Bulk Spirits Futurism

“Hope is not something that you have. Hope is something that you create, with your actions. Hope is contagious. Other people start acting in a way that has more hope.” —AOC

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” —Mike Tyson

“Climate change is gonna fuck you up.” —Al Gore

As we face cascading climate crisis and basically just sit around waiting for the next flash flood, it may be worth pondering how we can extend the viability of dining and drinking as the pressure mounts. We know we must dramatically reduce our waste, but how? Many are starting to feel consumption disgust because the burden of single use packaging can taint the pleasure of an experience like getting simple take out at a favorite eatery. I thought it may be worth taking the time to explore some ideas to reduce waste in the spirits trade and pass them around for elaboration by others.

For the past year I have been the emergency bar manager of a large incredibly busy Philadelphia restaurant. One thing I had to do was create a very sophisticated batching program because we lost 100% of our bar staff at the beginning of the pandemic (mostly a series of a coincidences) and servers had to make their own drinks. We also expanded into vast out door seating as well as saw consumption increase. Believe it or not, we did not do much cocktail-to-go. Pennsylvania is also a wacky liquor control state and continues to face very strange liquor shortages. One thing the reps told me is that most people were in a similar boat (however doing more to go drinks) and they were seeing vast purchases of 1.75 liter “handles” they were not used to. Besides often being all that was available, bulk handles were providing better prices, but were they also saving us from egregious packaging waste? I hope so but would also love to learn more details.

I recently proposed to a drinks writer that we start to survey the industry for the glass packaging to liquid volume ratio of products on the market as well as single use plastics such as tamper seals that could be switched to alternatives. With a small amount of distributed work, it may not be difficult to chart a course for reducing the packaging waste of the industry by say 10%. Activist buyers could shun producers that make no attempt to minimize their waste. Awareness could be raised for old buyer/writer pet projects like effectively banning the Scotch industry from secondary cardboard boxes and aluminum tins that immediately get thrown away. Of course, I received no reply.

[What is wrong with these people? I’m a small buyer of Scotch whiskey but as an activist buyer I’ve stopped all purchase of products with secondary packaging and have mostly moved to Glenfiddich and Glenlivet in liters.]

Watching my own patterns of restaurant consumption, frustration grows. I, like everyone else, buy St. Germain for batching and immediately throw their overly heavy 750 ml bottle away. Why can’t they bottle in an economy on-premise liter? What excuse will they give me that is not BS? In Pennsylvania, I can only buy 750 ml bottles of Campari which true, is an economy bottle, but there is no more efficient liter option even as an “SLO” special order. Many 750 ml options should be eliminated via activist buying at the state store level.

[I have dropped my St. Germain inventory to a single bottle on the back bar due to their packaging and the newly recurring flash floods that are destroying my neighborhood.]

To more than dent the problem, can we really just take it to the pragmatic nth degree? I want 19th century style bulk by the barrel or demijohn and I want a certificate program to administer it in my restaurant in a compliant manner. For home consumption in Pennsylvania, I want to visit a state store and have the option to buy my beloved Tanqueray in bulk with a compliant bottle I provide and be rung up just like at a fish market with a price per volume. I want a wax seal and a certified sticker.

When I’m back at work, I want to start my shift by taking my five empty liter bottles and filling them in the store room (from crated 20 liter refillable glass demijohns) then making a simple entry in the official ledger. At the end of my shift I will refill my rarest specialty bottles from their 3 liter re-usable glass demijohns and at the end of the month I will re-gauge everything very similarly to the inventory I currently take. There are no foreseeable problems that cannot be accounted for (this used to be done when there was an even greater interest in authenticity and tax compliance) and plenty of pragmatic regulations can tighten the process while preserving plenty of industry status quo. We simply subtract glass and single use plastic by the ton.

Restaurants can benefit in a variety of ways but the biggest one is waste removal. Recycling is volumetrically very significant, taking up square footage as well as hauling expense with no assurance the end product will actually be recycled. Broken glass is actually the biggest spoiler of recycling because many municipalities use a “scavenger” system for sorting and do not want workers getting cut. If a load has too much broken glass, it gets trashed.

