Derived as a side product in the creation of sustainable aviation fuel, Air Vodka is in short supply, for now. (Photo: Curt Epstein/AIN)

A Start-up’s Unusual Bedfellows: Sustainable Aviation Fuel and Vodka

The New York company’s liquor, a byproduct of its SAF, has won several awards.

Someday soon, a single organization will be able to fill your jet’s fuel tanks and its liquor cabinet, too. Air Company, a start-up in the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) market, has introduced Air Vodka. It derives the spirit from ethanol, a byproduct of its SAF-refining process, which uses just carbon dioxide and hydrogen as its source material. 

“In many cases of CO2 conversion technologies, ethanol is on the pathway to making the longer hydrocarbon chains that you end up making your sustainable aviation fuel out of,” explains Stafford Sheehan, Air Company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Air Vodka is distilled at a Brooklyn, New York facility, which is proving and perfecting the production technology before the company spends hundreds of millions of dollars constructing full-scale manufacturing plants. As a result, Air Company, which was founded in 2017, produces only a limited amount of SAF that is used mainly for test purposes. The quantity of ethanol produced is even less, resulting in the yearly manufacture of only a few thousand bottles of vodka at most.

In 2019, before making the vodka available commercially, the company entered it into several prestigious international competitions, such as the Luxury Masters International Spirits Challenge, to prove it wasn’t just a novelty. It came away with several gold medals.

Given its limited production, Air Company decided to initially restrict Air Vodka distribution to high-end, Michelin-starred New York City restaurants. “Then COVID hit, and they all shut down,” Sheehan says. “So, as a business, we had to pivot. We actually took a lot of our ethanol and used it to make hand sanitizer just to help out with the pandemic effort.”

Production has since resumed, and Sheehan noted that the vodka is sporadically available via the company’s website but sells out almost immediately. With refineries being built to slake the thirst for billions of gallons of SAF as part of aviation’s mission to decarbonize, that will change. “When we go to production scale, the idea is that we are going to put [Air Vodka] in every liquor store all around the country,” says Sheehan.