Turning sugary liquid into booze demands craft, equipment and toil. It also requires enormous amounts of water. At many distilleries, much of the liquid goes down the drain after it has served its purpose.
But the team behind year-old Ballmer Peak Distillery in Lakewood engineered its distillery to conserve water. Co-founder Eric Strom says the small distillery saves about 400,000 gallons of water a year.
“We come from Arizona, where water conservation is more of a big deal,” he says. “When we decided to open our distillery in Denver, we built it to avoid wasting water.”
This year the City of Lakewood awarded Ballmer Peak with a 2020 Community Sustainability Award. The award says the distillery’s “efforts demonstrate how extra research and small investments can result in … benefits that conserve resources, save money and support community partnerships.”
Sustainable distilling cuts back on water use
Much of Ballmer Peak’s water conservation revolves around the water used to cool parts of stills during the distillation process. Stills heat batches of low-alcohol sugary liquid called washes. As temperatures rise in the wash, alcohol turns into vapor, and rises in a column. Once the alcohol vapors begin emerging, temperatures in the column must be chilled enough to condense the vapor, transforming it back into liquid. That liquid is alcohol, minus the water and other ingredients found in the wash.
Distillers use cold water surrounding the outside of the column to ratchet down the temperature. That water is what normally gets tossed after it warms up, due to its proximity to the hot vapor. But Ballmer Peak built a reservoir system that captures the water. The system constantly recirculates 325 gallons of water.
In addition, the fermenting process — turning vegetable matter like grains or fruit into low-alcohol washes — requires the use of water on the outside of the fermenters to control temperatures. Instead of just dumping the water, as most distilleries do, the team at Ballmer Peak uses it at the end of the day to wash the distillery’s equipment.
“Sustainability has become more important for distilleries, but we still see so many with a water line that directs water to the equipment, and then sends it down the drain,” says co-founder Austin Adamson.
Sustainable distilling includes composting
At Ballmer Peak, sustainability goes beyond water.
After the distillery crafts its rums (it produces silver, gold and spiced rums), it donates the now alcohol-free wash to Originateve, a nonprofit based in Centennial that, among other things, supports community and school gardens. Originateve uses the spent rum wash to enrich soil.
Rum’s wash, called “dunder,” is somewhat unique among washes for its usefulness in agriculture. Washes for most spirits are not recovered, and that includes the rest of Ballmer’s lineup: vodka, Australian-style gin (heavier on exotic fruits and citrus than classic gins) and single-malt whiskey. Adamson says Ballmer Peak is researching ways to find uses for its other washes.
“Dunder is full of amino acids, minerals and dead yeast cells. It goes straight into the garden beds,” says Ron Green, Originateve’s founder. “It’s a super-food for plants. Every garden that got the dunder had massive boosts in production this year, although we don’t know at this point how much the dunder contributed to the soil’s health.”
Ballmer Peak also donates the grains used to make all of its washes to Originateve. The organization then uses the grains to help feed “a herd of muledeer, two flocks of Canada geese, 63 chickens, 12 turkeys, five raccoons, three pigeons, three goats, two miniature horses and one llama,” according to the City of Lakewood’s sustainabilty award to Ballmer Peak.
Hooch from milk?
Finally, Ballmer Peak is experimenting with turning waste from other businesses into spirits.
“We have small trials in play,” says Adamson. “For one thing, we are trying to convert whey from yogurt manufacturers and cheesemakers into a spirit. Whey can be a big waste problem. It’s not easy to dispose of it in an environmentally sound way. About 20 distilleries in the world now do this whey, and we are giving it a shot.”
Ballmer Peak also is working with wineries, including Kingman Winery in Denver, to turn the pomace — skins, stems and seeds leftover from winemaking — into grappa.
Ballmer Peak’s conservation efforts are meaningful. And “fairly inexpensive” for small distilleries to achieve, especially when they are in start-up mode and building the operation, said Adamson.
Expenses will rise for larger distilleries. But “long-term savings in water will offset that cost by a lot,” he says.
The distillery named itself after the “Ballmer Peak,” a theory by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer that drinking alcohol enhances cognitive ability, particularly with programming. Two drinks, according to the Ballmer Peak theory, is when booze’s effects fully blossom.
Is there a correlation between Ballmer Peak Distillery’s sustainability projects and its co-founders fondness for spirits? Could be.
Either way, cheers to devoting so much attention to sustainable distilling.