DrinksMakers

Organic's Newest Frontier is Booze

3 Save

If you like it, save it!

Save and organize all of the stuff you love in one place.

Got it!

If you like something…

Click the heart, it's called favoriting. Favorite the stuff you like.

Got it!

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

When Sonat and Robert Birnecker launched Koval Distillery in Chicago in 2008, they became the Windy City’s first operating distillery since the mid-19th century. They were also pioneers in another way: all of their spirits were certified organic. “My husband comes from three generations of organic and biodynamic distilling in Austria,” Sonat said. “We took the knowledge he gained growing up and brought it to new shores.”

Advertisement
Organic spirits = organic cocktails = organic happy hour!
Organic spirits = organic cocktails = organic happy hour! Photo by Julia Gartland

Nearly a decade later, Koval is thriving—producing award-winning whiskies made from rye, oats, corn, wheat, and barley—all with USDA organic certification. They also make a variety of organic liqueurs (including ginger, orange blossom, rose hip, and walnut) and organic peach brandy that hearkens back to Robert’s Austrian roots. And today, they are no longer alone in the field, as a new generation of American craft distillers have begun to turn their attention to organic spirits.

Some distilleries include one or two organic-certified spirits within a larger portfolio. Kentucky’s historic Buffalo Trace Distillery, for example, launched an Organic 6 Grain Whiskey as part of their experimental collection. And Smuggler’s Notch Distillery in Vermont, which already used organic maple syrup in its maple bourbon and organic juniper berries in its gin, recently introduced a fully organic-certified vodka.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of distilleries—like Farmer’s Botanical Organic Gin in New York, and Los Angeles’ Greenbar Distillery—have committed to sourcing all of the wheat, corn, sugar cane, potatoes, and other ingredients used to distill drinks across the spirit spectrum, from organic growers.

Advertisement
Where Does Alcohol Come From, Anyway?
+
Where Does Alcohol Come From, Anyway?

The rise in organic distilling is an outgrowth of the larger sustainable food movement. As consumers continue to incorporate more organic foods into their home kitchens, the demand for drinks that meet those same standards naturally followed. It is also part of America’s craft spirits boom. Craft distilleries barely existed in America at the turn of the 21st century. Today, there are more than 1,000 distilleries making hand-crafted, small batch spirits.

The Birneckers have played an important role in this growth. “From almost the beginning, we began getting calls from people asking how we did what we did,” Sonat said. “So we streamlined the process. We began a consulting company and hosted a series of workshops to help people enter the industry.” To date they have helped set up 170 independent distilleries across the country.

What Does the "Craft" in "Craft Spirit" Really Mean?
+
What Does the "Craft" in "Craft Spirit" Really Mean?

Not all craft distilleries start with organic grains and fruits—in fact, many do not. After all, launching an independent distillery comes with challenges at every point along the process, from applying for permits to distill, to waiting years for the first batch of salable barrels to age.

“If you want to become a distiller, you can’t just join a cooperative and enter home brewing competitions the way you can with beer,” Sonat said. “It is actually a federal offense to distill without a permit—so it is a big investment.” Adding the task of sourcing organic ingredients to the list—which renders useless the common industry practice of purchasing and aging pre-made spirits from other distilleries—only adds to the challenge.

But more and more, craft spirit makers are taking the leap. According to Diane Faulkner, who edits the online newsletter for the American Distilling Institute, there are no official statistics collected about the number of craft distilleries producing organic spirits. But she said, anecdotally, she has noticed an increase over the last several years, with new organic releases appearing on a regular basis.

“There’s this notion that organic is more difficult, but we have seen that when there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Meredith Meyer Grelli, who co-founded Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey in 2011. “We wanted to influence our regional market as much as possible, so we committed to buying certified, local organic grains from the start.” Today, Wigle’s extensive line of spirits all come with organic certification—including an absinthe made with organic wormwood, fennel, orange peel, and other botanicals.

Learn 1 Ratio, Make an Infinite Number of Cocktails

Learn 1 Ratio, Make an Infinite Number of Cocktails by fiveandspice

+
The 7 Tools You Need for Your Home Bar

The 7 Tools You Need for Your Home Bar by Death&Co

+

The impact these companies are having—not just on consumers looking for organic spirits, but on small-scale family farmers—is significant. There is no shortage of corn, wheat, and other grains in the Midwest, for example, but Sonat said she has seen a noticeable increase in regional farmers going organic. “In the beginning it was a hunt to find suppliers. Now they are reaching out to us,” she said.

Meyer Grelli said Wigle works with farmers to help them obtain certification. “Over the years we have been able to expand our network—some farmers have started growing just for us,” she said. Wigle now works with more than a dozen regional organic farmers, offering growers a contractual guarantee that they will buy what they produce.

More than sourcing organic grains and other ingredients, Meyer Grelli said, the company’s strong relationships with local farmers has fostered creativity within their distilling. “We’ve worked with farmers on growing heirloom grains (like a maroon-tinted dent corn they use to make one of their bourbons) that produce really unique spirits,” she said. “Organic has been a gateway into this whole new world of distilling.”

What “Organic” Really Means (And Why It’s So Much More Expensive)
+
What “Organic” Really Means (And Why It’s So Much More Expensive)

Wigle is not the only company that views organic distilling as an inspiration to get creative in other ways. Hanson of Sonoma, for example, makes an innovative organic vodka out of grapes instead of the more traditional grains. Colorado’s Vapor Distillery, meanwhile, produces a coffee liqueur from cold brewed coffee that is both organic and fair trade-certified.

The current movement towards organic distilling shows all signs of continuing to grow—giving spirit makers and drinkers alike reason to raise a glass. “Most people have heard that Wendell Berry quote, ‘Eating is an agricultural act,’” said Meyer Grelli. “We believe that drinking is an agricultural act, too.”

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

Tags: organic, spirits, alcohol