Sam Chereskin and Whit Rigali want to redefine what it means to get trashed. The pair discovered that the sugars in almost-stale bread, bagels and cakes destined for the landfill could be distilled into premium vodka, turning imbibing into an act of social responsibility.
The pair launched Misadventure Vodka this past summer with the dual goals of producing that vodka and reducing food waste. The southern California distillery makes all of its liquor from discarded starches, collecting up to 1,200 pounds of aging bakery products from the local food bank each week.
"We wanted to use the excess food, remove it from the waste stream and make something that tastes good," says Chereskin.
The vodka is bottled at their San Marcos distillery and sold to bars, restaurants and retailers throughout California (and via online retailers to customers outside the state). Each bottle of Misadventure Vodka is made with two pounds of food waste — a fact that surprises tipplers.
"Once food is labeled as waste, there tends to be a bias about it," Rigali says. "We want to change the perception."
As awareness of food waste grows — an estimated 133 billion pounds of food is thrown away every year in the U.S. — so do efforts to address the problem. Some restaurants are composting leftovers, eschewing plastic straws and turning so-called trash fish into featured dishes. Creative approaches are also happening behind the bar.
At The Perennial in San Francisco, the goal is to "Fight climate change with food and drinks," which means sourcing ingredients from sustainable farms, using recycled materials — and creating a cocktail menu that embodies that ethos.
The "Grapefruit Three Ways" uses the entire grapefruit: The fruit juice is the base of the cocktail; peels are packed in sugar to add flavor; and the leftover hulls are put into a still to make syrup. Those bittersweet ingredients are mixed with 110-proof tequila. Another cocktail, "Rust and Char," is made from charred (and discarded) walnut shells, and then mixed with honey and rye to give the drink its smoky flavor.
To extend the shelf life of common perishable cocktail ingredients like fruits and vegetables, bar manager Rob Hamic often dehydrates, salt cures and pickles overripe produce, making shrubs and preserves that add flavor to craft cocktails.
Hamic admits that the zero-waste approach requires extra effort. "There is no blueprint for how to make it work. You have to think of new and better ways to do everything."
As for Misadventure Vodka, it took a year of intense research and development to bring it to market. Unlike other spirits, which are made with specific ratios of ingredients, Chereskin and Rigali accept all starches, including those with unusual flavor notes such as jalapeno bagels and chocolate cake.
"The vodka has a sweet note but, by a quirk of the process, yeast only eats the sugars, so the novel flavors are stripped out during the distillation. We can distill a consistent product even though we can never predict the ratios of the food waste we collect," explains Chereskin.
More than one-third of fruits and vegetables are wasted before reaching the supermarket, thanks to production losses, and issues with handling, storage and processing.
Distiller Henry Tarmy knew that some strawberries were too small, bruised or misshapen to be sold in the produce aisle, but they still had the sweetness needed to distill premium spirits. When he launched Ventura Spirits in 2014, he partnered with California growers to source strawberries for brandy.
"[Ventura] is a huge strawberry growing region and we knew there was a ton of waste, a lot of strawberries left rotting in the fields," Tarmy says. "We're tapping into the surplus that, in most cases, would be going to a landfill."
Over the past three years, Tarmy claims that Ventura Spirits has diverted 500,000 of strawberries from the waste stream. Interest from bars and restaurants is strong; farmers are excited, too, to have a market for produce that would otherwise end up as trash. Tarmy hopes to develop similar partnerships to source apples and potatoes for future batches of vodka.
"Distilling is well-suited to deal with food waste. We need sugar, and the riper a fruit is, the more sugar has. If it's too overripe to be on store shelves, it's perfect for us," Tarmy says. "We don't care about the size or shape of a fruit either. Ugly fruit makes beautiful brandy."
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina journalist and beekeeper who frequently writes about food and farming.