Here's How Absolut Vodka's Distilling Process Promotes Sustainability
Whether you mix vodka with soda water, make Cosmos, or simply knock it back as a shot, you've probably used Absolut Vodka as your spirit of choice at some point or another. Even so, you might not be aware of how the popular brand produces its vodka. In fact, Absolut Vodka's distilling process promotes sustainability — the Swedish brand makes its vodka using a completely carbon-neutral distillation process.
All Absolut Vodka is distilled in a small farm town called Åhus, which lies in Skåne County, Sweden. Åhus is quaintly nestled between the Baltic Sea and hundreds of miles of farmland, situated about an hour and a half away from the border of Denmark. It gets tremendously busy in the summer as it's technically a "beach town," but upon traveling to the distillery as part of a press trip, I quickly learned the rural Scandinavian paradise is mostly inhabited by wheat farmers and people employed by Absolut.
Absolut controls everything in its distillation process "from farm to sip," as the employees say, allowing them to ensure all aspects of its production are executed in a sustainable manner. According to Absolut Brand Manager Isabel Erlingson, unlike many brands that buy industrial-grade alcohol to start, Absolut grows its own wheat, ferments the grains, distills the alcohol, bottles it up, and finally, distributes it to buyers around the world. This helps them regulate each step of the alcohol-creation process, so it can be executed as sustainably as possible, and it all starts with growing the wheat.
The process of growing the wheat was — shockingly — one of the most fascinating parts of the process, and I was honored to eat breakfast alongside one of the head farmers, Marcus Lundmark, at his very own farm. Lundmark took the time to explain the eco-friendly initiatives he takes to further reduce his carbon footprint.
"It all starts with growing winter wheat," says Lundmark, who explains it grows throughout the course of the cold winter season from October to April. Winter wheat germinates upon hitting the floor at the end of September, and it's preserved by the snow during the winter, which essentially acts like an incubator. The clay soil freezes and cracks open, making way for useable and extra starchy grains by the start of summer. Since winter wheat is far more robust than other types of grains, it requires fewer fertilizers and pesticides. Therefore, the health of surrounding water sheds and ecosystems can be more easily maintained.
One important factor in reducing the brand's carbon footprint while farming, according to Lundmark, is their dedication to water conservation. The soil in Åhus is extremely fertile (as it's very close to the coast), so farmers essentially have a natural aqueduct system that goes as deep as 200 feet below the ground. It organically irrigates the wheat, so aside from de-ionizing it, the water barely needs any sort of treatment, which — in turn — makes it more sustainable. With good quality groundwater, they don't need to take additional filter steps or use chemicals to clean it. That means less energy and water is wasted on the purification process.
Absolut's wheat farmers also aim to preserve the surrounding nature as much as possible, says Lundmark. They recognize the fact that the world's bee population is rapidly declining, for example, and that one of the leading causes is farming — fields are swamped to make room for farmland, and the amount of pollen carried by wheat is negligible. But Absolut farmers don't want the local bee population to die out. According to the BBC, bees pollinate 70 of 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world, and it could eventually cause us to lose the plants that bees pollinate as well as the animals that eat those plants, leading to a major food scarcity. This is why Absolut's farmers take it upon themselves to chop up their fields and plant flowers in between. This gives local bees large areas to pollenate and, in turn, food to survive.
Once the winter wheat is farmed in the spring, it's transported to the distillery. Energy & Environment Engineer David Runevad explained that one of the first steps of the process is combining the wheat with water so it can ferment. After the wheat ferments, it leaves behind a mushy, washed up grain called distillage. About 1,200 tons of distillage ends up being produced a day, and none of it can be used to further distill the alcohol.
However, all of this mashed up distillage will go to Absolut's farm animals, says Runevad. About a 250,000 cows and 3,000 pigs are fed the leftover distillage everyday. And while it's a convenient source of food, it also happens to be a particularly nutritious option for the animals. Since the distillage has already undergone fermentation, it's extra high in protein and probiotics. And once the animals digest the distillage, their waste is reused to fertilize the wheat, while about 50% of the water from the mashed up grain is given back to them as drinking water.
The brand's sustainable practices carry on throughout the entire distillation process. Heck, the brand even calls its product "Planet Earth's Favorite Vodka." In fact, the entire distillery runs on reusable green energy, according to Runevad. This means it's entirely powered by electricity created from windmills, solar panels, and water, as opposed to using fossil fuels, which are a leading cause of global warming and cause damage the ozone layer. One of the most important factors, however, has to be their energy compressor. In 2004, Absolut received a new energy-efficient compressor that recycles the energy from the distillation columns into steam before recompressing it. This significantly minimizes their energy usage, as for every 1 kWh of new energy applied, the equivalent of 5kWh of steam is generated.
But the benefits of the compressor don't stop there. During the distilling process, according to Runevad, some CO2 is naturally released. However, instead of releasing it back into the ecosystem, the compressor essentially absorbs and collects it all. Once collected, employees are able to clean it, and scrub it from any other gases, which creates 99.9% pure CO2. Then, a company called Air Liquid collects and cools it, before selling it to other companies as liquid CO2, so it can be reused once again.
Beyond the distillation process, Absolut ensures that their transportation system is sustainable. For the cars and trucks that transport materials such as wheat, machinery, or finished products, the brand uses renewable fuel called biodiesel HVO (which is actually just hydrogenated vegetable oil). It's cheap, renewable, and doesn't emit greenhouse gases like other destructive car fuels.
From the distillery, the product is brought to the bottling factory. Erlingson explained how the bottles are made, and what the process is like. According to Erlingson, bottles are made of 40% recycled glass, and the company uses 14% of all recycled glass in Sweden. Then, when an imperfect glass bottle is created, she says, they wash it out, send it back, and re-make it into a bottle that can be deemed as perfect. None of the glass is wasted or goes to landfills, and all of the machines that transform the bottles in the process run on green energy.
Once the perfect-looking glass bottles are filled with Absolut vodka, they're transported and stored in the Absolut warehouse. While the brand isn't able to fully control how it's transported within other countries, according to Absolut, they make international shipping a little ~greener~ by exporting their bottles overseas by boat. This is considered less harmful in regards to CO2 emissions than trucking, further conserving greenhouse gases.
The reason why the brand takes great effort to help conserve the environment is plain and simple — the team behind Absolut just wants to continue living in a clean, healthy environment. "Everyone that works on Absolut doesn't want to live in a toxic dump," says Rico Dynan, the brand's Global Ambassador. "It sounds selfish, but hey — every bit of effort helps."