The alcohol industry is thriving. Despite global economic downturns, one thing people are still doing is drinking. In 2019 the industry reached $515.2 billion, and regardless of Covid-19, the industry is expected to reach $647.7 billion in 2023.

But there is more to consider beyond flavour and fun. Alcohol is an agricultural product: crops are grown, fermented and distilled to create the drinks we enjoy. Not only do we need to consider what agricultural systems are used to create these crops, but the process of creating alcohol (which usually involves cycles of heating and cooling) can be water and energy intensive too.

What are the problems?


The global alcohol industry is a significant contributor to emissions, with food and drink manufacturers responsible for 5.8% of the worlds industrial global energy usage.

A standard 750ml bottle of alcohol is said to produce around 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. While this is due to many factors, the most intesive process is distillation. Fermented ingredients are heated until the alcohol evaporates, where it is extracted, cooled and returned to liquid form. As a general rule, the higher the alcohol content the higher the footprint.


Just like food, alcohol brands can commit to regenerative, organic, local, non-GMO and sustainable farming practices. Huge industrial monocultures are destructive whether it’s for food or grain, so finding brands using regional products, organic practices, small supply chains and prioritising soil health will make a huge difference to products and planetary health.


Packaging is unavoidable in the alcohol industry. While many drinks come in glass rather than plastic, a British report looking at packaging in the beverage industry found only 50% of glass containers were being recycled. Plus, a 2019 life cycle assessment found the footprint of glass vodka bottles to be 27% higher than PET (switching to a more sustainable lightweight glass is now becoming increasingly popular).

Beyond the bottle, more brands are now opting for corks made from organic, recycled and biodegradable materials, printing labels on FSC certified paper and using organic inks/paints. While all of these details are small, en masse they add up to larger change.


Distillation creates large amounts of waste in the form of leftover mashed grain. Food waste is a major global issue, with 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted annually. The alcohol industry creates 42 million tonnes of spent grain each year, while distilleries can produce 12 times as much wastewater as the amount of alcohol produced. 

Solutions have arisen, most notably as alcohol brands have stepped in to use spent distillation ingredients to create hand sanitiser, with many giving it away to local charities and initiatives. Some distilleries also partner with bakers and other producers to upcycle spent grains into items like sourdough bread, upcycled flour, and animal feed.

Sustainable options

Overall, a 2020 report found that the drinks industry scored 4.8/10 for sustainability, with a lot of work still needing to be done. Governments have noticed, with Britain pledging £10 million to help distilleries become more sustainable, including switching to low carbon fuels like hydrogen.

But there are also brands out there who are already trying to do better.

Here are some of my favourites:


Launched in 2018, Discarded operates on a low waste ethos, taking ingredients that usually go to waste and using them in their premium spirits.

Their original product was sweet vermouth made with cascara, the outer fruit of the coffee berry which is usually a waste product from coffee production. In 2019 they launched a Caribbean rum that uses ‘finishing’ rum, which is usually thrown away after flavouring whisky barrels, infused with discarded banana peels (the fruit is dried out, fermented, and steeped in alcohol for two weeks) for flavour. In 2021 they also launched grape skin vodka, made with leftover grape skins from winemaking.

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Copalli Rum

Copalli’s single-estate organic rum is made in southern Belize using filtered rainforest canopy water sourced directly from the distillery’s farm, yeast, and locally-grown, non-GMO organic sugar cane, with no added chemicals, flavouring or colours. The distillery is biomass-powered, any waste is reused in farming, and wastewater is filtered so as not to harm any ecosystems.

The distillery and farm is the largest employer in southern Belize, but the distillery has also been donated in trust for the benefit of the people in the Toledo District, while also providing educational grants to keep local children in school.

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Black Cow Vodka

Black cow is a zero-waste brand (though not vegan-friendly) based in West Dorset. They only use one ingredient to make vodka: leftover whey from grass-fed cow’s milk from the cheese-making process. This whey, which is usually thrown away, is fermented to convert milk sugars into alcohol before it’s distilled, blended and filtered through coconut-shell charcoal. 

Black Cow also have a specific strawberry vodka, made with locally sourced leftover or misshapen English strawberries that would otherwise go to waste and with no added sugar or sweeteners.

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Toast Ale

Toast Ale work with bakeries to make ale from unsold surplus bread that would’ve gone to waste. Bread is dried then used to replace about a third of the barley usually used to brew beer. Since launching in 2016 Toast has saved over two million slices of bread from being thrown away, donated nearly £50,000 to charity, avoided 42 tons of emissions, saved 250,000L of water and reclaimed 170,000 m2 of land. 

In order to minimise emissions from transportation, Toast also doesn’t export. Instead, they partner with breweries around the world to produce beer with them, passing on techniques so Toast can be supplied locally around the world.

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