On Booze

and the pursuit of sustainability in spirits.

Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, On Booze

I love a good drink. This is simply the truth of me. The drinking didn’t start in any serious way until my late twenties, after a break-up (a crack-up?) and my move from the suburbs to Brooklyn. It was there that I took up with craft IPAs and developed an affinity for whiskey sodas, inspired by my friend Nick. (I stole his drink, but he has plenty of others.) There were many cans of Tecate and shots of tequila, because sometimes, as an acquaintance once said and inadvertently made into a group refrain, “It’s a tequila day.”

I can never leave any subject I love well enough alone and soon was part of a cocktail club organized by spreadsheet. We’d knock off the famous cocktail bars of New York City, week by week. At first, I just went for whatever sounded interesting that had rum in it. When a bartending-slash-acting date asked me what spirit I was, that was the answer I gave, and he said it made me sound like an old man. “I love pirates!” I said, thinking this was a reasonable statement in my defense, and we kept on watching Annie Hall (of course). In his defense, he made me my first Negroni and that set me off on a whole new wavelength. I would come to drink everything and, after a chance assignment covering piña coladas in my now home of San Juan, writing about everything. This was the work that led to my being able to really do some traveling. This was the work that really opened me up, lit me up. Whenever I first step into a distillery or barrel room or even a cooperage, my eyes tear. When we toss the dregs of our glasses “to the angels,” I get a shiver. I feel the angels, I guess, and am blessed to provide.

Eventually, though, I started to just drink my gin martinis. I was cynical, over the whole cocktail bar thing. I wanted dives only, pubs only, hotel bars only. Real shit, just classics and boilermakers. But what stuck with me from my deep immersion into the world of spirits is the thing that any aficionado will tell you: All alcohol is an agricultural product, and it should be regarded as such. It’s easy to forget this, because that’s what the major brands would like you to do, and also because alcohol is about release, thoughtlessness, a party. Alcohol consumption is also moralized, stigmatized, nothing to be taken seriously lest you look like some sort of deviant. But it’s also an essential component of a functioning food system.

I touched on this in my conversation with Dr. Anna Sulan Masing of Sourced. She is a person who very clearly makes alcohol a very thoughtful (though of course, not always thoughtful) part of her life. In the Iban culture from which she comes, making rice wine is a celebration and a friendly, familial competition.

“Booze is everywhere. It's part of ritual and part of life. It's also part of farming cycles,” she said. “So it seemed weird to me that no one talks about it as a part of identity and sustainability and flavor and as an ingredient. And it’s so entrenched in colonialism and violence.”

As I wrote a few weeks ago in my piece on sustainability, there is Matchbook Distilling on my native Long Island, turning goat’s milk whey and other local grains, fruits, and vegetables into something with a longer shelf-life and broad appeal. What really makes a spirit sustainable, though? When I asked Ivy Mix, author of The Spirits of Latin America and owner of Leyenda in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in this coming Friday’s conversation, she said that it doesn’t matter if a bartender is reusing lime shells if the spirit in the glass wasn’t made from well-tended land and the people responsible for making it weren’t well-compensated. 

Most spirits-makers are incredibly opaque about their sourcing, processes, and labor commitments, though. Along with the growth of interest in “craft” spirits, which is a shorthand to signify that a product isn’t commodity (i.e., it’s not Bacardi), there should be a push toward transparency in labeling that goes beyond marketing statements about the heirloom wheat or “hands” that went into making it. Where were the base products harvested and when? Has sugar or coloring been added? Basic information would go a long way in terms of educating drinkers, reminding them that despite being called spirits, they are not created from thin air.

And there has been a push, and I’m finding that I’m getting better answers when I talk to distillers lately. On recent Zoom tastings, I’ve spoken to folks at Colorado’s Laws Whiskey, who are making their higher-proof products with local grains, pursuing wastewater reuse, and fermenting their with local yeasts. I’ve also talked to El Tequileño tequila, made in the town of Tequila using agave from Los Altos de Jalisco; they’re only now making a push into a U.S. market that is seemingly endlessly thirsty for the spirit because, as they say, of their dedication to a family process and not over-harvesting or rushing their agave, and are one of the few tequila distilleries that only produces their own brand. They talked about 98 percent of their residual waste being reused as fertilizer and how their products are “additive-free.” Because sustainability, especially in agave spirits, has been such a hot topic of conversation for years, brands have realized they have to be willing to discuss their efforts on these fronts. Whether they’re made to stick with them and expand upon them is about what people are willing to make an important part of their decision-making process. For Tequileño and Laws, at least, they say these efforts have been built into their brands from the beginning.