Small scale producers may benefit because of reduced freight and packaging costs as well as reduced needs for the tedious bottling labor that is constantly rising (if not available). Small bars and restaurants may become more likely to do what I did in Boston at Pomodoro for nearly 10 years and that is “adopt a distillery”. We only sold Bully Boy Distillers and consumer acceptance of one vodka and one gin was very easy.

As a useful analogy, many municipalities, like London for example, cannot increase their water supply so to plan for increased growth they simply try to increase literal toilet efficiency which are their main sources of wasteful water usage. All this wasteful endless glass is just a leaky toilet and the consumer sees near no utility from it. We leak glass and packaging with remarkable acceptance of all the redundancy. In the last year to date, I immediately batched then “recycled” a staggering mountain of redundant glass. Consumers were absolutely in love with the product created and the vast carbon (& water) intensive redundancy was invisible to them.

There is a traceable history of how we got from bulk by the barrel to endless carbon (& water) intensive single use glass. For America, it was simply the specter of prohibition while in the UK it relates to the end of the colonial trade system after WWII and the rise of the House of Seagram which we know consolidated bulk rum and whiskey purchases which would make up the vatted products of the “Brewers” (breweries that owned chains of pubs) to standardized package goods like Chivas and Captain Morgan (before it was spiced). When Seagram acquired many companies related to the purchase of Chivas they inadvertently ended up with a large grocery store that purchased bulk spirits and did their own vatting in the basement! This was of course scrapped, but many systems for diligent compliance have successfully existed.

Zero-waste bar programs have generated a lot of press such as the exemplary Dandelyan Bar from Ryan Chetiyawardana, but many of the techniques are limited to removing straws as well as up-cycling endless citrus peels and other produce. The most impactful idea may be having bar managers who command influence over hundreds of millions in purchasing tackle the glass problem. What comes next to move a regulatory mountain is also writers using their platforms to double back to important bar operators like Chetiyawardana and describe their wish list for a fuller sustainability such as the redundant glass problem. Journalism naturally prefers to chronicle what is already happening, but this is a case where we need clear visions of the future put in popular print. The American TTB is not capable of inventing any of this for themselves and neither are control states like Pennsylvania.

Reducing industry waste will also require tons of minute details to be fleshed out. For example, long ago I had been gifted rhum Damoisseau from Guadeloupe in a 3 liter bag-in-a-box. Single use plastic is no doubt a scourge, but can it ever be preferred to 3 individual liter bottles of glass? I buy enough enough Noilly Prat every week to warrant a 5 liter bag in box. Would that help the cause and how can I legally encode decanting it for daily service? My understanding is that cheater bottles are technically illegal but functionally ignored across the U.S. They have been successfully in popular use for ten plus years and should be a legally protected technique.

The spirits industry looks like it can enjoy easy success due to the shelf stability of spirits while the wine industry may not be so lucky. However, can we see more liter bottles of wines by the glass (we love you Gruner Veltliner!) and what packaging waste will that save? Growlers of beer see limited use but we all know they are a successful near effortless innovation just like bringing your own travel mug to a coffee shop. No one misses a beat.

So much to think about and the window to act is growing shorter before the next flash flood destroys a beloved bar or some other new punch in the face.

[8/28/2021 I eventually work shopped ideas presented here with industry professionals, but non bar managers, and the response was overwhelmingly: “that seems so simple, why don’t we already do that?” People also enjoyed the idea in their private lives of supplying their own bottle at spirits purchase very much like a growler. What I call “consumption disgust” was a growing concern among people I talked to. A few had also already experienced flash floods impacting their homes and connected decisions within their control (our industry) to flash flooding which is a common manifestation of climate change in our area.

“Isn’t that just like kegs? I only drink beer from kegs.”—Chef Joe

I’m literally taking a break from writing (12:44 PM) to check my basement because its raining with a flash flood advisory and there is a few gallons of water coming in my finished basement behind my washing machine.]

[8/29/2021 As I sit down again, a storm of historic proportions is headed straight for the sacred city of New Orleans and the destruction may upend pillars of the spirits industry.]

1 thought on “Bulk Spirits Futurism

  1. Great article, tackling an obvious issue in the drinks industry…I recently came across https://ecospirits.global/ who are actually doing quite some good work in that direction.

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