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Wisconsin distillery aims to reuse liquor bottles

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
May 6, 2011
Vodka is the main ingredient in a lot of cocktails. But Guy Rehorst doesn’t want the vodka and other spirits made by his Milwaukee company adding to the mix at the local landfill. So on Earth Day, Rehorst’s Great Lakes Distillery announced a new campaign to persuade customers to return their empty bottles to Great Lakes, which is cleaning and reusing them.

The program to reuse liquor bottles appears to be the first of its kind in the nation, according to Frank Coleman, a senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. For most breweries, wineries and distilleries, the cost of cleaning and reusing their relatively inexpensive bottles would be too high, Rehorst said. But Great Lakes uses thicker, costlier glass bottles to help market the company’s high-end craft products, Rehorst said. He figures reusing the bottles will save Great Lakes a couple thousand dollars annually. More importantly, the effort will help the environment, Rehorst said. Reuse is a much “greener” practice than recycling, which uses significant amounts of energy to convert old bottles into new glass.

The reuse program also provides another distinct selling point for Great Lakes, a small craft distillery competing with much larger companies.
The major distillers distribute their spirits throughout the nation, making a reuse program impractical, Rehorst said. Great Lakes sells 90% of its products – including gin, brandy, absinthe and rum – within 100 miles of Milwaukee.

Great Lakes began testing the bottle reuse program a few weeks ago with a couple of Milwaukee restaurants, Comet Cafe and INdustri Cafe. “We honestly weren’t sure what kind of reception we’d get,” Rehorst said. At Comet, 1947 N. Farwell Ave., 25 to 35 bottles have been saved each week for Great Lakes to pick up, said Sam Hutchinson, beverage manager. The bartenders have been storing the empties in some milk crates kept behind the bar. “It’s truly grass-roots,” said Hutchinson, adding that the program blends well with Comet’s “green” efforts to buy foods and beverages from local vendors. Great Lakes employees inspect the bottles for damage and reject bottles that have cracks and chips. The bottles are then washed and sanitized, and undergo another inspection before being refilled.
Other Great Lakes wholesale customers are joining the program. They include an expanding list of taverns, as well as Otto’s Beverage Centers, which operates seven stores in the Milwaukee area. “I don’t know if it’s going to work, to be honest,” said Otto’s owner Dave Luebke. “I don’t know if the average person is going to walk to the back of a liquor store with an empty bottle. … We’re just trying to help out a local company.”

At Otto’s, the 50 cents a bottle that Great Lakes provides bars and stores for returning the empties will be passed on to the customers who bring them to the stores, Luebke said. Great Lakes’ Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka sells for $27.99 a bottle at Otto’s, he said. Also, Great Lakes consumers are invited to drop off their empty bottles at the distillery, in the Walker’s Point area at 616 W. Virginia St., Monday through Saturday, from noon to 6 p.m.