A Good Drink: This oral historian tells the story of how our alcohol is made


Oral historian Shanna Farrell began to pay attention to the origin of alcoholic spirits when she worked as a bartender. A beautiful bottle caught her eye, and when she checked the label she said it was made with 100% New York bean.

“I had never really seen this before, or even as an attribute where something came from,” she says.

With a background in environmental studies, she wanted to learn more about the impact of alcohol on the planet. But his questions about the ingredients were often confused.

“I would ask the waiter or the bartender, hey, do you have an alternative to that, a different thing that I could have in this negroni and they would look at me like I have six heads.”

Although it’s made from the same harvests as most of our staple meals, it soon became clear to Shanna that the care many restaurants put in putting together their menus doesn’t extend to the bar.

It is the staple culture that creates alcohol, which often has the largest environmental footprint. Many of these crops are grown in large quantities and at high intensity.

“Take whiskey for example,” says Farrell, “It’s made from that type of yellow dent corn that’s grown in a number of states and a lot of people don’t even know where it comes from. “

“But they want it because it’s consistent and has a high enough sugar content that they can make a decent whiskey.”

Most corn grown in the United States is of this variety, creating monocultures that are harmful to the environment. And when you add in energy use, water, packaging, and storage, you start to see a problem.

The higher the alcohol content of the drink, the higher its environmental impact tends to be.

Old habits threatened by global consumption

Farrell recounts his visits to distillers who challenge the status quo in his new book, A good drink: in pursuit of sustainable spirits. She also discovered rural communities struggling with a growing demand for some of the world’s most popular spirits.

One of the most memorable chapters tells the story of the mezcal makers in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Made from the agave plant, mezcal is the umbrella term under which tequila is classified. Woven into the fabric of the country, she writes, the agave crop symbolizes the relationship between the environment and the Mexican people.

But this relationship is under strain due to the growing global appetite for agave spirits. Almost 352 million liters of tequila were made in 2019, an increase in production of about 237% over the past 24 years.

Agave growers began to turn to industrial processes to meet demand, sacrificing water quality, soil health, and risking disease along the way.

After hearing the opinions of people outside of Mexico, many of whom “reek of colonialism,” she decided to visit Guadalajara. Here she met Pedro Jiménez Gurría, the founder of Mezonte, an NGO promoting mezcal production in a socially and environmentally conscious way.

“It’s more about people who care about tradition and understand the cycles of the earth, even the cycles of the moon that are constantly used in agriculture in rural communities in Mexico,” he told Farrell.

These growers often depend on rainfall to water their crops, harvest the agave plants by hand, and take care of the entire distillation process themselves.

“They are doing a very good job with the ecosystem. They keep it small and it’s really clean and really round, and that’s what we’re aiming for.

Tradition and tasting of the land

The more traditional methods of producing alcohol also tend to be better for the environment.

Farrell thinks it’s because they date from before the Second Industrial Revolution, when things were made on a much smaller scale. Even the large distilleries used local ingredients and had a closer relationship with the farmers who supplied them.

“And there is so much that, if you use the same methods that have been used for six, seven, eight generations, you can also talk about the history of the place, the traditions, the culture and the environment. . “

Losing the link between the field and the bottle does not only have consequences for the environment. With the same basic ingredients, there is less that distillers can control to create a unique flavor.

Unlike other forms of alcohol, you don’t often see the cultures that produce spirits growing next to the distillery. Our pleasure is not linked to the processes that create them.

“I think that’s why wine is so popular because of the terroir. You really taste where things are grown. You taste the land.

But producing spirits more consciously doesn’t have to be limited to a handful of small producers. Many large companies are now starting to understand the importance of making their processes greener and knowing where their ingredients come from.

“A lot of the places that I’m in the book are all small and independent,” says Farrell, “they all keep control over what’s going on.”

But as these companies try to compete with the names that line the shelves of our bars, scale and consistency are ubiquitous issues for sustainability.

“That’s why I wanted to talk about the scale in the last chapter and the way people try to think; what is the impact of what I do on the environment?

_Shanna Farrell’s book A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits will be released in the UK on October 29. Find out more here. _


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