Certain alcoholic beverages, such as wine and cider, are intrinsically linked to agriculture. When you walk past vineyards, whether in California wine country or southern New Jersey, you know that the fruit grown will eventually ferment into wine that will be poured into a cellar tasting room. When you visit a local cider house, rows of apple trees are often within sight. But this association does not always happen with the spirits.
“You can’t visit a distillery and see the harvest growing there. This only exists in very few cases, so there is a geographic disconnection, ”explains Shanna Farrell, author of the new book, A good drink: in pursuit of sustainable spirits. “A lot of spirits are made from staple crops, so many distillers don’t even know where they’re getting their ingredients from. They don’t know what condition their corn comes from.
Of course, all spirits are also products of agriculture. Before a still can turn a crop into something drinkable, a farmer must first cultivate it. Whiskey is produced from corn, rye, barley and / or wheat. Rum starts out like sugar cane. Tequila and mezcal are made from agave plants. Brandy needs fruit.
Farrell argues that distillers – and consumers – should care more about the farming practices used by these farmers. “Just as we need biodiversity in wild plants, we also need it in cultivated crops,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “Among other benefits, genetic diversity in the foods we eat and the drinks we sip protects us against crop diseases, improves soil health, and creates resilience to climate change. “
Although some alcoholic beverage producers have become more aware of sustainability issues in their vineyards, orchards, fields and production facilities in recent years – by implementing regenerative farming practices and adopting hybrid grapes – many have not yet caught up, including a large number of distilleries and liquor brands.
A notable example cited by Farrell is Campari, the bitter Italian aperitif known for its bright red color and viscosity. It has become synonymous with Negroni, the three-part cocktail that calls for equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth, and bitter alcohol (often Campari). Years ago, Campari used mealybugs, which exude the natural carmine dye, to color the liquor. But that changed in 2006, when Campari switched to using red dye no. 40, the artificial coloring that was cancer related, allergic reactions and other conditions. While many people avoid foods colored with red no. 40 years, Campari remains one of the best-selling spirits in the world.
Why do we treat alcohol differently from food? The answers to this question drive Farrell’s narrative quest in the book. Part of the explanation is that alcohol is regulated by the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Commerce (TTB), while food products are regulated by the FDA and USDA. . This is why ingredient labels on alcohol bottles are not necessary, for example. But other reasons are more cultural, not so easy to identify or change.
Farrell’s interest in sustainable spirits was first piqued when she worked as a bartender in her twenties while living in Brooklyn and attending college. “I had spent so much time looking at the bottles on the back bar and never seeing anything about the ingredients or how things were made,” says Farrell, who began to wonder why the culinary movement from farm to farm. the table did not translate to the drinks as well. she did for the bosses. “I saw all these menus that listed the suppliers, where the lettuce comes from, how the meat is raised and which farms they come from. But there was no kind of attention paid to how the spirits or liqueurs were obtained.
As an interviewer at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, Farrell knows how to tell a good story and A good drink is riddled with it. Crossing the Spirit World, she travels to South Carolina, where Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell from High Wire Distilling Co. make bourbon whiskey from Red corn Jimmy, a heirloom corn variety that has been saved from near extinction. The couple convinced a few local farms to grow Jimmy Red corn instead of yellow dent corn, a staple crop that is easy to grow but often riddled with pesticides and therefore harmful to the soil and the environment.
Farrell also traveled to Mexico, where tequila producers suffered agave shortages following the Mexican government decision in 1949 that tequila should be made from 100% Weber blue agave, although ‘there are 150 different varieties of agave growing in the country. She visits small mezcal producers, who strive to preserve traditional ways of making alcohol that are good for the health of the local people and the land.
Back in the United States, Farrell visits Spirits Saint-Georges in the Bay Area, an artisanal distillery originally started for the purpose of distilling local fruit. But when the farmer from whom they were buying pears, located only a few miles from the distillery, tore up his trees to plant more profitable crops, they were forced to find fruit elsewhere. With drought and wildfires a growing threat in California, St. George has now turned to Colorado to source pears for its pear brandy, introducing a larger carbon footprint for what was once a hyperlocal mind.
The book ends where Farrell’s journey began: the bar. It highlights a small group of bartenders in the lead, bartenders who carefully research spirits and share the stories of the people who make them. The hope, of course, is that this kind of change will lead not only to a good drink but to a better drink.