Pay a visit to any facility that produces spirits and you’ll encounter byproducts of the process of distillation—and creative methods to repurpose or dispose of them. Spent grains left over after making bourbon or rye become feed for (very happy) livestock. Grape seeds, skin and stems (called pomace) that remain after a batch of copper pot-produced brandy can be further distilled into high proof marc or grappa. And after extracting the juice that will eventually be made into rhum agricole, sugarcanes are often burned to heat the steam engine that fuels the distillery.
But what about the agave used in tequila production? The mature piñas (hearts of blue agave plants) harvested by jimadors yield lots of juice for fermentation—and unfortunately lots of waste. Head out to an agave field and the first thing you notice when a jimador extracts the heart from a blue weber agave plant (which is related to the lily and the asparagus and not, as many believe, the cactus) is its size, which can be upwards of a hundred pounds. What remains after removing a piña’s leaves—left in the field as natural compost—is still a rather large orb-like fruit that’ll be transported back to the facility to be cut, baked in small steam-fueled brick ovens, crushed via traditional tahona or more modern roller mills to extract the juice, fermented and distilled. (The juice from one piña yields a case of tequila, and an experienced jimador can harvest 80 to 100 of them per day.) Post-distillation, the mills and tanks overflow with pounds of bagasse, the agave fibers that resemble hemp or straw, and the challenge remains of what to do with them.
At Patrón, the tequila distillery launched in 1989, the team shows a steadfast commitment to sustainability, starting with finding a use for those fibers from which that precious agave juice has been squeezed. The company’s first initiative was a large compost area, which has grown over the years and now measures five hectares housed under a greenhouse roof. There, 100% of the fibers recovered from Patrón as well as that from nearby distilleries are mixed with concentrated stillage (the liquid waste that remains after distilling ethanol) and stirred once a week. Over time it breaks down, until eventually (approximately seven months later) it’s a nutrient-rich homogenous mixture. Each year the company creates about 5,500 tons of fertilizer compost; each of Patrón’s employees is given as much as 900 pounds of it per year to use on their own properties, and it’s also donated to local gardens and agave farmers and added to football fields and reforestation efforts.
It also plays another role onsite. “Many years ago, when we first began to produce compost, we planted a small garden nearby to test the quality,” says director of production Antonio Rodriguez. “That little garden has now grown to become a significant source of vegetables that we use in our kitchens for employee and guest meals.” (La Casona, a property adjacent to the distillery, opened in November 2016 to allow those in the industry to stay and learn about the art of making tequila.)
The remaining stillage that can’t be used in the compost area needs to be disposed of in a safe way, as its high levels of organic material could harm or kill plants and animals. Patrón is the only tequila distillery to use reverse osmosis, a purification technique that uses pressure and membrane filters to remove ions, molecules and larger particles. “This reclaim[ed] clean water is reused in our cooling towers and for cleaning, [which] helps reduce water use,” Rodriguez explains. The first pass through the filters removes large particles, the second renders it safe enough for cleaning, and the third leaves it clean enough to finally allow a portion of it to be discarded. Other producers in the area have an open invitation to come to learn how to incorporate sustainability initiatives in their own facilities.
Patrón’s commitment to the environment extends even further. It was the first tequila distillery to install a natural gas pipeline as its main energy source, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions and helps air quality. They’ve also donated around 16,000 trees since 2015 in their hometown of Atotonilco el Alto, and transplanted 3,000 lime trees to a nearby farm to make room for an upcoming expansion project.
Tour Patrón and you’ll end up at the bottling line, a bustling room where the instantly recognizable bottles (crafted from recycled glass) move down a conveyor belt before employees add the stopper and the appropriately-colored silk ribbons to their necks. Watching the final step is mesmerizingly Zen-like: the bottle is encased in tissue paper that’s precisely folded to resemble an agave heart before being placed into a box (to drive home the feeling that the tequila is a gift, the company says, even if it’s just one to yourself.) Bottles destined to go straight to restaurants and bars forego this step to reduce waste though; not an inconsequential decision, as annual production now hovers around three and a half million cases.
From the field to the shelf, at the heart of Patrón is an ongoing commitment to responsibility, accountability, and great tequila. “The quality and consistency of our product are our keys to the success,” declares Rodriguez. “We need to be sustainable in order to keep the growth that we are looking with the same quality and consistency as the day we started.”
Here are some tips from Patrón to reduce waste behind your bar:
- TIP 1: Use vinegar and sugar to preserve overripe melons by making a melon shrub.
- TIP 2: Instead of discarding excess citrus or citrus juice, use sugar to make a preserved citrus cordial.
- TIP 3: Use leftover herbs to make infusions and syrups.
- TIP 4: Give a second life to coffee grounds by using them to infuse flavor into other ingredients.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.