The Rise of Organic Spirits

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Sustainability and environmental stewardship generally aren't topics that come up all that often when thinking about drinks. Unlike the food world, where emphasizing local and seasonal and working to diminish food's ecological footprint have become recurring themes, the bar has always approached things a bit differently.

But that's changing. As the craft-cocktail movement matures in its second decade, some procedures are starting to more closely align with those in the food world. The use of fresh fruit and other produce is now de rigeur in cocktail bars, and today, it's not unusual to see a bottle of organic spirits somewhere in the mix.

Organic booze? Well, why not. True, if you're changing your eating and drinking habits to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, switching to organic liquor likely won't do you much good—the chemicals you're trying to avoid are mostly (if not entirely) shed during the processes of fermentation and distillation.

But thinking about the bigger picture, and looking at secondary benefits, organic liquor makes sense‐in the same way that wearing jeans made from organic cotton can reduce the overall spraying of pesticides and the resultant contamination of soil and groundwater, drinking a vodka distilled from organic grain or a brandy from organic grapes can have an impact beyond the drinker's immediate environment, and also provides a financial incentive for growers to use more earth-friendly farming practices.

The first time I tried an organic gin several years ago, I was less than enthusiastic about the flavor. That situation has changed with the debut of a growing number of organic spirits, some of them of exceptional quality.

One of the most prominent brands of organic liquor is Square One, which makes vodka and other spirits from a base of organic rye, under conditions certified by the USDA; other organic vodkas include Tru and Prairie Organic. Papagayo makes an organic white rum (which I haven't tried—let me know if you have, I'd welcome some details), and major scotch whisky producers including Benromach and Springbank have their own organic bottlings.

Agave is where organic is really catching on; 4 Copas was an early pioneer of organic tequila, and they've recently been joined by Casa Noble, which makes several styles of the spirit; and should there be any lingering suspicions about compromises in quality when it comes to organic, put those to rest over a glass of one of the exceptional certified-organic mezcals from Del Maguey.

American microdistillers such as Peak Spirits in Colorado are getting in on the organic game, with their organic gin, vodka and brandies, and as more newcomers join the wave of startup distillers, Peak Spirits could have plenty of organic company.

An anomaly just a few years ago, organic liquor is coming into its own. Are there any brands you've tried that you've particularly enjoyed? And is there any kind of organic spirit you'd like to see in the liquor store?