Is It Possible to Make Eco-Friendly Whiskey?

Mankind has been distilling alcohol for thousands of years, but are there ways to make our drinking culture more eco-friendly?

Whether you call it whisky or whiskey, the process behind making this fabled beverage, or other liquors, is incredibly interesting and extremely ancient.

In this sustainability-minded era, there could be one burning question about how we make the drink that's been pleasantly burning our throats for centuries - are there ways that the distillation process can be made eco-friendly? For that matter, is it actually legal to distill alcohol at home?

Here we explore these very questions and address some other commonly asked questions about distillation. 

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Is it possible to make eco-friendly whiskey/whisky?

As odd as it might sound, it is possible but it might not be practical for homemade batches. Many commercial companies around the world are already making strides to reduce their activity's impact on the planet.

One prime example is the Mackmyra Swedish Distillery. It was established in 1999 with its founding ethos of ‘whisky production with [the] environment in mind.’

Using a combination of gravity-stills and some lateral thinking, they have managed to build, from the ground up, an eco-friendly distillery. 

"Starting with feeding in the raw ingredients at the top, to collecting the new-make spirit at the bottom, everything falls naturally from one stage in the process to the next. As well as this, all heat generated in production is used to heat our premises," Mackmyra notes. 

Not only that, but they use bio-pellets to heat the water needed for distillation, and recycle wastewaters from each production batch. They even use the straw from the barley for various construction projects. 

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) also made its membership of 101 malt and grain distilleries sign on to their Industry Environmental Strategy. This details how members need to commit to reducing water use and packaging, as well as hit a target of 20% renewable energy use by 2020. 

One of the main savings distilleries in Scotland have started to adopt is to reduce their need for non-sustainable fuels to fire their stills. Their solution is to use "draff" (spent grain leftover from distilling) as a fuel source.  

eco-friendly whiskey still
Source: Phil Guest/Flickr

They use a form of biomass fuel for their boilers. Others use dried draff waste and anaerobic digestion (AD) to make methane gas. Here "draff" is mixed with pot ale (the yeast and protein-rich liquid created during distillation) to create a combustible byproduct. 

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But for a small one-man amateur distiller at home, these measures might be too much to ask for. That being said, the very act of home distillation can help the environment in other interesting ways. 

Is it legal to distill alcohol at home?

In short, it depends. In the United States, you have two levels of legal red tape you must comply with in order to stay within applicable laws pertaining to at-home distillation - State and Federal Regulations. 

At the Federal level, there are no restrictions on you owning a still, no matter how big it is. The only issue is what you intend to use it for. 

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If you want to use it for distilling water or essential oils then there are no problems. You also do not need to register your equipment, and nor will you need a special permit to get started. 

"However, be advised it is illegal to distill alcohol without having either a "distilled spirits permit" or a "federal fuel alcohol permit." It does not matter if the alcohol is for personal use only, not for sale, etc," according to clawhammersupply.com.

If you really do want to distill alcohol you will need to get yourself a permit. In the U.S. these come in two forms: 

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  • Federal Distilled Spirits Permit - These are what the main distilleries have in the U.S. These are expensive and very difficult to get your hands on. 
  • Federal Fuel Alcohol Permit - As the name suggests, these allow you to distill alcohol for fuel purposes only. These are free and relatively easy to obtain. 

The legality of owning or using a still do vary from state to state. 

"Some states have no laws on owning a still, but prohibit the distillation of alcohol (such as Colorado, which charges a small fine if one is caught doing so) while other states prohibit possession of a still unless it is for fuel alcohol (such as North Carolina, which requires a state fuel alcohol permit). Some states may prohibit possession of distillation equipment and distilling altogether. You will need to Google the laws in your state to find out," states clawhammersupply.com.

Laws in other countries also vary widely.

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In the UK, for example, while technically illegal without a license, it is rarely, if ever, enforced. If you do distill alcohol at home you are supposed to declare anything over 1.2% abv and pay the tax duty on it. 

This is normally a formality and is primarily for safety reasons. 

If caught without a license, you could be liable to fork out £1,000 or more in fines and risk having your precious equipment confiscated. You can apply for a license here

But in all cases, distilling alcohol for consumption without the relevant license is illegal. You can apply for the relevant permits to do so, but unless you are opening a distillery it is probably not going to be worth it for small-scale home distilling.

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What does a distillery do?

Distilleries are purpose-built facilities used to distill alcohol (or other substances). By using various pieces of equipment, like a still, these facilities separate out the various components from a liquid mixture by using a selective boiling and condensation process.

For alcohol production, this requires the distillation of the byproducts of fermentation. The distillation process increases the relative alcohol content of a product to produce beverage grade spirit alcohol.

eco friendly whiskey stills
Glenfiddich Copper Pot Stills. Source: Tjeerd Wiersma/Flickr

But distillation and distilleries are also used to produce other substances. For example, distillation (using a still) is commonly used to: 

1. Produce desalinized water,

2. Make fuels and feedstocks from crude oil,

3. Cryogenic distillation of oxygen, nitrogen, and argon for industrial applications; and,

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4. Concentrate synthesized chemicals from impurities and other products. 

How is alcohol distilled?

Whenever alcohol is distilled it first needs to be produced by fermentation. This can be from anything that contains carbohydrates and typically leads to the production of wine or other fermented fruit or plant juice or from a starchy material (such as various grains).

Once fermentation is complete, the product can then be distilled to increase the concentration of alcohol. 

"Distilled spirits are all alcoholic beverages in which the concentration of ethyl alcohol has been increased above that of the original fermented mixture by a method called distillation. " according to Encyclopedia Britannica

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Using a still, these fermented fluids are subject to a series of evaporation and condensation cycles to extract the alcohol. 

"The principle of alcoholic distillation is based upon the different boiling points of alcohol (78.5 °C, or 173.3 °F) and water (100 °C, or 212 °F). If a liquid containing ethyl alcohol is heated to a temperature above 78.5 °C but below 100 °C and the vapor coming off the liquid is condensed, the condensate will have a higher alcohol concentration or strength," notes Encyclopedia Britannica.  

How long does it take to distill alcohol?

Alcohol distillation, excluding the fermentation precursor, can take between a few hours and a few days. It really does depend on the size of still, the volume of fluids required, number of distillation cycles, etc. 

But for a rough guide, ispirits.com, suggests it would take roughly  4.5 hours for 3 liters.

"This will vary between stills. A typical 25L wash will take around 4.5 hours to run through the Still Spirits Super Reflux Still. It will take about 1 hour and 35 minutes to heat up before any condensate will run out of the condenser. It will then take about 5 minutes to collect the head and nearly 3 hours to collect 3 liters (6.3 pints) of alcohol at 80%. This is a rough guide only."

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