Mark Byrne and Tristan Willey, the folks behind the recently launched Good Vodka, are hoping to be part of permanently changing people’s minds about what’s important about spirits. Willey is a former New York City bartender and Byrne worked in magazines before committing full-time to the booze business, first with Kings County Distillery. That’s where he began to understand the history and significance of spirits’ origins in the soil. And while he noticed the recent shift in how brands were positioning themselves in terms of sustainability, he considered it “skin deep.”

“I assume that you started to see the same shift I did, which was all of a sudden all of them were talking about, ‘we’re sustainable,’” he says. “And what they would put forward as their bonafides for that sustainability was, like, ‘we use 40 percent recycled glass’ or, you know, ‘we have a partially recycled label on one part of the bottle.’ They didn't actually want to tackle this; they wanted to be able to talk about it. They didn't actually want to change anything fundamental about how the spirit was made. What they wanted was something that they could brag about in a press release.” (The buzzword du jour is “carbon-neutral,” which always gets my ears or eyes ready for lies and obfuscations.)

Byrne and Willey set out to make a vodka with a transparent supply chain after Willey noticed, on a coffee education trip, the discarded cascara fruit of the beans. He realized it, as a fruit with sugar content, could be used to make alcohol. It took years, but he and Byrne developed a way to make a syrup of the cascara that would be fermented and distilled in New York at Finger Lakes Distilling. The farmers they work with in Colombia then use whatever is left of the berry as fertilizer, and there’s little extra work added to their process, but monetary value is added to each bean. (Efforts to distill locally didn’t pan out.)

Their label tells you where and when the fruit was harvested, and in big letters lets you know what it’s made of and that “using byproducts saves water, reduces waste, & supports farms.” The vodka itself, for me as a person who never drinks vodka because of silly prejudices, is lovely, lightly sweet with the fragrance of vanilla. But what is important about this bottle, to me, is the word “byproduct.” It reminded me of how drink writers will always tell you, robotically, “rum was originally made as a byproduct of sugar production, from the molasses” but really, all alcohol was originally made from byproducts and excess. There’s that truth: Alcohol production is a necessary and healthy part of a sustainable food system, when done right.

“What has always been fascinating to me about liquor is that it began as an agricultural byproduct and then became an agricultural product-product,” says Byrne. “When whiskey was starting in America, and even in Scotland too, the whole idea was that they had too much grain to carry on a cart to market, and so you had to figure out a way to distill it down and make it shelf-stable and be able to be carted around easier. Bourbon exists in America just because people had too much corn.” 

In Puerto Rico, which has always been a rum-producing place (it’s funny all the various words one uses when “country” doesn’t really fit, because it’s a colony), the farming of sugarcane basically ended in the mid-20th century because the U.S. decided people would be better off producing pharmaceuticals and other more profitable products. It’s nearly impossible to go on a day trip out of San Juan without driving past a long-abandoned sugar mill; some are massive, others you can tour as a historic site, as is the case in Vieques at one mill’s ruins. The big rums one might associate with Puerto Rico are not actually expressions of its terroir, because the molasses (or, in some cases, the rum itself) has been imported. San Juan Artisan Distillers—which I visited last week—founded by Pepe Álvarez and his son, José Roberto, as distiller, is trying to do something new that’s actually very old: an agricole rum, meaning made from sugarcane juice rather than molasses, from heirloom sugarcane grown across 100 acres of land that is pressed within hours of its harvest. The waste from that process becomes fertilizer or feed at nearby pig and cattle farms.

They launched their Tres Clavos “rum infusions” at the start of 2018 using imported rum that they rectified and flavored with locally grown parcha, piña, ginger, quenepa, and more, making for really striking bottles filled with actual fruit—a take on local ron caña or pitorro. (At least these express local terroir.) This was a project happening alongside their production of Ron Papón, which they can’t officially call “agricole” because the French are very particular. They had planned to launch that line this summer, but the release has been pushed because of the pandemic.

Here at their distillery, while ecological sustainability is addressed through a tight, local supply chain and use of waste, the business is also about sovereignty. The seeds for the cane they’re growing was provided by the agricultural college at the UPR-Mayagüez, which had saved many local varieties. The elder Álvarez notes “we need 100 projects like this in Puerto Rico,” that are locally owned and not “law 22,” which provides a litany of tax benefits to “residents” that aren’t accessible to locals.

