In this first two parts of this series, we looked at the environmental impact of rum production and what some distilleries are doing to clean up the process. These initiatives are impressive—and have turned what is traditionally a fairly dirty industry into something much cleaner—but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Recently, TreeHugger had the opportunity to take a look at the art and science—as well as the clean and dirty—of making rum first-hand, thanks to a trip sponsored by Distillery Serrallés for members of the press.
The Clean Cane Movement
Sugar cane—which is used to make the molasses base of rum—is without a doubt the point of production with the most room for improvement. Currently, the economics of sugar encourages plantation owners to grow cane in high-density fields using methods that have shown to deplete soil, pollute watersheds, marginalize people, and reduce local biodiversity—among many other things.
Furthermore, the value of sugar as a commodity on the global market means that producers refine raw cane as much as possible, leaving a very low quality—and mostly sugar-less—molasses byproduct behind. This molasses—which at this point has been rendered a true waste product—ultimately results in a lower quality rum.
Instead, distillers should—whenever possible—focus on producing their own sugarcane. In doing so, they can then ensure the crop is grown to international sustainability standards—like the Bonsucro Better Sugar Initiative, discussed previously—and that the molasses is of the highest quality.
When growing sugar is not an option, distillers should make every effort to seek out producers that comply with a recognized international standard—or at the least, make an effort to implement principles of soil and water conservation, reduced fertilizer and pesticide inputs, lowered emissions, reduced crop density, and fair treatment of human labor.
Controlling Energy Consumption
Some rum makers, including Distillery Serrallés, have begun implementing biogas capture technologies to offset the intense amount of energy used my a modern still. This has allowed Distillery Serrallés and others to offset between 50 and 70 percent of the operation's total annual consumption. With such obvious gains, such technology should be an industry standard.
Most rum production takes place in the Caribbean and, as such, the use of on-sight solar and wind generators are an obvious step to handle the 30 to 50 percent of energy consumption that the biogas system can't handle.
The Whole Package
Once the industrial process is cleaned up, the obvious place for improvement occurs on the bottling line. Using bottles made from recycled glass—or better yet, reusing bottles—and reducing other packaging (boxes, etc.) would make small improvements in the total life cycle of a bottle of rum.
Of course, these things, while notable improvements to the very end of the chain, pale in comparison to the huge impacts—and potential for improvement—that takes place in the production and distillation process.
By building on the improvements Distillery Serrallés and others have already made—particularly in waste processing and biogas reclamation—and incorporating the ideas and technologies listed above, rum—one of the world's favorite spirits—may one day be the base of cocktails as clean and eco-friendly as they are tasty.