it’s an easy term for companies to tout and I think it’s often overused without much merit,” says Abe Stevens, Founder of and Head Distiller at Humboldt Distillery in Humboldt County, California. “Our planet is a closed system, and eventually the human population is going to need to reach a sustainable level in size and behavior. That’s going to take coordinated work among individuals, governments and businesses.”
The distillery applies sustainable practices whenever and wherever they can. “Choosing to go with certified organic production is just one of those small efforts,” says Abe. Humboldt makes its crisp vodka, with hints of vanilla and citrus, out of organic American sugarcane.
This operation on California’s coast needs and values clean water. “Fishing has been a favorite pastime of mine since as long as I can remember. Same with swimming at the river in the summertime, and we can’t make our spirits without a source of clean water,” says Abe.
This is why the California Coastkeeper Alliance’s (CCKA) fight for swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters resonates with him. During Humboldt Distillery’s annual “Toast to the Coast” campaign, the business donates $1 to the CCKA for every bottle of their organic vodka sold at participating retailers.
“The CCKA is an advocacy organization, often working on policy behind the scenes, and what they do isn’t always in the public eye. If we can raise awareness of their efforts with our brand’s followers, hopefully [CCKA] will see some benefit,” he says.
Further south on the California Coast is another distillery making a positive impact. In 2016, when Marsh and Jan Mokhtari founded Golden State Distillery in Sebastopol, they committed to having their business to celebrate California and support ocean conservation. They’re doing just that.
Their Gray Whale Gin recognizes the 12,000-mile migratory journey of the gray whale along the California coast. The vibrant turquoise bottle displays a whale’s tail artfully combined with the coastline and the locations from which they source the botanicals for their gin. Gray Whale Gin incorporates juniper from Big Sur, kombu from the Mendocino coast, almonds from Capay Valley, limes from Temecula, fir trees from Sonoma and mint from Santa Cruz.
“Sustainability means a small footprint,” says Marsh. In every step of their process, starting with their facility and extending to ingredient sourcing and bottle upcycling, the couple aims to make their distillery’s footprint and environmental harm as minimal as possible.
“It’s about the experience, about enjoying this journey,” says Jan. For them, that is making gin, but it’s also preserving the ability to enjoy the gray whale and other sea life for generations to come. The business partners with Oceana, an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans on a global scale. It turns out that the positive impact the distillery is having is larger than the Mokhtaris ever imagined it would be.
Marsh and Jan learned that California was the only state without a ban on mile-long drift gillnets, equipment used to catch swordfish along the coasts of California and Oregon. It’s a type of fishing that produces a devastating amount of by-catch of dolphins, whales, sharks and other sea life.
To raise awareness of the issue, Golden State Distillery and Oceana produced a video. It led to Oceana raising more than $1 million to match funds from the state of California. As a result, gillnets are currently being phased out over four years, and the money allows fishermen and women to turn in their drift gillnets and switch to deep-set buoy gear. This replacement equipment has been proven to increase swordfish catch without harming other animals.
In fact, fishermen and women reported catches containing four times more swordfish during the 2020-2021 season. Oceana estimates that this change to more sustainable fishing methods will save at least 27 whales, over 500 dolphins and more than 300 seals and sea lions over ten years’ time. “Just by buying a bottle of Gray Whale Gin, you are supporting ocean conservation,” says Marsh.
Just as working toward keeping the environment sustainable is important, so is supporting those who are effecting these positive changes. Absinthia Vermut is doing just that. The Founder and Owner of Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits in Oakland, California, she crafts small batch absinthe, called Absinthia. She uses vintage Swiss recipes to concoct her smooth, aromatic absinthe flavored with anise and fennel, a choice spirit to sip and mix in cocktails.
One way Absinthia works toward sustainability is sourcing quality ingredients from nearby locales. She uses California grapes and the highest quality herbs from Oregon.
“When absinthe became legal,” shares Absinthia, “I wanted to show people that it is a lovely, delicious beverage and something that had been widely misunderstood. Using quality ingredients is a way to overcome objections and let people know that this won’t harm you.”
She also supports female entrepreneurs in the spirits and ancillary industries whenever possible. “I work with as many women-owned businesses and independent contractors as I can,” she says.
Absinthia values the importance of shared expertise among those in the spirits industry. “I’m really proud to be a part of the Women’s Cocktail Collective,” she says. This group of about two dozen women-owned spirits brands provides a support system and resource network for both newcomers and veterans in the industry. Through it Absinthia can uplift other entrepreneurs and share her expertise. “We collaborate, we don’t compete.”
Achieving sustainability involves maintaining, restoring and growing, and there are various and numerous ways to work toward it. Helping keep growers in business, creating income streams, cleaning up our waters, protecting ocean life, nurturing a new generation of passionate entrepreneurs —all help keep the planet, the people and the products we love around for the long term.
The bonus is that they also make the world a better place while we’re here.