What is most notable about vodka, ironically, is its lack of distinguishable flavor or aroma. While whiskey can taste like vanilla or oak barrels, mezcal gives the impression of a bonfire; vodka tastes and smells like…alcohol. Vodka does not leave much room for imagination – it serves its purpose as a neutral spirit that can be mixed into cocktails easily, thrown back quickly as a shot, or sipped on the rocks as a clean-tasting drink.
Sure, vodka can be infused with fruits and herbs to add some excitement, but what I find most interesting in the realm of this spirit is the “vodka of the future.” With climate change rearing its ugly face and the global population expected to reach close to 9 billion by 2030, every industry is looking into how it can be more sustainable – including the vodka industry.
Food waste is a huge problem in the United States, where an estimated 40% of all produced food goes to waste; baked goods and bread are some of the foods that most commonly go to landfill. Once in the landfill, food waste breaks down and starts to release methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more capable of trapping heat in the atmosphere when compared to CO2. Instead of letting croissants and pan dulce disintegrate in the landfill, San Diego-based Misadventure Vodka works with local bakeries to ferment and distill this food waste to create a carbon-negative vodka.
Food waste is certainly not the typical key ingredient for vodka, but two other companies have found a use for ingredients that would normally go to waste as a new way to make vodka. Vodkow uses a milk byproduct called milk permeate, which is a milk sugar that can be fermented with yeast to create alcohol as the base for its vodka. Good Vodka discovered that 15 million tons of coffee fruit pulp and skin are discarded every year, and the company upcycles this to make its vodka in its upstate New York distillery.
Vodka is primarily made from grains or potatoes; therefore, how these crops are grown can have a huge impact on the sustainability of vodka. If a vodka company sources conventional grains grown in a monoculture field (as many grains are), this results in potential damage to soil health and local ecosystems. A company called Nordic Spirits, based in Koskenkorva, Finland, produces an ultra-sustainable vodka made with regeneratively farmed barley, using 100% of the barley grain with no waste. The distillery runs mostly on bioenergy (from the company’s own bioenergy plant). So far, it has reduced its carbon emissions by 50% to be fully carbon neutral by 2025.
Carbon emissions are another factor in determining vodka’s sustainability, or any food or beverage. While vodka has nowhere near the carbon emissions of a hamburger, the Air Company has gone above the “carbon neutral” title and created a “carbon negative” vodka. Called Air Vodka, this spirit is made from carbon dioxide, resulting in what it calls the “world’s cleanest, highest quality and most sustainable spirit.” The company captures carbon dioxide from industrial plants and, through a multi-step process, distills it into alcohol.
At the end of the day, vodka remains vodka, regardless of its origins. Regardless of the raw materials used in its production, it retains its character as a pristine and flavorless spirit sans a significant scent. Whether you stick to the conventional variety or opt for carbon-neutral vodka derived from food waste, the drinking experience remains unaltered. Yet, the latter provides an added sense of satisfaction in knowing that your preferred libation contributes positively to the environment.