Espirit de Corps

By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Dustin Meyer 

When opening a distillery, there’s a lot more to consider than simply the resulting spirits to be made. Processes and ingredients used and waste and environmental impact, among other things, are facets that require attention and careful thought. And for many Central Texas distillers, sustainability is playing a key role in planning.

Chad Auler of Savvy Vodka is one such distiller. Instead of creating his own corn mash and fermenting it on-site (which creates a significant amount of physical waste at the end of the process), he opted to source a high-quality, corn-based neutral grain spirit from South Texas.

“We source this from Texas because it doesn’t make sense to have it trucked in from halfway across the country, which isn’t good for the environment,” says Auler, whose Savvy and Deep Eddy vodkas are now sold in more than 16 states. “To make vodka, you need the neutral grain spirit, heat and water. Our water is spring water from my family’s property in the Hill Country, so it’s local as well.”

Auler notes that it takes about 3,000 gallons of water to to distill 400 gallons of neutral spirit. To preserve water, he built a two-tank system that allows the distillery to use the same 3,000 gallons repeatedly, without taking anything from the city water supply.

“We could take it from the city and pump it down the drain, but when I put this system together, we spent tens of thousands of dollars to put a water-reclamation system in place, which will save money in the long run,” says Auler. “Water is a precious resource in Texas and it was just the right thing to do.”

And instead of using a traditional pot still, Auler opted for a column still, which—especially when producing vodka—can be approximately 200 percent more energy efficient.

“The only waste we really create with our vodka is the vapor that vents into the atmosphere,” Auler notes. “We call that the ‘angel’s share.’”

Decisions get a little more complicated when you run a distillery that makes everything in-house—including the alcohol itself—as is the case with Bone Spirits in Smithville and Balcones Distilling in Waco. Bone Spirits founder Jeff Peace recently launched the full-scale commercial craft distillery with a firm commitment to sourcing corn locally. The biggest hurdle for distilleries wanting to make their own spirit using Texas corn is avoiding the fungus-produced toxin known as aflatoxin—a blight for grain growers in this area. Using grain that contains the fungus makes the grain not only harmful, but illegal to dispose of as anything other than toxic waste.

To address the aflatoxin concern head-on, Peace developed a relationship with Coyote Creek Farm near Elgin, which tests and guarantees the organically grown corn for production. Peace also forged relationships with other area farmers who use his postproduction grain by-product or used mash as feed and fertilizer for their farms—a benevolent, though not rare, effort on behalf of local farmers and the environment. Even behemoth distilleries like Scotch producers in Europe and American bourbon makers such as Maker’s Mark, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam have been repurposing their production by-products in this manner for more than a century.

“When we started this company, we really wanted to figure out how we can give back to the community throughout our process,” says Peace, whose Smiths Premium Vodka, Fitch’s Goat Moonshine and Fitch’s Goat Whiskey are available in retail outlets, with his Moody June Gin set to be released this summer. “Sourcing locally and having our by-product used as a valuable resource for other farms is how we were able to close that loop.”

But according to Chip Tate, president and head distiller at Balcones Distilling, it goes way beyond sourcing local ingredients. To avoid the aflatoxin potential altogether, Tate opted to source his corn from outside of the state—making it less of a decision about the environment and more about quality control.

“We wanted to be able to source our corn from Texas,” says Tate. “But we didn’t want to take any risks that our production could get in a bind if we ended up not being able to get certified aflatoxin-free corn. That would just leave us with thousands of gallons of toxic waste in the end.”

For Tate, who has a background in nuclear physics and sits on the board of the American Distilling Institute, the bigger environmental issues for local distillers are water and energy.
“We all need to be looking at how we’re addressing the use of water and power. We don’t need to use a bunch of water because it’s Texas. We’re not a desert, but let’s keep it that way. But we also don’t need to die of heat. And if we’re releasing energy into the atmosphere during out our production, then we’re doing exactly that.”

Tate figured out a way to harness both. Through a hand-built condenser system, he’s able to contain the heat he produces during distillation and use it to keep the liquid warm, which cuts down on the energy needed to bring the water to a boil for distilling his whiskey.

“By doing this,” notes Tate, “we’re using less water in multiple senses because the condensers help reduce the energy we’re using to heat the water for distillation, but [we’re] also reusing the water itself,” says Tate. “It’s either going into a mash, then a ferment, which means it’s going into a barrel or into the fields. It’s being pulled out of a useful system and put back into the overall cycle. We all want to minimize the problems when it comes to our carbon footprint. It’s not only environmentally responsible, it’s also more economical for us in the end.”

Whether its purely out of environmental concern or driven by economic incentive, the good news is that there are leaders in the burgeoning Texas distilling industry who are trying to set a standard in the spirit of sustainability.