Hear the word “rum,” and your mind probably conjures up images of tropical beaches, palm trees, warm breezes and sugarcane fields. You probably don’t think about cold, snowy New England. But while modern-day rum originated in the West Indies about 350 years ago, it also has a long and proud history in the U.S. that dates to the Revolutionary War, when rum distillation was the largest industry in New England and annual production exceeded 5 million gallons. That history continues today. The U.S. represents the second-biggest rum market in the world, with a growing number of American distillers helping to change the industry through innovation and sustainability.
Among spirits, rum ranks 3rd in the U.S. in sales volume behind vodka and whiskey. Last year, rum generated nearly $9 billion in U.S. retail sales. Varieties range from dark rums with a sweet, chocolatey flavor to agricole, a Caribbean version that boasts a lighter, grassier flavor. All types are distilled through a similar fermentation process that uses byproducts of sugarcane, usually molasses, or directly from sugarcane juice. Craft rum is becoming a bigger part of the industry as distillers experiment with different ingredients and processes.
These new processes include a keener eye toward sustainability. Like most industries, the spirits industry has embraced sustainability as a way to lower its carbon footprint and slow global warming.
The biggest contributor to the industry’s carbon footprint is the distillation process, which requires large amounts of water and other raw materials, along with high levels of energy to heat and purify the alcohol. Many raw materials end up as waste after they are mashed to a pulp. Packaging materials and product transportation also have an environmental impact.
To help offset the impact, the spirits industry has adopted several best practices for sustainability. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States lists the following seven areas where the industry can become more sustainable:
- Land Stewardship: The production of spirits requires land to grow crops such as sugarcane, so distillers must first find suitable acreage. They can reduce their impact on local ecosystems by making better use of available soil nutrients, reducing fertilizer use, and maximizing crop yields through spatial efficiency and planting methods.
- Responsible Water Use: Water can be used more efficiently through innovative facility designs and irrigation methods. Distillers can also minimize fertilizer to reduce its impact on waterways, and reuse wastewater whenever possible.
- Energy Reduction: Many distilleries are lowering their carbon footprints by using renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power. Investing in new equipment and energy-saving technologies greatly reduces the amount of energy used in the production of ethanol.
- Circular Material Syncing: Reusing resources is another way spirits producers can operate more sustainably. Spent grain from distillation can be provided to farmers as a food source for animals, for example. Water byproducts from the distillation process can be stripped of organic matter and then reused in irrigation for new crops.
- Waste Reduction: Another industry objective is to reduce the amount of plastic and single-use products and packaging, with the ultimate goal of generating zero waste.
- Cleaner Transportation: The spirits industry can cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by changing the way they transport products. Higher truck fill rates will reduce vehicle time in transit. Similarly, ocean freighters can increase their container fill rates to reduce their carbon footprints. Distillers are also encouraged to use low-sulphur and compressed natural gas to cut back on carbon emissions.
In addition to the above strategies, distillers can offset the carbon used in shipping by sourcing glass from environmentally vetted companies and buying from vendors that are located nearby. They can also use recycled and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified label papers and boxes, bio-corks, and point-of-sale systems made from upcycled and green materials.
A handful of companies are leading the way to a more sustainable rum industry in the U.S., and you’ll find them in every region of the country. Here are five U.S.-based distillers that have embraced sustainability as part of their everyday business practices:
Montanya Distillers: This Colorado-based maker of Montanya Rum and other spirits, puts a huge emphasis on considering the impact of its decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, the community and the environment. Montanya’s sustainability efforts include a 100 percent wind-powered distillery, barrel room, warehouse and tasting room. The company offsets its carbon production by planting trees, using renewable energy sources and capturing methane from landfills. It sources its bottles from a green supplier and prints its labels and case boxes on FSC-certified paper. Montanya’s tasting room and distillery are both warmed by recycled heat produced by its stills. It never uses plastic straws, plastic to-go containers or plastic cups. Finally, Montanya buys U.S.-grown sugar cane from a co-op that generates all of its electricity and boiler-firing heat from the sugar cane itself.
Louisiana Spirits: The maker of Bayou Rum has achieved stellar growth in only seven years of business – so much so that it was acquired by global spirits powerhouse Stoli in 2018. Because Louisiana is one of the world’s top sugarcane producers, Bayou Rum can get its ingredients right in its own backyard. It specializes in premium sipping rums made from 100 percent natural, unrefined Louisiana molasses sourced from the oldest family-owned and operated sugar mill in the U.S. The company looks to minimize its impact on Louisiana’s ecosystem by recycling the two main by-products of the distillation process: vinasse, a thick sugar-based residue; and residual alcohols. Vinasse is recycled into cattle feed, while residual alcohols are sent to biofuel plants.
Far North Spirits: Based in Minnesota, Far North makes Alandar Rum along with gin, vodka and whiskey. The company has a comprehensive sustainability program that includes growing all of its grains except malt barley within a mile of its distillery, and storing it in on-site bins. This eliminates the need to ship and bag grain. After distillation, spent grains are spread on nearby fields to serve as fertilizer. Far North Spirits creates very little landfill waste because most of the materials used in production are either source-reduced, compostable or recyclable. Its stills and mash cooker are heated by steam that is produced by a clean-burning and efficient propane-fired steam boiler. Steam condensate is continuously collected and returned to the system, which reduces water consumption.
Greenbar Distillery: This California-based company makes Crusoe Rum in silver and spiced varieties along with various bitters, gins, liqueurs, tequilas, whiskeys, vodkas and other products. One of Greenbar’s main contributions to a greener world is that it plants a tree every time a bottle is sold. Over the past dozen years, that has added up to nearly 870,000 new trees in the ground. The company plants in partnership with Sustainable Harvest International, which provides help and support for rural communities through education and resources. Greenbar also uses certified organic ingredients, lightweight bottles and recycled label materials.
Richland Rum: Based in Georgia, Richland produces a single-estate rum in which every step of the rum-making process is handled on Richland Estate, with no outside products or ingredients. The company uses natural water from the Georgia Aquifer, and uses flames rather than chemicals to burn out weeds. Richland Estate has been placed under a perpetual conservation easement, which is a legal arrangement in which a landowner can transfer certain development rights to an eligible easement holder – typically a non-profit or government agency – to achieve certain conservation purposes.