Historically the American Distilling Industry has always had an interest in preserving the environment. There are strong economic reasons why this is so but it does not change the fact that the industry has always been progressive in their thinking about protecting the resources that make their industry possible.
From the earliest days protecting the purity of the water they used to make whiskey was important to distillers. Early distillers looked hard for the perfect water source to make whiskey and when they found a source they did not want anything done to harm it and lower their quality of whiskey. Some went so far as to build nice spring houses around their water source to help protect it from contamination. After Prohibition many distillery took action to insure the water supply was not being contaminated which led many distilleries to purchase large tracts of land around their spring to keep agricultural run-off from seeping into the water. In modern times I have heard distillers worry about road salt in the winter and how it could hurt their water supply as it seeps into the ground.
Distilleries were also worried about trees – oaks in particular. They knew that the oak tree was vital to the whiskey industry. By the 1940s distilleries were taking steps to insure the supply of oak wood for their cooperage. The United Distillers Archive as a set of files from the 1940s where Schenley studied oaks in order to decide what they needed to do to protect this resource. When the study was completed they purchased land in Arkansas and Missouri to plant oak trees with the idea to plant a new tree for every one they used to make barrels.
Distilleries have been aware of industrial waste for hundreds of years and they are fortunate enough to have a waste that can be fed to livestock. However in many cases the production is so large that they have to dry the grain for feed because there are simply not enough cows and hogs in the neighborhood to eat all their waste. This leave some waste water and distilleries have always been careful to treat this water before it gets back into the groundwater cycle. Maker’s Mark has tried to use their slop to produce methane to fuel their still but the technology was not able to make it economically feasible and they have abandoned the plan for now.
In modern times there is the growing problem of air pollution. Many inner city distilleries have to deal with regulations on air quality. This is why few are willing to build warehouses in the city. Evaporating whiskey is considered a greenhouse gas and the distilleries have to pay a fine for their warehouse emissions. Many also have covered fermenters to capture the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast during fermentation. This adds expense to the manufacturing process.
Finally, the distilleries are large consumers of non GMO grains, giving farmers a profitable market for such grain. The artisan distillery industry is also purchasing, and in some cases raising, heirloom varieties of grain. This helps preserve the heirloom varieties of grain species such as corn and wheat.
There are economical reasons for distilleries to be interested in protecting the environment. It is in their best interest to have clean water, clean air, plenty of oak trees and non-GMO grains. This was true in the past and is even more true in the modern world. It adds cost to production but to ignore the environment is risking the quality of their spirit and could ultimately put them out of business.