It turns out booze brands aren’t that different than us when it comes to charitable giving and important causes. Almost all beer, wine, and spirits makers give to charity in some form or another. They may release special bottle art with a portion of each purchase going to a good cause, or host an annual event, or partner with local bartenders pouring Negronis. Some companies, though, move beyond general good intentions. Like your friend who helps at the shelter every weekend and recycles even the smallest bits of paper, there are liquor brands that steep their mission statement and daily operations in countless good causes. These brands live and breath making the world a better place, one bottle at a time.
Being dedicated to doing good doesn’t just nourish a company’s soul, it’s good business. According to recent studies, millennials (especially) feel it’s important to know a company is doing more for the world than simply turning a profit before they make a purchase (or work there).
But Ilegal Mezcal’s John Rexer points out that any ongoing activism or philanthropy has to come from a “real place of caring,” or you risk highly publicized fails like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner moment. “What do you really care about?” says Rexer. “You have to have skin in the game in the sense that you know you’re going to take a fucking hit.” Among other social issues, Ilegal has taken a hard stance against Donald Trump in the wake of his disparaging comments about Mexico and Mexicans. “That comes from your dedication to your beliefs, not from a marketing department.”
Below, an ongoing and ever-evolving list of some of these brands hoping to produce more than just another regular ol’ bottle of booze.
Though you may think of it as that ’80s vodka with cool artist-inspired ads, the Absolut folks have been navigating the line between big business and big heart for decades now: planting, producing, and hiring locally in southern Sweden; supporting national and international causes; and so on. With the launch of the luxe spin-off Elyx, CEO Jonas Tahlin and his team have taken things to the next level. Elyx launched a five-year (and beyond) initiative in partnership with Water For People, an organization dedicated to bringing sustainable clean water to communities around the world. So far, over 30,000 people have been given access to safe drinking water (with an eventual goal of 100,000), through purchases of Elyx bottles and via products in the Elyx Boutique. In addition, each year — from World Water Day in late March to Earth Day in late April — your Tweets and Instagram posts of you raising a toast (of any drink) provide another week of safe water for an individual. Last year, 4,800 social media posts led to 672,000 liters of water donated. “If you want your philanthropy to be relevant, you also have to have integrity,” says Tahlin. “You have to give substance and meaning to your cause.”
Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, the owners of Manhattan’s celebrated Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog bar, have launched an Irish Whiskey of the same name. Made in collaboration with master distiller Darryl McNally of the Dublin Liberties Whiskey Company, it’s a blend of single malt and grain whiskeys, aged five years in ex-bourbon and finished in New American Oak.
Right after it launched, “The Boys” announced they were signing over the brand rights (and thus all profits) to Aware Northern Ireland, an organization that helps battle depression and support those so stricken.
“We’re doing this as Ireland has been good to us,” says McGarry, who has made his own ongoing battle with depression public in the hopes of helping others. “We’re in a favorable position, and we feel it’s important to give back to those from back home who need it. We especially want to help raise awareness of the issues faced back home, including high suicide rates, and put money directly into helping those people.”
One of the challenges with distilled spirits is that they are often produced in regions facing significant political and environmental upheaval. Even in America, because the core products are agricultural (grains, grapes, cane), questions of sustainability and fair trade for farmers should be approached. Fair founder Alexander Koiransky decided it was time farmers got treated with respect for the tasty, tasty booze they help bring to life. For Fair’s vodka, made from quinoa (different, we know), the brand partners with a co-op of almost 1,200 farmers high in the Bolivian Andes. The pseudocereal grain is certified organic, gluten-free and Fairtrade. The product itself is made in a small family-owned still in the Cognac region of France. The vodka itself has interesting character, with a hint of nuttiness and little more character than in your average “flavorless, colorless” spirit, making it stand up well in cocktails.
