The Ten: Mark Byrne
Name and job title
Mark Byrne, Co-founder of Good Liquorworks
Where were you born, and where do you live now?
I was born in Southern California, and I now split my time between New York, NY and New Paltz, NY.
How you describe what you do / your job?
My go-to joke is that I make alcohol from trash. But if I'm being earnest, what we – my business partner Tristan Willey and I – really work with is not trash at all. We make vodka from good, ripe, organic coffee fruit. On a basic level, this a very straightforward thing to do. Lots of people make alcohol from fruit. That this fruit’s relationship to the bean inside of it (the coffee bean) is so lopsided in terms of value that the fruit is perceived as waste – and thus making alcohol from it is considered novel – is incredibly fascinating to me. It’s good fruit! There’s lots that can be done with it. One of those things is making alcohol.
How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?
I got a cold brew yesterday at Lagusta's Commissary, in New Paltz, which is part of Lagusta Yearwood's local vegan-socialist-chocolate empire up here. I am always happy to pay whatever Lagusta thinks coffee should cost. It was $4, not including tip.
What is one ingredient that is crucial to your work and life?
In like a million ways: coffee.
What does a food and/or drinks system mean to you?
At its best, food is about taking care of your community – not just feeding your friends and neighbors, but working in harmony with them, taking what's available when it's available, being conscientious about what is ultimately discarded and how. At its worst, it's entirely agnostic to its community. Food shouldn't exist in a vacuum. (Neither should alcohol.)
How does your immediate locale affect your work?
Right now I'm up in New Paltz, which is a little college town at the base of the Shawangunk range in New York. It gets very rural, very quickly. There is a big orchard about a kilometer down the road; I wake up to a rooster across the street. One of the reasons I love being up here is that you never need to go that far to see the framework of how we're fed. Lots of little co-op grocers and farm stands. A lot of direct interaction between local restaurants and producers in their immediate vicinity. I am obsessed with transparency in supply chains and it is abundant up here.
Where do you draw inspiration from, in your work?
One of my great-uncles owned a small photo agency in Paris. This was a really good thing to do in 60s and 70s, but by the 90s, digitization and corporate consolidation was beginning to consume the industry. So one day my great-uncle takes a meeting with some American executives sent by one of the big companies that eventually merged with a bigger company that eventually was swallowed by Getty. They want to buy his agency. They spend all morning in negotiations in a hotel suite, and then eventually my great-uncle suggests they break for lunch. He proposes a restaurant nearby. The executives say no need, they’ve ordered in for sandwiches to be delivered. And at this point my great-uncle rises to leave, saying “I will not sell my company to people who eat sandwiches for lunch.”
I get all of my inspiration from this story. I will suck marrow from this story until I’m dead.
What impact do you want to have?
I want nothing less than a complete overhaul of our stupid, destructive system of making ethanol from vast fields of single-purpose grain. The amount of fruit waste created just by coffee every year is sufficient to make every single bottle of vodka sold in the U.S. That’s a good place to start.
What change do you want to see in the food and/or drinks system?
Details. I want details. I want every bottle of alcohol to disclose where it was grown, when, by whom. I want us to stop pretending that this information is irrelevant simply because the product is shelf-stable. Alcohol always begins on a farm. Alcohol is agriculture. Tattoo it on my face.
We ask all our interviewees to send us two photos: one that represents themselves and one that represents their work.