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Whiskey Rock-A-Roller – Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam Will Drink to This: It’s Time to Make RNG

We can’t conjure up a more old-school, more intrinsically American industry than whiskey-making, or more iconic whiskey names than Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam — the latter, of course, being a bourbon, a particular type of whiskey. The recipes for both “Jack” and “Jim” have remained unchanged for generations and their distillers in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively, are traditionalists to their core. That doesn’t mean, though, that they’re unaware of the need to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — or are blind to the opportunities that decarbonization may present. Now, as we discuss in today’s RBN blog, both Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam are all-in on producing renewable natural gas (RNG) from spent grains.

Sure, whiskey’s roots can be traced back to medieval monks in Ireland and Scotland — and there’s a lot to be said for Scotch whisky, whose producers are Whiskey Bent and (Hydrogen) Bound — but whiskey (spelled with an “e” in the U.S.) is, in many ways, as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. Heck, George Washington ran a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, and in 1795 (during Washington’s second term as U.S. president) Jacob Beam — an early settler of Kentucky — sold his first barrel of Old Jake Beam Sour Mash, using his father’s corn-whiskey recipe. The product’s name was later changed to Old Tub Bourbon and finally, in 1943, to Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. As for Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey (the classic variety), its story “only” goes back to 1866, when Jasper “Jack” Daniel, working with the Reverend Dan Call and a formerly enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green (who later became head distiller), established the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. (No. 7 was the number assigned to the distillery’s government registration.)

Before we dive into the Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam RNG projects, we need to define a few things. First up is alcohol. Whiskey is a spirit distilled from a fermented mix of grains, including barley, corn, rye or wheat. Bourbon is a whiskey that meets a series of specific requirements: (1) it must be made in America (per a 1964 U.S. law); (2) the distillery’s grain bill (similar to a refinery’s crude slate) must be at least 51% corn; (3) it must be distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol) and must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol); and (4) it must be aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Jim Beam is up to snuff on all these and, as it turns out, so is Jack Daniel’s, but Jack technically isn’t a bourbon because it goes through an extra step after it’s distilled and before it’s “barreled” — namely, over a 3-to-5-day period it’s filtered through (or steeped in) a 10-foot-tall vat filled with charcoal chips to remove impurities and “mellow” the whiskey. (This is known as “the Lincoln County Process.”)

Renewable Natural Gas Production Process

Figure 1. Renewable Natural Gas Production Process. Source: 3 Rivers Energy Partners

Next up are the definitions of anaerobic digestion, biogas and RNG. Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a process during which specialized bacteria are used to break down organic waste — in the distillers’ case, the spent grains or ”stillage” left after distillation — in an oxygen-depleted environment. AD produces an organic residue called digestate (a sludge that can be used as natural fertilizer/compost/soil-improver) and biogas, a combo of methane, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. A gas upgrading plant removes the impurities from the biogas, resulting in pipeline-quality RNG, a drop-in replacement for conventional natural gas that can qualify for federal and state financial incentives. (More on that in a moment.) Figure 1 above illustrates the process.

As we said in Green Light, a recent blog about growing interest in RNG by oil giants, utilities and private equity, most folks consider RNG to be a carbon-neutral fuel, the reasoning being that since the methane generated by the decomposition of organic waste — be it at landfills, dairy and hog farms, or the tail end of a whiskey distillery — would have been released into the atmosphere anyway, capturing and consuming it creates no new or additional GHGs. [Remember that methane is a particularly potent GHG, especially in the short-term, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) that is 25-36x that of CO2 when normalized to a 100-year timeline and an astonishing 86x that of CO2 if normalized to a 20-year timeline.]

Due to RNG’s generally accepted carbon neutrality, the production of RNG from landfills and anaerobic digesters is being encouraged by a number of governmental programs and policies, including the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and its Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs) system, which is used to monitor compliance with the RFS, and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), which aims to reduce the carbon intensity (CI) of the transportation fuel sector by issuing credits to the producers of low-CI fuels (including RNG). In essence, these and other programs provide significant financial incentives for the production of RNG — RNG producers also receive a commodity value equal to that of natural gas.

