Sustainable distillery – learning from experience

On Friday 21st April 2023, the Tried & Supplied/Saucy Dressings team went on a trip around the rainy yet lovely countryside of Kent to meet Will Edge, founder of Greensand Ridge Distillery and learn more about his journey as one of the first British sustainable distillers. Will welcomed us to his beautiful red brick house, overlooking the surrounding hills and woods, and as soon as we entered the facility, a warm apple smell came tickling our nostrils…

SD: What is smelling so good, Will? Are you making some sort of fruit spirit this morning?

WE: Well spotted! We are currently distilling apple juice to make apple brandy. In November last year we pressed the apples and milled them to create apple juice, then all the apple leftovers were sent to feed local boar. We had a long and slow fermentation of that apple juice over winter and that apple juice is now about 8% cider. I have pumped the apple cider into the distilling machine this morning and now the vapour coming out of the boiling process will be about 80% alcohol. As it distils, the proportion of alcohol increases and it absorbs all the apple aromatics in the alcohol. These were the fumes you were inhaling so enthusiastically when you came in!

SD: Amazing. How many different kinds of spirits do you produce?

WE: What dictates the spirits that I make is our policy of only sourcing surplus products. The selection of spirits we choose to make depends on the surplus products that are available, that is to say, products that don’t have any need in the food system. Kent is well-known for its fruit production, so we’re making a lot of fruit spirits: raspberry and apricot spirits, apple and plum brandies. We also make grain-based produce that is made from surplus bread, like this unaged whisky. All of these products go through fermentation, and the alcohol is created from this process. Then they go through distillation to produce the final spirits. However, each product has quite a different process before and after distillation.

SD: And so where do you get your surplus fruits and bread? Is it given to you by local producers?

WE: We grow a lot of fruits here in Kent so we are happy to be able to work with local growers, who will have different types of surplus depending on their size, their usage, the season etc. We also get the unused bread from a local bakery. It might be worthwhile stressing that using surplus products doesn’t make the process any less expensive. The process itself has a cost, then there is distribution, marketing, insurances and so on. Usually I buy surplus apples and blackcurrants from local growers. Actually, in the case of apples, there often isn’t much in the way of surplus because apples have so many uses in the food system, so we mostly only get surplus apples out of season, when the pickers have gone home and there is a lot of fruit left over in the apple trays. As for the apricots and plums, I get them for free from neighbouring growers. Because we are so close to each other, there is no cost of transportation and so it’s more cost-effective for them to be giving their surplus fruits to me rather than them having to destroy them. So as you can see, every fruit has a different reason for being surplus.

SD: We haven’t talked about your gin yet. What is it made out of ? Is it also a grain spirit?

WE: That’s a really good question actually, because our gin is a tricky one. It has to be at a price point that competes with six hundred other gins in the marketplace. So for this product we use a grain neutral spirit and we work with that as a base, distilling it with aromatics in the process. Working with surplus produce and fermenting raw materials is great but there has to be a commercial balance and where we use neutral spirit where the flavour of the raw material is not impactful in the final product we use a high quality neutral spirit. The important thing for me is that we are low impact and where we outsource some of the process we offset the carbon intensity of that.

Of course, offsets are important because there are so many factors that I can’t control, over which I have no say. For example, I can choose to work only with farmers that don’t use pesticide on their crops but I can’t say to my UK glass supplier that I want all their bottles to contain a minimum of 80% recycled glass, that would be ridiculous. I am doing my best where I can, but there are some parts of the business that I can’t control entirely yet, and the base spirit used in our gin is one of them.

SD: Of course. As a small distillery, your operations still have to be cost-effective. But beyond just using surplus products, your spirits have a strong sustainability story. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

WE: Yes, you are right. we do a lot of other things in addition to the care we take with our suppliers. We are also a zero chemical, a zero plastics, and trying to be a zero-waste business. At the moment we produce micro waste equivalent to one black sack per month. We are also only using renewable power, which is unusual in the distilling industry. Maybe you saw the cooling pond when you arrived? That supplies all of the cooling water for distilling. There is a heat exchanger in the pond, so the cold water flows in a loop, gets heated up where the energy is stored and then cools again. So there is a cycle where we are using the energy, then we are recovering the energy for use in the distillery, and then we are returning the remaining energy into the pond. If you are trying to be a zero waste business, you have to include heating into the whole equation.

We were among the first distilleries to really take sustainability seriously in the industry. We did it by being sufficiently confident in our own processes that I could voice a strong opinion. I’m not always right, of course, but we have so much experience now that I have a lot to contribute to the debate. Because we were one of the first distilleries to really start talking about sustainability, I had a front row seat to watch how the concept is percolating through the industry. It’s been really great first seeing other distilleries introduce waste-reducing practices, and it’s also been particularly rewarding to see the impact of we few pioneering distilleries have had on the conversation about sustainability in the industry.

We are also happy that now the glass suppliers and boxes suppliers are also talking about sustainability and everyone is trying to make an effort. Interest in sustainability is growing exponentially and it’s very encouraging.

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