Lest you assume only tree huggers do good, take a gander at American Freedom Distillery out of St. Petersburg, Florida. Founded by veterans (much like Danger Close Craft Distilling in Vermont), supporting related causes are the backbone of the distillery and a primary reason for its creation. Each bottle of Horse Soldier — an eight-year wheated bourbon bottled at 95 proof or at barrel strength of 113 — goes towards maintaining the America’s Response Monument, nicknamed the Horse Soldier Statue, in Lower Manhattan. Dedicated to U.S. Special Forces, the statue commemorates a Green Beret insertion into Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, as depicted in this year’s film 12 Strong. In addition, the distillery also contributes to the Warrior Sailing Program helping vets deal with PTSD and injuries, the Green Beret Foundation, The Armed Forces Families Foundation, local Florida non-profits and many more.
“We lived the live of service, and we continue to serve today,” says AFD co-founder John Koko. “We have a warrior’s spirit with a servant’s heart and that will never change. Anything we can do to help in a soldier’s transition or simply give back to our community, we will always do.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a spirits brand that stays more socially and politically active than Ilegal, a Mexican brand launched by American John Rexer, while running a bar in Guatemala. It’s a smooth, inviting mezcal that works well in cocktails or as a sipper, and the brand has built a reputation as a young rebel brand with international character (it regularly sponsors indie musicians and artists from around the world, particularly across Latin America). Like many small producers in Central America, issues of sustainability and fair trade are also of paramount concern.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy and followed it up by scapegoating Mexico and Mexican immigrants, Ilegal decided enough was enough, launching a guerrilla campaign with the tag “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” (Donald, You Are an Idiot/Asshole). When Trump hosted SNL, the brand projected a giant version of their protest in view of NBC’s studios. It’s sponsored concerts funding the ACLU and other relevant causes, and you can buy a T-shirt with the slogan (and an unflattering image of Trump) at their website. “We knew we were going to take hits, risk lawsuits and yeah, of course, possibly raise our business profile. But it’s not ‘how can we draw customers?’ That’s cynical bullshit.”
If you’ve not heard of this Finnish vodka, that’s okay. Now you have. But if you’re looking for a quality vodka that plays well with Moscow Mules and Martinis, and you want a focus on environmental responsibility, this is your new call brand. Produced in the village of Koskenkorva (natch), it incorporates locally sourced barley (the northernmost varieties of barley in the world) and local mountain spring water. At an onsite bio-energy plant, continuous fermentation and column still distillation has reduced the brand’s carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent. All of the barley gets used too; the husks get used for biofuel, barley that doesn’t get used for making vodka gets turned into paper and other products, and about half the spent grains (after distillation) are used as animal feed. Naturally, you’re also employing local Koskenkorvan farmers with each sip. Drink locally, act globally.
Colorado may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of rum, but it should notch significantly higher up your list with this high-altitude craft distillery celebrating its 10th year. Founder Karen Hoskin came to understand the value of producing rum at 8,900 feet after learning first hand about the long tradition of rum production in the mountains of Guatemala (think Ron Zacapa). Hoskin sources American sugar cane directly from family farms in Louisiana; “growing our own cane is the one thing we can’t do, but it’s like a producer in Barbados going to Brazil for their cane, where a lot of producers go,” she says. From there, every step is as environmentally responsible as it can be, from the biomass-run sugar mill to the wind-powered distillery. High altitude means no electricity is required to cool the fermentation tanks or chill the double-reflux lentil or condensers — naturally chilly, gravity-fed water from the mountains does the trick. “From merchandise acquisition to a straw-free bar and tasting room, to carbon offsetting, there are more than 40 different actions we take to ensure responsibility throughout the process,” says Hoskin.