Eventually, they could produce enough rum to have both lines made using completely local sugarcane. With Ron Papón, they will, like Good Vodka, add a harvest number to the label, and anyone who visits the distillery will be able to see the cane from which it’s made. I tasted an unaged agricole, distilled in copper, at barrel-strength, and it was gorgeously expressive, alive—vegetal and light, despite its alcohol content.

For San Juan Artisan Distillers, as with many smaller brands, the philosophical relationship to consistency (or lack there of) is what allows them leeway to change processes, and be flexible and responsive. “This is an artisanal distillery,” says Álvarez, “even if we sell 2 million bottles, they aren’t all going to taste the same.” Not pursuing the creation of 2 million bottles is also its own means of sustainability. 

At Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn, their Blue gin, Marseille amaro, and Red aperitivo are the stars, but they put out special releases, like a nocino, a coffee liqueur, and now Yellow, their take on Génépi, an Alpine liqueur they’re producing with wine from the Finger Lakes region. They’ve grown but stayed quite small, focusing on getting the flavors just right, and source only organic botanicals from a host of suppliers, like Burlap & Barrel, Goode Farm, and Mountain Rose Herbs. They cap every U.S.-made bottle with natural cork and wax, too, rather than plastic. (I wrote about them right after they launched and have been following along ever since. Their amaro is my personal favorite.)

Co-founder Aaron Sing Fox tells me growth has been a concern, but that they’re committed to sourcing well-farmed botanicals and herbs. “It's certainly always been something that we've been paying attention to, like how do we scale up and keep all of our processes and all of our ingredients at the quality level that we're at?” he says. “I know that there's companies that are like, ‘Oh yeah, we were this sustainable for this long and then once we grew past this size it just couldn't keep it up or didn't make sense.’ That's something for us that just, within Forthave’s experience, we're going to grow kind of slowly, organically as we can, but really make sure to keep all of the botanicals and ingredients we use to be organic.” 

While all of these projects and spirits are very different, they show a change in the tide from the skin-deep conversations about false sustainability that have come into vogue in the spirits world toward real, vulnerable transparency and acknowledgement of the food that gives life to booze, and how these sustain each other. Just as with food, it’s hard to make these choices every day, with every drink, but mindfulness goes a long way—even when trying to get out of one’s head with a tipple. Just as my own drinking life has undergone many evolutions, I can see this becoming a new level of understanding.

A cocktail made with thoughtfully produced spirits is far from the norm, but its pursuit is necessary—for agriculture, for food waste, for farmer survival, for the creation of closed-loop, local, autonomous economies. The hangovers, too, would be worthy of the angels.

On Wednesday, let’s open up the discussion to all about what we’re drinking and how we’re thinking about what we’re drinking.

Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Ivy Mix: bartender, owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda, co-founder of Speed Rack, and author of The Spirits of Latin America.

The latest Vintage Veg at Tenderly is about a very silly cookbook with a very heartening introduction.

Now that we’re sort of emerging back into the world again and I really have to focus on MY BOOK, my reading for joy is slowing down. Obnoxious! But I’ve been good at keeping up with my magazines. I’m subscribed to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books (thinking of swapping this out for London, honestly), ArtForum, Frieze, and Apollo. Oh, I breezed through Eileen Myles’s “Why I Write” talk, published as For Now; at the start, she mentions the Patti Smith and Knausgaard editions and how they “sound like themselves.” I love this little rambling series that chooses, for some reason, only my favorites—can’t help it. (I did just notice that only Knausgaard’s was released in just paperback, hmmm.)

At the beach, though, you’ll find me with Little Labors by Rivka Galchen and The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert. I will pursue pleasure.

Note: I always use Bookshop affiliate links, which kick me back a couple of bucks from each sale. This helps me continue to buy books, so I thank you!

My god, nothing of note. I’ve been working, scrambling. Beans for tacos. I dip three dates into peanut butter and call it breakfast, like a vegan caricature. We became Costco members—for myriad reasons including the most affordable natural peanut butter available in Puerto Rico, but mainly the pandemic fever state that forces you to look for any excitement possible—and they had Castelvetrano olives, which made the whole shebang worthwhile. Good olives are wildly difficult to come by and I now treat them like the rare, precious gems they truly are… by plopping them in gin and eating them standing up while ravenous at 3 p.m.