Distillery Slop – Bourbon’s First Environmental Challenge.
The process of converting grain into distilled spirits requires a tremendous amount of grain, and therefore, creates a significant volume of “slop” – the material remaining after fermented mash has been distilled – as a byproduct. A more attractive name often used after most of the water is removed from the slop is “distillers grain,” or the more Agri-Science-sounding name of “distiller dried grains,” with its acronym, “DDG.”
Although most of the starch is removed from the grains, practically all of the protein, fat, and fiber remain in the slop. (Slop is alcohol free, so the laugh-lines used by some tour guides about “very happy cattle” are just jokes.) Slop from a traditional Bourbon mash bill will have a higher fat content because of the corn, and therefore, slop from early Kentucky distillers became recognized as a valuable source of livestock feed. With the high capacity of today’s distilleries, anyone who has taken a tour has probably heard that the distilleries allow local farmers to haul away distillers grain, free of charge, for their use in feeding livestock.
In the early days of farmer-distillers, distillation runs were small enough that the slop could be used for the farmer’s own livestock. Even as distilleries grew into commercial enterprises, they often maintained livestock as a secondary source of income, or leased adjoining land to farmers, and used their built-in supply of slop for feeding the livestock.
However, as America and distilleries continued to grow together, and as the pace of distillation increased with larger stills and the introduction of column stills, the production of slop outstripped the immediate needs of the distiller, and sometimes of the local community. Slop was often piped into waterways or sewers, or retention ponds overflowed into waterways, polluting rivers, killing fish, and creating an awful stench. This put Bourbon on the front line of conservation and preservation efforts in the early 1900’s.
As early as 1904, in addressing slop from the Peacock Distillery in Bourbon County that polluted “Stoner Creek,” the Court of Appeals of Kentucky ruled that “Every person must use his own property and conduct his business with regard to certain rights of his neighbors.” Peacock Distillery Co. v. Commonwealth, 25 Ky. L. Rptr. 1778 (1904). Theories of land-use rights in the United States had previously stressed the right of landowners to use their land and resources however they saw fit; Peacock Distillery shows the emerging trend that balanced individual rights with the common good.
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., which was recently reborn in Louisville, gave its original home of Henderson, Kentucky, its share of water problems in the early 1900’s. As explained in a trio of cases, City of Henderson v. Robinson, 152 Ky. 245 (1913), City of Henderson v. Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., 161 Ky. 1 (1914), and Kraver v. Smith, 164 Ky. 674 (1915), Kentucky Peerless and its owner, Henry Kraver, were accused of polluting Canoe Creek with distillery slop so severely that “the waters of the creek were thereby made so impure as to render them unfit for use as stock water, cause them to emit foul odors, and so poison the atmosphere surrounding the creek as to endanger the lives of each of the [plaintiffs], his family and stock, make their houses at time uninhabitable, and depreciate the value and use of the real estate along and contiguous to the stream on which each resides.”
Similar lawsuits were brought against the Eminence Distilling Company in Henry County (Thomas’ Adm’r v. Eminence Distilling Co., 151 Ky. 29 (1912)) where a boy’s death was blamed on falling into and accidentally swallowing water from Fox Run Creek, the Commonwealth Distillery in Fayette County (Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co. v. Commonwealth, 24 Ky. L. Rptr. 2154 (1903)), and the Walsh Distillery in Bourbon County (Commonwealth v. Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co., 154 Ky. 787 (1913)).
Despite some missteps along the way, early Bourbon distillers proved that they could handle this major environmental risk. And today, while the primary use for slop is still livestock feed – which distilleries can probably claim is the greenest solution of any industry in response to such a voluminous byproduct – Bourbon distilleries are still innovating. For example, Maker’s Mark uses slop as a resource of renewable energy, through an anaerobic process that converts the organics into biogas, which is used as fuel for its boilers to offset natural gas usage by up to 20%. With innovation like this, we can expect Bourbon distilleries to be leaders in sustainable industry.
Cows love DDG