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Wine Backwash Is Being Made into Hard Liquor

Turns out all of the wine spit in those buckets is good for something.

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

Photo courtesy of Poor Tom's Gin

Spitting wine into a bucket could be perceived as pretty wasteful; after all, you're just enjoying a bit of a bottle's flavor, then tossing out both the booze and the product.

Of course, the practice of spitting is widespread, and necessary for the survival and wellbeing of the somms and enthusiasts who regularly taste a mind-numbing amount of wine at vineyards and festivals. But what about all of that unconsumed wine? That's it?

After attending the Rootstock Wine Festival in Sydney two years ago, distiller Peter Bignell decided that he would do something about all of that discarded vino, which he calls "dreadful waste."

"All the wineries [at the festival] were very much organic or biodynamic, and those people don’t waste—they want to recycle and reuse everything," he tells MUNCHIES. “When it was my time to talk, I talked about my distillery, Belgrove distillery, that’s based on not wasting.” Bignell’s Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania is powered by biofuels like leftover cooking oil—from the tractor to the still—and even leftover grains are used to feed nearby sheep, a process he describes as “a very, very closed loop.”

While discussing his operations at Rootstock, Bignell noticed the spit buckets and the responsible attendees using them, drinkers whom he described as “the really keen ones, who didn’t really want to get drunk at all.” All of this made him ask himself a crucial question: “How can we be 'undrunk' and not waste?”

After asking the audience whether they would drink these leftover wines if he distilled them, everyone raised their hands, he says.

The following year, Rootstock organizers collected 500 liters worth of wine, beer, whisky, and cheese that had been spit into buckets. Instead of transporting the yield back to the island of Tasmania, they opted for Poor Tom’s distillery closer to Sydney, where Bignell oversaw distillation alongside Poor Tom's distiller Jesse Kennedy and Rootstock organizer Giorgio De Maria. Some of the spit-spirit was aged in barrels like brandy, while the rest of it, the final product of which turned out to be the resounding favorite, was not aged at all, but instead turned into a clear eau-de-vie.

READ MORE: Why Sake Used to Be Made with the Spit of Japanese Virgins

Overall, it really wasn’t too much of a challenge, according to Bignell.

“It’s all ethanol,” he explains. “There’s lots of flavors in there and I was really, really pleasantly surprised at how much the fruity notes from the wine came through.” It also had great “mouthfeel” says Bignell, who assured us that it wasn’t from the spit, but probably from the oils in the cheese; “It was a really, really nice spirit.”

To the germaphobes out there [props for toughing it this far into the article], Bignell says that the hours of boiling during distillation are more than enough to kill anything insidious; “The water in big cities has been touched by thousands of kidneys, and there are people upstream drinking it, and the stuff’s only filtered with a little bit of chlorine in it! [Distillation] is a far, far better way of sterilizing.”

Peter Bignell with Poor Tom's Jeordie Donaldson.

Bignell was helping to distill this year’s batch of waste on Monday before heading back to Tasmania, and said it seemed a bit “cleaner” than last year’s. Apparently, the smells coming out of the stills were “beautiful” and reminded him of his mother and grandmother making blackberry and blueberry jam.

Last year’s batch has been bottled and marketed under the name Kissing a Stranger in a not-so-subtle reference to the spit-swapping at its heart. The labels show opposite- and same-sex couple kissing each other as a conscious show of support for same-sex marriage and proceeds, Bignell says, will go toward funding programs helping aboriginal youths in Australia.

Thankfully, there's a lot more to this story than just backwash.