In-Depth

Always a Clean Finish: How Don Q is Going Green in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican beach by Wikipedia Commons
Don Q has made huge strides in implementing sustainable technology and reducing their impact on the environment. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Puerto Ricans have long been known for their love of rum, and particularly their love of Don Q. More than two-thirds of the island’s population drinks this particular rum, which is distilled, manufactured, and distributed (all around the world) from Destilería Serrallés headquarters in Ponce. Not only known for quality products, in the last decade the Serrallés family has made strides in implementing sustainable technology and reducing their impact on the environment that have reverberated throughout the spirit-making industry. Many of these green initiatives came directly from Roberto Serrallés, a sixth-generation distiller who left Puerto Rico to become a teacher, but wound up back at his family’s distillery.

Roberto Serralles of Don Q

“I wanted to teach; that was my calling in life,” says Roberto Serrallés, Vice President of Business Development and Commercial Director at Destilería Serrallés (pictured left). “I knew I wanted to teach at the university level, which requires a PhD, and that’s part of why I ended up in Environmental Sciences. As I was writing my dissertation, I got a call from my dad (Felix Juan Serrallés, Jr., company president and CEO), and he said he needed help with the distillery’s wastewater system. So, I was initially hired as a contractor, and worked on this wastewater treatment system for years that we now have up and running.”

Rum, and spirit-making in general, produces a lot of wastewater. “When you distill rum, wastewater ends up being five times the volume of the spirit produced,” Serrallés explains. “We want to take that wastewater and reuse it, turn it into some form of energy. I see this as an extension of the process of rum-making, which begins with molasses, a byproduct of sugar making.”

The Serrallés family began as sugarcane farmers, and rum-making naturally evolved from that endeavor as a way to use leftover molasses. “We took a waste stream and turned it into something value added,” says Serrallés. Eliminating wastewater runoff into nearby waterways also aligned with a perspective on environmental stewardship that Roberto learned during his PhD studies.

Many of Don Q's green initiatives came directly from Roberto Serrallés, a sixth-generation distiller who left Puerto Rico to become a teacher, but wound up back at his family’s distillery. Many of Don Q's green initiatives came directly from Roberto Serrallés, a sixth-generation distiller who left Puerto Rico to become a teacher, but wound up back at his family’s distillery.

“Some of my guiding principles come from the field of industrial ecology, specifically Marian Chertow, who teaches at Yale. Part of her work looks at the lack of waste in naturally occurring systems and suggests we should mimic that in industry,” notes Serrallés. “There is no waste in nature, and that is an ideal system. So, how do we find a use for all our outputs?”

This mission has led to significant changes at Destilería Serrallés over the last decade. Serrallés focused his work on the system the distillery uses for wastewater treatment, which several other distillers now emulate. It captures carbon dioxide released during the fermentation process and distributes it to local soda producers, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Wastewater from the distillation process has a myriad of uses, finding its way into compost, biofuel, and irrigation water. Don Q has also completely eliminated wastewater discharge into nearby oceans, a long-term goal that dovetailed with one of the missions of a global nonprofit with initiatives in Puerto Rico: The Surfrider Foundation.

An aerial shot of Destilería Serrallés headquarters in Ponce. An aerial shot of Destilería Serrallés headquarters in Ponce.

“Don Q is doing good, significant work to reduce waste and close the loop in their systems,” says Dr. Chad Nelson, Surfrider’s CEO. “They came to us and wanted to establish a partnership and we were thrilled. We have people that monitor water quality in Puerto Rico, and we also do work protecting coral reefs, which are very sensitive to changes in water temperature and nutrification, both of which are potential impacts from wastewater discharge at nearby distilleries. Keeping wastewater out of the ocean keeps helps keep reef systems healthy,” he says.

Surfrider and Destilería Serrallés have future plans for collaborations around the globe. Don Q recently began selling rum in Europe, where Surfrider has several initiatives, and the two organizations will host beach cleanups beginning in Holland. They plan to bring together foundation members, Don Q employees, and local bartenders. “In general, the bartending community is amazing and the people we engage with are incredibly service-oriented and do so many cool things,” says Serrallés. “We do a lot of community service projects around the globe, including sponsoring Pig and Punch events in the United States.”

In the future, Serrallés hopes to continue developing sustainable technologies for Destilería Serrallés, and encouraging the implementation of those methods industrywide. “Sustainability is not a destination,” he says. “It’s a commitment to a continual process. We are trying, and it’s about trying to be better every day.”



Meghan Holmes is a New Orleans-based writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and her work often focuses on food, culture, and the environment.

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