Brazil’s signature sugar cane spirit has become increasingly popular in the U.S., especially in cocktails like the Caipirinha. The country is also home to not one, but two of the world’s most important (and threatened) rainforests: The Amazon and the lesser-known Atlantic Rainforest on the coast in southern Brazil. While the Amazon has lost about 20 percent of its trees to logging and development, the Atlantic has lost about 85 percent, according to Dragos Axinte, founder of Novo Fogo and owner of booze’s most Game of Thrones-esque name. The distillery — located in between the rainforest slopes and the flatlands leading to the sea — is a state-of-the-art, zero-waste facility employing organic, chemical-free sugar cane. But Axinte and his team continue to look for ways to live in and with the ecosystem around them, one of the most environmentally activist regions in the world. The company has hosted a donation program to support the endangered Red Tailed Parrot. It discourages the use of endangered native woods for aging that don’t have the proper harvesting/sustainability certifications. And it recently kicked off “The Unendangered Forest,” a reforestation program that, to date, has resulted in the planting of almost 500 native, endangered trees and the registering (and protecting) of 88 bird species who use those trees. “Many people will say, well, it’s just your cachaça, it won’t make a difference,” acknowledges Axinte. “But positivity spreads. You have to look at where you are and say, ‘how can I live off this land without destroying it?’” (Don’t forget to check to check out our review of Colibri, one of Novo Fogo’s latest releases.)
Arguably, genever (sometimes called Dutch gin) is closer to a whisky than a gin. It’s distilled from a multigrain malted “wine” (often with a significant rye component and malted barley), with just a hint of juniper, and is usually barrel-aged for a malty, smoky note that’s intriguing both neat and in cocktails. Philip Duff — a longtime mainstay in the world of cocktails and spirits — recently launched Old Duff to give people the chance to try a truly Holland-based product (many larger Dutch brands source less expensive maltwine from Belgium these days). For each bottle purchased, $1 goes to charities that aid bartenders (those folks who work long late hours for your drunken ass, usually with no health insurance or job security). While that may not seem like a lot compared to some of the do-gooder brands here, Duff points out that as a very tiny company (with a full-time staff of roughly one), it amounts to about 25 percent of the net profit. Though the designated charity is the U.S. Bartenders Guild National Charity Foundation, geared to aiding bartenders and their families through tough times, “lately they’ve been fielding requests for assistance following the hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida.”
Imagine naming an entire vodka for a cause. That’s what entrepreneur Stephen Sparrow did when he created Snow Leopard. There are fewer than 3,500 snow leopards in the wild due to poaching, and that population continues to be threatened. Crafted from spelt (an ancient wheat variant with a tough husk) and distilled in Poland, 15 percent of all profits from this crisp, floral vodka go towards the Snow Leopard Trust. In addition, the brand hosts frequent events and helped with a donor match initiative during last year’s #GivingTuesday. So far the vodka has helped raise $300,000 for the adorable wild cats.
Everything about mezcal — tequila’s older cousin — production can have negative environmental and community impacts, from over-harvesting wild Mexican agave varieties, to abuse of farm workers, to waste water and carbon emissions. And many brands are responding with programs geared towards sustainability, fair trade, and more. Richard Betts, co-founder of Sombra Mezcal, helped introduced many Americans to non-worm, non-kitsch mezcal over a decade ago .
When it came time to build Sombra’s own distillery or palenque, Betts invoked his “internal desire to give back” and pushed for a balance between traditional mezcal methods and sustainable production. From using only organic agave and securing permitted, sustainable firewood (for roasting the agave), to incorporating solar power for the traditional stone mill rather than recruiting a donkey to walk in circles for the rest of its life, Betts (a former environmental attorney and winemaker) has infused a sense of ongoing awareness in the production of the agave spirit. “Over the years, I learned that mezcal, like many spirits, is a very dirty process,” says Betts. “There is a lot of waste. As the popularity of mezcal has grown, and corporations have come in, a very small dirty problem becomes very big.”
In addition to making the distillery as clean as possible (he concedes it’s an ongoing process, and sometimes good intentions don’t make for best practices), Betts and Sombra recently added home-building to its portfolio. The fibrous agave waste product (called “bagasse”) is now being used to temper adobe (mud) bricks. Mexico has suffered several massive earthquakes in the past two years, collapsing houses especially in poorer communities. In March, the Sombra team began building its first adobe house in the indigenous Mixe community of Ayutla. Construction is expected to be completed by Earth Day, April 22.