Q&A: Shanna Farrell, Author of A Good Drink - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Shanna Farrell, Author of A Good Drink

Last September, Shanna Farrell released her book, A Good Drink: In Pursuit of Sustainable Spirits. An interviewer at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, Farrell specializes in the cultural and environmental history of drinks, stemming from her former career as a bartender and a personal passion for whiskey. Farrell’s book is a ranging exploration of what sustainability—a concept widely embraced in food circles—means and looks like for spirits, from agave and whiskey to rum, brandy, gin, and vodka. Speaking with farmers, distillers, and bar owners, Farrell finds the roots of the movement aiming to bring environmental awareness to the industry. We caught up with her recently to talk about what she believes defines a sustainable spirit, greenwashing, and what’s giving her hope these days. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Imbibe: What inspired you to write a book exploring the pursuit of sustainability in spirits?

Recycling was a part of my childhood. My mom was always very big on that. It’s how I earned my allowance when I was little; I would bring back cans to be recycled. When I was in undergrad, I was taking environmental justice classes. I was a music major but an environmental studies minor, so it was kind of always there. Then when I started bartending, I was bartending in New York City and there was no composting; people would burn ice at the end of a shift. There wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to some of the actions we were taking that were pretty wasteful.

When I was starting to get really into whiskey and looking into where ingredients came from, I realized there are not a lot of ingredients listed on bottles. When I was getting my master’s degree in oral history, I interviewed a distiller from New York who had created direct relationships with farmers [and was using] 100% New York State grain. He was doing it for economic reasons, but the flavor was there as well. That was kind of the first inkling.

“There is something to say about the fact that you can go to a distillery and you see a barrel of grain that’s already been processed, but you have no idea where it comes from.”

Then moving to the Bay Area where food is such a big part of the culture, and there are always the farms listed on menus, it became increasingly apparent that there was this disconnect [with spirits]. Going to these renowned restaurants and asking for an alternative to Campari, people would look at you like you had six heads. It made me want to dig in because of my background, because I had been bartending for a long time, because I was curious about these issues. It kind of all just came together.

How do spirits and cocktail culture function as a part of our larger agricultural system?

It’s a small part, to be honest. But that’s why I focus so much attention on where the base spirit is coming from. Because it is a commodity crop. It does play into industrial agriculture. If things are grown conventionally, they’re using GMOs. I mean, that’s playing into the whole broken farm system, essentially. There is something to say about the fact that you can go to a distillery and you see a barrel of grain that’s already been processed, but you have no idea where it comes from. The problem is the distillery doesn’t know where it comes from either, so that’s the missing link. But it’s different when you visit a winery and you can go outside and see the grapes. It’s just an immediate connection.

So with bartending, a lot of people are just kind of conditioned to not really think too much about the base spirit because they’re thinking about what they’re going to do with the base spirit and what goes into the glass—all the other things. There are other points in the book about regulation, and that’s out of bartenders’ hands. There are so many issues to be aware of that it’s unfair to ask bartenders to know exactly where a grain is being sourced from.

How do you define a sustainable spirit?

It’s a spectrum. I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all approach. Each category is so different from the next. For example, corn is really different from agave; they have different life spans. Cost can be a barrier to entry. If you don’t design your distillery [around sustainability or thinking about water or electricity use], if it’s not in the blueprints and the DNA, it can be really hard to move backward, essentially.

You have to think about, what can we do in the corner we’re in? It’s like baby steps for everyone, whether thinking about using recycled glass or where the paper and the ink on labels are coming from, that kind of thing. Or, how much plastic are we using? What kind of packaging are we using? And then down to the brand ambassadors—are we producing little trinkets that are just going to end up in the trash? So it’s, again, a spectrum.

“I really don’t think you can call yourself sustainable if all you’ve done is throw solar panels up on a roof. “

I really don’t think you can call yourself sustainable if all you’ve done is throw solar panels up on a roof. That is not enough. There has to be some follow-through there, thinking about, what is offered in my municipality? Am I using municipal water? Am I paying for private recycling? Am I composting things? Am I reusing them? There are just so many questions to ask in those different areas that it’s really hard for me to define what a sustainable distillery looks like. The best example of a sustainable distillery, though, is Leopold Brothers in Colorado. They wove sustainability into their design so they had a head start from the beginning.