So, what’s being planned by Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s on the RNG front? Beam Suntory, the corporate parent of Jim Beam, said that as part of a $400 million expansion of its Booker Noe distillery in Boston, KY, (Jim Beam bottle in Figure 2) the company will have 3 Rivers Energy Partners develop a new facility whose anaerobic digesters will convert spent stillage into biogas. The biogas will then be treated to RNG standards and used to power new, high-efficiency gas boilers at the distillery. The digesters will also  produce low-cost natural fertilizer that will be made available to local farmers. According to Jim Beam, when the project comes online in 2024, as much as 65% of the Booker Noe distillery’s energy requirements will come from RNG (with the other 35% coming from conventional natural gas) and the distillery’s GHG emissions will be slashed by 50%. The company said that the project will also involve the installation of equipment to capture CO2 from fermentation tanks and, “following a purification process, facilitate the beneficial reuse of more than 100,000 metric tons of high-purity carbon dioxide annually.” (The company did not provide specifics, but purified CO2 has a wide range of uses in the food-processing and beverage-making industries, including at distilleries.)

RNG Projects at Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s

Figure 2. RNG Projects at Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. Source: RBN

As for Jack Daniel’s, it’s working with Lynchburg Renewable Fuels LLC — a partnership of 3 Rivers Energy Partners and TC Energy, the Canadian midstream giant, — on a project to use AD to produce biogas from spent grains at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg (Jack Daniel’s bottle in Figure 2), purify that biogas into RNG, and sell the RNG to the local gas utility for distribution to its customers. The partners estimated that the project, also slated for completion in 2024, will produce about 1 Bcf of RNG annually (or about 2.7 MMcf/d), enough to satisfy the gas needs of about 10,000 homes. Like the Jim Beam project, the Jack Daniel’s one, too, will produce low-cost natural fertilizer for local farmers.

Neither project will change the world from a GHG perspective, but both provide additional proof that companies in just about every sector of the economy are working to reduce their carbon footprint and — just as important — do so in ways that make economic sense, even if that involves a financial assist from the government. The Jack Daniel’s project also shows how energy-industry giants like TC Energy (and BP and Chevron) are dipping their toes (and more) in the RNG space as they explore innovative yet practical models to develop low-carbon solutions.

“Whiskey Rock-A-Roller” was written by Ed King, Billy Powell, and Ronnie Van Zant. It appears as the fourth song on side two of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s third studio album, Nuthin’ Fancy. In his intro to the live version of the song on the LP, One More from the Road, Van Zant says: “I had a stupid writer ask me … ‘What are you man, what are you really?’ So, I decided to write a song, this is really what I am,” and then proceeds to rip into “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller,” with its chorus of Women, whiskey and miles of traveling is all I understand.” Many consider Van Zant’s lyrics of the common man in rock and roll to be similar to those of Merle Haggard’s in country music. Lynyrd Skynyrd has covered Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” in concert. Personnel on the record were: Ronnie Van Zant (vocals); Ed King, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins (guitars); Billy Powell (piano), Leon Wilkeson (bass), and Artimus Pyle (drums, percussion).

Nuthin’ Fancy was recorded between August 1974 and January 1975 at Studio One in Doraville, GA, and Webb IV Studios in Atlanta, with Al Kooper producing. Released in March 1975, the album went to #9 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and has been certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Ed King would leave the band after this record, and it would be the last album with Al Kooper as their producer. One single was released from the LP.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band formed in Jacksonville, FL, in 1964 under the name My Backyard, with Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom, and Bob Burns. The band changed their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969 — the name was inspired by their high school gym coach Leonard Skinner, who had hassled the boys about their hair length while attending school. Drummer Bob Burns was replaced by Artimus Pyle in 1974 and Ed King, who left the band in 1975, was later replaced by Steve Gaines. The band’s career was halted in October 1977 when a plane in which they were traveling crashed, killing singer Van Zant along with bandmates Steve and Cassie Gaines, and seriously injuring the rest of the group. They regathered in 1987 with Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny taking over on lead vocals and have been playing as a band since. Twenty-seven members have passed through the group since its formation. They have released 14 studio albums, six live albums, 23 compilation albums, and 30 singles. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. They continue to tour and will begin the Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour with ZZ Top this summer.

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