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Drink Sustainably While Making the Most of Food Waste

Wine Enthusiast
May 14, 2018
By Kara Newman

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Ever think you could ferment a bagel? Make vodka with expired Twinkies? Fertilize a vineyard with food scraps? These producers are making top-shelf bottlings by sourcing ingredients from the unlikeliest of places.

Looking for a delicious way to help the environment? A growing line-up of forward-thinking producers are using food waste to make wine, spirits and beer, making it easier to drink more virtuously.

Misadventure Vodka, a small distillery out of San Diego, California, makes vodka out of Twinkies, cupcakes and other excess baked goods sourced from local food banks, who are forced to discard food that doesn’t meet certain nutritional standards. The vodka is a collaboration between Whit Rigali, a former bartender, and Samuel Chereskin, an agricultural economist interested in finding ways to improve food systems.

Their solution to combating waste? Turn excess food into a spirit. Each week, they pick up 1,500 pounds of baked goods from the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank “Imagine your entire bakery aisle,” Rigali says.

To be clear, these are products that the food bank would otherwise discard in favor of more nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables. The distillery also partners with charities such as Feeding San Diego and the Berry Good Foundation.

“As we saw this bread, Twinkies, Ho Hos, cupcakes being tossed away,” says Rigali, “we realized that it wasn’t food that was being tossed away necessarily—it was starches and sugars. Those are the building blocks to all alcohols, whether you’re making beer or wine or whiskey.”

Don’t have a sweet tooth? Don’t worry. Thanks to the effects of the distillation process, the finished product doesn’t taste any sweeter than traditional vodka.

In a similar vein, Alchemy Distillery, located in Humboldt County, California, will soon release Boldt Los Bagels Whiskey, made entirely from fermented bagels. The venture was inspired by Toast Ale, an English brewery that makes beer from surplus bread (in 2017, a satellite operation also opened in the Bronx).

Alchemy collects about 60 pounds of stale bagels per week that aren’t fit for human consumption, said co-owner Amy Bohner, who then uses a wood chipper to break down the bagels. “We get plain, sesame, poppy seed, multigrain,” she explains. “Others we wouldn’t want [for the whiskey], like garlic, goes to a pig farm.” The bagel-based whiskey has already been aging in a barrel for about a year, and Bohner anticipates that the first batch of finished whiskey will be available near the end of 2019.

Of course, it’s not all about bread. Ventura Spirits, another California distillery, makes strawberry brandy from surplus fruit whose “imperfections kept them off store shelves,” the producer says. The tag line: “Ugly fruit, beautiful brandy!”

While “upcycling” is still a nascent trend among distillers, the beer community has long used food waste as a raw material. In addition to Toast Ale, Washington, DC-based Atlas Brew Works rescues “ugly” stone fruit for use in making a sour ale; a collective of Long Island-based brewers recently pledged to make “socially conscious beers” using leftover bagels and breads provided by local bakeries; and in Pennsylvania, Sly Fox Brewing’s Circle of Progress Pale Ale uses locally-grown malt fertilized with composted food scraps sourced from grocery chain Wegmans.

Wineries, too, have long used food scraps for compost in vineyards, such as Sonoma’s Inman Family Wines. “It started out as food scraps from San Francisco’s restaurants,” owner/winemaker Kathleen Inman says of the “Four Course Compost” she’s been using since the late 1990s. “But it became so popular, they started doing it with domestic compostable items as well, collecting food scraps from residences and apartment buildings.”

She notes that restaurants that contributed kitchen scraps to the composting program were particularly enthusiastic to carry her wines. “It was a really cool circular flow from the farm to the table, and from the table scraps back to the farm,” says Inman.

Wineries, breweries and distilleries providing pours that are effortlessly eco-conscious for consumers? That’s a trend we’ll gladly raise our glasses to.