Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
The last eight years have been the eight hottest on record, and 2022 saw disasters from floods to hurricanes to heatwaves and wildfires. As the world grapples to reduce its carbon footprint and combat climate change, the spirits industry also needs to step up to the plate.
One guy who's trying to make a difference? Claes Puebla Smith, the Mexican-Swedish engineer-turned-entrepreneur who launched tequila Buen Vato last year with a mission to reduce its environmental footprint.
Engineering might seem an unlikely background for a spirits marketer. But, says Puebla Smith, "Being an engineer gives you a bit of an eye for detail. I wouldn't say we're good at marketing, but we're pretty good at making sure that things actually work." A longstanding interest in water and waste management has also stood him in good stead.
After graduating in engineering, Puebla Smith started his career building internet businesses in the original dot.com boom and, unlike many, made it through the crash. "In 2001, we managed to sell a company we'd created-we helped traditional banks to go online," he explains. "So when I got paid out, I wanted to do something different, and I was looking for something to invest in. That's when the idea came along, to try and introduce tequila to Europe as honourable and proud products."
At the start of the century, while a few pioneering bars were flying the flag, tequila was not generally considered a serious spirit in Europe. It was hooch, to be drunk as shots with a lick of salt and a bite of lime, or churned with premix into frozen Margaritas. "There were some nice tequila success stories in the States," Puebla Smith says. "But pretty much none in Europe."
Although his Mexican father had been an early adopter of craft tequilas, Puebla Smith didn't actually know much about the category. So he took a couple of years to educate himself, sampling tequilas and visiting distilleries, before starting a drinks distribution agency, AliasSmith, in 2004.
AliasSmith's brands and business grew over the next decade or so with distribution in 33 countries. Then the Swedish government drinks monopoly, which looks after all retail sales of alcohol in Sweden, selected one of their producers for an audit to check that standards complied with the monopoly's supplier code of conduct.
"The result of the audit came, and it was bad. It was just really bad," Puebla Smith recalls. "The Real family are 5th generation agave farmers that became millionaires in the year 2000 when the price of agave just skyrocketed. They bought a distillery and in normal Mexican farmer fashion the working conditions and environmental plans were, "old fashiond", to say the least.
Less for the money, he says, than for the principle, Puebla Smith embarked on a mission to turn the producer into compliance. With four of AliasSmith's engineers and the full commitment of the distillery the producer, within a few years of hard work, became best in class!
With the good experience of this business reengineering, AliasSmith attempted to make the rest of their producers comply with high Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) standards and become more environmentally friendly. Everybody was enthusiastic at the beginning but, once the costs were on the table, most companies decided they'd rather spend the money on marketing. "A few times we were even told that there is no business in investing in CSR or environmentally friendly products", says Puebla Smith and decided to go it alone to prove to the industry that it is a good idea to create an environmentally friendly tequila.
No sooner said than done, the Buen Vato Spirits company was launched at the end of 2022 and is today run by two environmental engineers, Mayra Zapata expert in CSR and Omar Corona expert in carbon emissions and waste management.
Most spirits have a hefty carbon footprint and tequila is no exception. Roughly half of tequila's emissions originate from the creation of the glass bottle and the transportation, Puebla-Smith says, the other half is from the production.
Buen Vato, whose name roughly translates as "Good Dude", slashes the transportation emissions through two main routes. The first is by shipping the base spirit from Mexico to Europe at a higher strength in large containers and blending and bottling it in Europe: so less water is transported and in much lighter containers. The second is by replacing heavy, carbon-intensive glass bottles with a lightweight, recycled paper bottle encasing a plastic sack. "We managed to do a deal with the patent owner so we'd be the only tequila in the world selling in paper bottles, for a good time to come" Puebla Smith said.
The paper bottle is going down a storm, but innovation hasn't been without its difficulties. Most bottling machines are designed for rigid, strong glass bottles so it took a lot of experimentation to adjust the bottling line. Further, as the bottle is not transparent, it's not possible to see whether it's been correctly filled, so each bottle has to be weighed. Finally, Puebla Smith says, "The bottle itself is very strong but the neck is not. It's probably not a bottle that bartenders will flair with, although I think that's a minor thing."
Currently, the company is working on reducing Buen Vato's waste even further by launching a 5l bag-in-box product for bars. They are also trialling alternatives to fossil fuel oil to power the Real family's distillery, which produces tequila Buen Vato.
Many products that claim to be recyclable or compostable can only be recycled or composted at specialised facilities most bars and consumers don't have access to. Buen Vato's bottle, cap, and bag are all fully recyclable in most European curb-side pickup systems.
The zero-waste movement has shown that bartenders, in general, are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and the waste the industry produces. Puebla Smith recommends bars seeking to reduce their environmental impact look into packaging. "Instead of buying 70cl glass bottles, see if you can find 5l containers. In some countries, it's allowed to do some prebatching and control the waste management," he says. "Quite a few brands now are moving into bag-in-box or paper bottles or even initiatives of reusing glass bottle containers."
Puebla Smith also recommends operators investigate online courses in environmental friendliness. Most important, he says, is learning to recognise greenwashing. "There are a lot of initiatives that really are not doing much but are taking the attention," he says. "And I think that bars and consumers should be awake enough to say, 'That's good that you want to do that, but show me the proof.'"
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