So, sustainability in spirits seems less like a definable category at this point. And if it is reduced to a category, it could run into the trouble of greenwashing or meaningless marketing statements?

Yeah, when I was researching the book, that was really interesting. I could tell when greenwashing was happening. I don’t think this is in the book, but there’s one example where I was out one night, and someone I knew was working for a very big alcohol company. And they kept telling me the company was carbon neutral and zero emissions. And I was like, I don’t think that’s true. So I asked, how are you zero emissions? They said, well, we don’t produce any emissions. I was like, yeah, I know that’s what zero emissions means, but how do you do that? And the person gave me the card for the manager and that person happened to be there. I started asking the same questions, and they kept kicking me up the chain. It came out that it was cap and trade stuff. So I was like, well, you are producing emissions. When they’re making those huge claims and they can’t back it up with basic questions, it is pretty obvious.

“When they’re making those huge claims and they can’t back it up with basic questions, it is pretty obvious.”

Or just the basic questions I would ask about farming. They would say, we have these great connections with our farmers. I’d say, do you know how the farms you’re using are farming, what their practices are? They would have no idea. The disconnect was really obvious once you ask a few basic questions.

A lot of people don’t know how to get this information or how to even phrase these questions.

That’s a really good point. People don’t know how to ask the questions. They don’t know which questions to ask. It’s easier to ask [these things] of food or even clothing, right? But not necessarily alcohol, and there are so many barriers. In a lot of circumstances, distillers are really off-limits from the general public. The people who are giving distillery tours have a canned speech that they’re supposed to be giving. And they can’t really go off-script, but that depends where you’re going, obviously. I still think in a lot of winemaking situations, farming is such a big part of the story. And there is more access to the people making the wine who can talk about these things.

I’ve always appreciated when people are honest about what their shortcomings are. The folks in California, when I ask them about the measures they’re taking to work with the drought, they’re like, we’re not, we can’t, we would have to shut down. I do always appreciate that honesty. And I think that people have never been in the position to ask these questions before and don’t really know where to start.

How do you anticipate this movement will look in years to come?

It’s only going to get more important, and this has to do with global pressures like climate change that are happening right now. Climate change is here—we’re living with it every day. I was out this weekend with some friends, and we were talking about the supply chain—that would have never happened before the pandemic. I do think with the pandemic, pollution, waste, and a lot of the resources that we’re using became top of mind. People are only going to care more because, in order for the spirits industry to be around in 100 years, they’re going to have to start thinking about this stuff. They’re going to have to start thinking about crops, they’re going to have to start thinking about water usage, they’re going to have to start thinking about how they’re recycling and treating things. So it’s going to be a bigger part of the equation as we go on.

“People are only going to care more because, in order for the spirits industry to be around in 100 years, they’re going to have to start thinking about this stuff.”

I will also say I was pretty heartened for two reasons recently. I was on the “WhiskyCast” podcast and they wanted to talk about sustainability and the environment. The host kept saying, people don’t like it when I talk about this, but if we want whiskey to be around, we have to start thinking about that. [Also,] there was a book that came out a couple of weeks ago called The Intersectional Environmentalist [by Leah Thomas]. I’m in my mid-30s, but I was probably the oldest person [at the book event] by 10 years. There were all these young people who were really interested in these environmental issues. The next generation really cares about this stuff. 

What are ways consumers can make purchasing decisions around sustainability?

The first thing I tell them is what not to do. And that’s when you’re at your local bar, do not ask your bartender where the spirit came from. They’re not going to know, and it’s going to be super annoying. I would say one of the things consumers can do is go to their local bottle shop and ask some of these questions like, do you have any whiskey made with local grains, or something like that. Because they’re the people working with the base spirit. They should know more of these questions and, because their job is selling, they should have more information about it. So I always say, if you are interested in a particular spirit or liqueur, start reading about that a little bit; go do some light internet research. When you go to a bottle shop say, I really like Clear Creek brandy—can you recommend something that’s made using local fruits from whatever state it’s produced? I kind of feel like that’s the entry point, just a place of curiosity.

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