"Romanticisation of copper stills needs to go!"
Joff Curtoys, founder and creative director of Sloemotion Distillery, explains why copper
stills are the spirit industry’s dirty little climate secret.
"Copper stills are everywhere these days. It’s no surprise. They look great plastered across Instagram and marketing materials. But if we’re ever going to make meaningful change in the drinks industry, we need to take a long hard look at how damaging this approach is for the environment.
A recent report by C&C Group provides a snapshot on how energy intensive the drinks industry is – and how lacking when it comes to leading on sustainability initiatives. Alcohol manufacturers in the US for example, release the annual equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions as 1.9 million US households. As concerns around the impact the food and drink industry on the planet grows, there needs to be more scrutiny on brands to ensure their sustainability claims are authentic.
This brings us to the distilling industry. Spirit making is entrenched in tradition. The fervour for using 19 th century copper stills is still raging, while distillers continue to believe that using huge, heat-pumping copper stills attached to a web of copper pipes is somehow keeping our history alive, while turning a blind eye to the damage they are causing. The truth is we can’t offset our way out of this unsustainable and old-fashioned approach.
I founded Sloemotion Distillery in 2002, long before the issue of sustainability was trendy. Moving from a job where I was lobbying for the RSPB in Westminster & Brussels, to setting up a food processing business on a farm in North Yorkshire, this path unknowingly led me to pioneer environmental actions into what has become a bestselling and award-winning product. I quickly learned that traditional copper still distilleries are unbearably hot; and they are hot because copper stills conduct and lose massive amounts of heat. I don’t claim to be an expert in distilling. I’m an environmentalist who stumbled upon a business opportunity in the distillery industry. But I have been able to apply my environmental instincts; and when it came to distilling, I knew it had to be done right.
The ultra-modern iStill for example, which we now use, is made by a company based in the Netherlands since 2015. The founder and CEO, Odin van Eijk, launched the business with the ambition to drive the transition to a more modern distillery industry. iStill cleverly produce the same quality of liquid as a copper still, but by using significantly less energy. iStills use 25% of energy of a traditional system through insulation, direct heat sourcing and computer control. Adopting an iStill has helped us to maximise the efficiency, controllability and repeatability of our distilling process, therefore making the quality in fact, better. For small craft alcohol producers like ourselves, quality is essential; reproducibility is a precursor to making quality products. The iStill has also helped us to cut running costs by about 90% when compared to a traditional copper still.
Copper stills do look beautiful and no doubt add a string to an eye-catching marketing strategy. But this choice is morally reprehensible in today’s climate.
Our choice allows us to create the same quality of liquid with less energy used. This is a massive achievement for us. We also have to wear a lot of jumpers whilst we work. That’s fine. We’re happy to do it, because it means we don’t waste energy.
Of course, as a business owner, I recognise that there are financial implications involved. It can be difficult to adopt new technologies whilst still being invested in a current system. Copper stills are expensive and for those operating with them, it might feel impossible to change paths. But our industry cannot continue to accept this way of doing things. If we continue to live and breathe inside an echo chamber which tells us one way is the only way, then there is no hope for building a spirits industry which puts the planet first."
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