A Brooklyn Company Is Turning Excess Carbon Into an Excellent Vodka
Air Co. produces an eco-friendly spirit without sacrificing quality
“People love to drink and save the world.”
Truer words were never spoken. But that’s the real mission of Air Co. a Bushwick-based company that captures excess carbon from the air and transforms it into different products — starting with a vodka.
Air Co. was founded by Greg Constantine, a former exec for the global spirits brand Diageo, and Dr. Stafford “Staff” Sheehan, a Yale PhD who developed a technology that converts carbon from the air into alcohol. Though hailing from separate professional worlds, the two were both honorees of Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 awards a few years back and met on a Forbes-sponsored trip.
“We were at a bar in Israel when we met, and I bought him a Scotch,” says Constantine. “We just became friends quickly and stayed in touch.”
At Diageo, Constantine wanted to focus on quality, design and sustainability. And his new friend just happened to be working on a separate project that filled those creative voids.
“We ran into each other at another conference, and I had this rum prototype using a baby version of the tech we have here,” says Sheehan, who briefly worked at a gin distillery. “Soon after that, we decided to step down from our jobs and work together.”
Sheehan had already figured out the technical hurdles of capturing and converting excess carbon to ethanol and distilling it. But there were plenty of non-science obstacles, including existing liquor laws, which limited their first product to a neutral spirit (meaning, it’d either be gin or vodka). “Otherwise, we’d have to start with something made-up or called whisky-ish or something, and we didn’t want that,” says Sheehan.
They also had to convince various Brooklyn fire chiefs to allow an experimental distillery into their neighborhood while also gaining approval from the very fickle Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). As well, the duo had to custom order an 18-plate column still and figure out how to get Sheehan’s multi-ton conversion reactor (“the secret sauce”) into a tiny Bushwick warehouse space (they used a crane and went through the roof).
But the two-year journey and multiple headaches were worth the effort. Air Co. is an ultra-purified 40% ABV vodka that’s fantastic on its own but seems ideally suited for a martini. And it’s more than carbon neutral — each bottle they produce equals the daily carbon intake of eight trees.
But the eco-friendly ethos has one drawback. Currently you can find Air Co. in just a few local liquor stores, along with some high-end restaurants (like Eleven Madison Park) and neighborhood joints where Sheehan and Constantine like to imbibe.
“We wanted to lower emissions, and if you’re putting these on a plane, what’s the point?” asks Constantine. “So we’re distributing it ourselves and working with partners locally who are interested in sustainability.”
In the near future, the company plans to branch out into other areas where high-purity ethanol is used as a base, including the perfume and pharmaceutical industries. And there might be a whisky (well, “whisky-ish” product) in a year or two.
For now, they’re just happy with the initial results. “Everyone seems so receptive to any product that’s actually for the environment, not against it,” says Constantine. “And vodka’s been dominated by super premium, European heritage brands for so long. There’s nothing modern out there created by millennials with this quality and design. The space is ripe for disruption.”