Willie Dale sits in front of a five-gallon bucket turned upside down, peeling and squeezing soft mangoes into a water drum. It will take a few more days for his rum, which fills an adjacent 600 pound stainless steel still, to be ready to drink. In the meantime he’s prepping a brandy.
“It’s a brandy-rum fusion, or as I like to call it, a Randy Bum,” he says. “Here, without limitations, it’s really fun to experiment.”
“Here” refers to Kalu Yala, a sustainable community located deep in the jungles of Panama. And the “limitations” are the strict regulations alcohol producers in the United States must adhere to.
Dale has been Kalu Yala’s master distiller since the beginning of 2016, and he has the creative freedom to experiment with a hodgepodge of local ingredients. His most popular libation, affectionately known as Loophole, is distilled from miel de caña, a syrup-like concentrate that comes from sugarcane.
Humans have been getting liquored up for centuries: Legend has it that the discovery and production of the world’s first “beer” was a catalyst in our evolution from hunter-gatherers into agriculture. Though society has changed its consumption habits quite a bit since then — the U.S. alcohol industry alone generates more than $400 billion in economic activity each year — the process of converting ingredients into booze has remained relatively consistent.
It starts with a living organism, such as sugar. That sugar is left to ferment with yeast, which eats it, converting it into alcohol. The process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, conditions pending. The alcoholic byproduct is then boiled into a vapor and caught and condensed into a drinkable liquid.
The process is extraordinarily wasteful. The distilling process is broken up into three stages, the heads, hearts, and tails, each of which produces byproducts that are usually thrown away. Moreover, the modern, globalized alcohol industry produces a heavy carbon footprint. Everything from the over-production and transport of ingredients to the packaging and shipping has environmental implications.
“Unless we make a major change in the way these products are transported, there is no way the liquor industry can continue to grow without being disastrous,” says Danny Ronen, an expert in sustainable distilling and owner of the beverage consultancy DC Spirits.
Ronen suggests lessening the industry’s footprint starts locally, through sourcing and selection. “If you like a certain product, great,” he says. “Now go try to find the same thing made within 10 miles of your house. It actually might exist.”
It’s true that locally-sourced liquor has become more commonplace in recent years, even as the labyrinth of government regulations make it difficult to explore creative new operating tactics. Small-batch distilleries that use homegrown ingredients are popping up everywhere from New York to Texas, and even big-name brands like Jack Daniels have adopted sustainable practices. A few organizations experiment with innovative packaging solutions; Brazil’s Novo Fogo, for example, takes discarded glass from the streets, melts it down, and re-molds it into bottles.
“There’s a real effort being made with these small craft artisanal operations,” says Dale, who learned the art of distilling at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse before heading to Central America.
But Dale’s ambitions extend far beyond using the jungle’s bounty of local ingredients in his recipes. He’s in the process of building a system that will eventually recycle all of the byproducts created during every stage of the distilling process. In other words, everything that comes out of the distillery — the good, the bad, and the ugly — will be repurposed in some way.
The heads make a great homemade cleaning product or insect repellent. Greywater can be recycled or used to irrigate crops. The goopy, leftover solid waste can be repurposed as livestock feed, compost and fertilizer, a practice both small-scale distilleries and big-name brands have started taking advantage of.
“We borrow corn from the farmers to make booze, and then we give it back to them,” says John Pieper, who owns the Striped Pig, a sustainable distillery in South Carolina.
Perhaps Dale’s most ambitious goal is to convert his tails into ethanol, a highly potent alcohol that can act as a replacement for fossil fuels. Burning ethanol emits significantly less carbon dioxide than propane, which Dale currently uses to heat his still. Converting his waste to a power source for future batches of liquor would make his system entirely zero-waste.
Brazil, which produces veritable oceans of rum-like cachaca, its national drink, uses its ample ethanol byproducts to power most of its vehicles. The U.S. also already adds ethanol to much of its gasoline supply.
While studies have shown that using ethanol on a large scale actually has a higher carbon footprint than fossil fuels, powering a simple still with waste that would be disposed of otherwise has the potential to revolutionize alcohol production. Dale hopes his rustic distillery can be used as a model to inspire other distilleries to embrace sustainability.
“I want to try to make this a model for distilleries elsewhere,” he says. “Power all of our stuff just from byproducts. It’s amazing that it isn’t already happening.”