Rick Stillwagon isn't your typical Pacific Northwest distiller. The most obvious reason is Rick's product line—most craft distillers in this region produce whiskey, and while Rick does produce small batches of whiskey (and vodka), his main product line is rum. Like most craft distillers, Rick is happy to talk about the process of making his products, but my recent conversation with him also included words like "aquaponics," "microorganisms," and "goal of zero emissions." He dreams of a greenhouse heated by spent wash where he can grow his own vanilla and raise tilapia—not necessarily for food, but rather to help with biofiltering. Plus, when he's not distilling, he's an inventor, artist, and martial arts instructor.
I got together with Rick a few weeks ago for a tour of his distillery and a conversation about his green practices. Rick's interest in sustainable distilling came from his work with aquaculture, aquaponics, biomass energy, and various other sustainability projects over the years. Freshwater conservation has always been a priority for him. "If an individual can learn to recycle water into fresh water, there are two obvious, positive results: increased self-sufficiency and decreased demands on fresh water," he commented during our talk.
Rick's rum business is growing, and from his distiller's perspective, increased growth means a greater need to use *less* water, not more. His property has a few low-volume wells, and he collects rainwater. Spent wash runoff goes through an aeration and dilution process that results in water that can be used for fertilizer and soil amendments—in other words, he waters his trees with the spent wash, and is now testing it on the garden, too.
That's just the beginning, though. Rick's next project, currently in progress, will result in spent wash being processed in such a way that the final product is clean water that can be reused during the fermentation process. Rick predicts a 70% reduction in water usage per batch. Along the way, this process will provide free heat and CO2 for his future tropical greenhouse; organic fish food for those tilapia he plans to raise; and compost—all of which equal zero production of hazardous or solid waste.
Another big focus for Rick is the symbiotic relationships between commercial production and local food production. He partners with the local Coos Bay craft brewery, 7 Devils, for his grains, and uses local products for his rum infusions whenever possible (including Bandon's famous cranberries, and fresh-picked Feijoa—which actually does grow in Oregon!).
Other infusion ingredients include fresh pineapple, coconut, cinnamon sticks, ginger root, allspice berries, nutmeg, cloves, star anise, cacao, fresh roasted coffee beans, and lime juice. The infusion shelves on their own are quite impressive, and the resulting rum flavors are quite unique!
In his "spare" time, Rick focuses his energy on small groups around him, helping them to become more self-sufficient with what is locally available. This is actually how I met Rick—he consulted with our local WWOOF hosts on the design and construction of their biochar oven that they fired up during our WWOOF stay last summer. He also spends a good deal of time working with politicians to improve policies to keep products local.
I enjoyed learning more about Rick and his business approach. Of course, the rum tasting after our talk was pretty awesome, too! His energy was inspiring, and I'm really looking forward to watching his progress in the years to come.
For more information about Stillwagon Distillery's sustainability efforts, visit Rick's website or Facebook page. His products are available throughout Oregon, as well as in Idaho and Pennsylvania, and he'll be moving into other states this year. Next time you're passing through the southern Oregon coast, stop by one of his tasting rooms, and pick up a bottle!