Turning grains into delicious spirits demands dedication, talent, specialty equipment—and enormous amounts of water, most of which goes down the drain after it has served its purpose. The team behind year-old Ballmer Peak Distillery in Lakewood wasn’t happy to settle for such a potentially wasteful process, instead engineering their operation to conserve about 400,000 gallons of water each year.
“We come from Arizona, where water conservation is more of a big deal. When we decided to open our distillery in Denver, we built it to avoid wasting water,” says Eric Strom, co-founder of Ballmer Peak, named after the eponymous theory by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer which posits that drinking alcohol to a certain point enhances cognitive ability.
Much of Ballmer Peak’s aqua-saving efforts revolve around the water used to cool parts of the still during the distillation process. How does it all work? Stills heat batches of a low-alcohol, sugary liquid called a wash. As temperatures increase in the wash, alcohol turns into vapor which rises up in the still’s column. Once the vapors begin emerging, temperatures in the column must be cooled enough to condense the vapor, transforming it back into a liquid form of alcohol (minus the water and other ingredients found in the wash). Then, distillers ratchet down the temperature of the liquid by surrounding the outside of the column with cold water, which normally gets tossed afterward due to its proximity to the hot vapor. To avoid that, Ballmer Peak built a reservoir system that captures and constantly recirculates 325 gallons of water for reuse on the still.
Additionally, the fermenting process—turning vegetable matter like grains or fruit into those aforementioned low-alcohol washes—also requires the use of water to control temperatures on the outside of the fermenters. Instead of just dumping the water used, the team at Ballmer Peak repurposes it at the end of the day for washing the facility’s equipment. “Sustainability has become more important for distilleries, but we still see so many with water lines that direct water to the equipment, and then send it down the drain,” says co-founder Austin Adamson.
Water isn’t the only resource that Ballmer Peak repurposes. After the distillery ferments its silver, gold, and spiced rums, it donates the resulting alcohol-free wash or residual liquid to Originateve. The Centennial-based nonprofit, which promotes regenerative and holistic agricultural practices through educational programs, uses the spent rum wash to enrich soil in community and school gardens.
Rum wash, called “dunder,” is somewhat unique among washes for its usefulness in agriculture. “Dunder is full of amino acids, minerals, and dead yeast cells. It goes straight into the garden beds,” says Ron Green, Originateve’s founder. “It’s a superfood for plants. Every garden that got the dunder had massive boosts in production this year, although we don’t know at this point how much the dunder contributed to the soil’s health.”
Washes for most other spirits—including those that result from the production of Ballmer Peak’s vodka, Australian-style gin (heavier on citrus and other fruits than classic gins), and single-malt whiskey—are not repurposed. But Adamson says the distillery is researching ways to find uses for them.
Ballmer Peak also donates its spent grains to Originateve, which feeds them to the animals on its campus, which include a herd of mule deer, two flocks of Canada geese, 63 chickens, three goats, and two miniature horses.
The distillery’s other conservation efforts include working with wineries, including Kingman Estates in Denver, to turn the pomace (grape skins, stems, and seeds leftover from winemaking) into grappa and experimenting with turning waste from other culinary businesses into spirits. “We have small trials in play,” says Adamson. “For one thing, we are trying to convert whey from yogurt manufacturers and cheesemakers into a spirit. Whey can be a big waste problem. It’s not easy to dispose of it in an environmentally sound way. About 20 distilleries in the world now make this whey [spirit], and we are giving it a shot.”
All of these initiatives have been fairly inexpensive for Ballmer Peak to achieve and the long-term savings in water will substantially offset the initial costs, says Adamson.
The City of Lakewood is taking notice. This year, it awarded Ballmer Peak with a 2020 Community Sustainability Award for its efforts to conserve resources and build community partnerships. We’ll raise a glass of rum to that.
Ballmer Peak Distillery is open Monday and Thursday, 4–9 p.m.; Friday 4–10 p.m.; Saturday, 1:30–10 p.m.; and Sunday, 1:30–9 p.m.; 12347 W. Alameda Pkwy., Lakewood, 720-316-5824