"The old model is broken."

By Jelisa Castrodale
Updated October 15, 2019
ME11 Vodka
Credit: Courtesy of ME11

The Jack Rabbit Hill Farm has been in western Colorado's North Fork Valley for almost two decades. It started out as a certified organic farm, and has since diversified to include biodynamic wines, craft spirits, and single-orchard ciders, in addition to grapes and medicinal herbs. But Jack Rabbit Hill's founder Lance Hanson is looking past his own property lines to see what he can do to cut down on the waste and energy consumption generated by some bars and restaurants in Denver, Boulder, and elsewhere in the state.

Jack Rabbit Hill produces a well vodka called MEll, and instead of buying new bottles for it, or even using recycled glass, he's torn out a page from the milk delivery handbook. (It's still a thing, kids.) A designated MEll delivery team will take bottles of what the company describes as "decent vodka" to its restaurant and bar customers and, after their bartenders have mixed several bottles' worth of vodka tonics and screwdrivers, they'll swing by to collect the empties. Those bottles will be taken back to the distillery where they'll be cleaned and refilled before being re-delivered to the bars.

"It’s the old milk-bottle delivery service, with a twist," Hanson said."The amount of waste in the spirits industry has long disturbed us. Then we had an a-ha moment with the milk model. We researched whether it was doable with spirits—it is—and then we moved quickly to implement a similar approach with MEll."

ME11 Vodka
Credit: Courtesy of ME11

MEll says that it is the first—and currently the only—brand of spirits that has this kind of commercial refill-and-reuse program. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills received almost 7 million tons of glass waste in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. (By comparison, just over 3 million tons of glass were recycled that same year).

Vessel, another Colorado-based company, recently launched a reasonably similar pilot program at eleven coffee shops in Berkeley, California. Between now and next spring, customers at those participating locations can pick up one of Vessel's stainless steel cups when they place their next to-go order. After they down their drink of choice, they'll have five days to return it to one of Vessel's kiosks. Meanwhile, the company will collect all of the used cups, clean and sanitize them, and return them to the coffee shops (and yes, all of that picking up-and-dropping off is done with a bike pedicab.)

"The old model is broken," Hanson said. "But how refreshing that the clear path forward doesn’t require huge investments in technology or equipment. We simply are adapting old models for today."

It doesn't hurt that today's model involves regular deliveries of freshly bottled booze.