One of the most encouraging side effects of the craft cocktail movement, and the renewed respect cocktails and spirits receive, is an increased awareness of the environmental and labour impacts our nights out have on the world and our neighbourhoods. From growers to distillers, importers to bartenders, every aspect of production and consumption is reviewed through lenses of sustainability, carbon footprints, environmental impacts and more. The most recent movement to catch fire (non-polluting fire, of course) is the idea of a sustainable cocktail program.
This goes beyond using reclaimed barn wood for furniture: The concept is that bartenders go through a lot of resources these days: Fresh fruit and herbs, fancy ice made in energy-hungry machines, hundreds or thousands of different bottles, exotic ingredients. Increasingly bartenders and bar owners are realising it’s within their power to help reduce, reuse and recycle with the goal of creating a near-zero waste (or at least reduced-waste) establishment.
The first high-profile bar to really take this message to heart on a daily basis was London’s White Lyan, the award-winning spot helmed by Ryan Chetiyawardana. Chat with the amiable bartender for more than a few minutes and you’ll find his philosophies about cocktail production, hospitality and bar/restaurant management run deep. The bar chills its pre-batched drinks and spirits to avoid using ice (which requires a significant amount of energy and storage space, and ends up being dumped in large quantities at the end of the night, creating extra water waste). There is also no fresh citrus (often as not a tossed-away garnish as a mixer), with Chetiyawardana preferring instead a house-made citric acid for mixers. White Lyan even goes so far as to distill some of its own spirits. At his newer spot Dandelyan in the Mondrian London, Chetiyawardana says there is much that needs to be done to get the bar where he wants it (ice and citrus are on the more mainstream menu), “but we’re getting there.”
The concept has now crossed the pond. And while few U.S. bars can produce their own spirits (The Shanty in Brooklyn and Bardenay in Boise, Idaho are notable exceptions), bartenders are finding ways to rein in the waste.In November, White Lyan’s business development manager, Iain Griffiths, toured several bars in the U.S. with Simon Ford (a former Pernod Ricard global brand ambassador) to share the message. Stopping in at bars in Austin, Dallas, LA, New York and elsewhere, Griffiths put on a show to “prove” that a near-zero waste drink was feasible. According to Ford, the cocktail was left with an egg shell and lemon peel at the end of the production, both of which went into a blender to be used in another way.
Reduction of raw materials helps up front (are fancy, inedible garnishes necessary? Do you need four kinds of limes?), but Dandelyan’s team also relies heavily on the re-use concept. Most organic materials used in a bar can serve dual purposes. Once you’ve squeezed all the juice out, lemon and lime peels can be incorporated into house-made spirits and liqueurs (the bar makes its own falernum, an almond-based syrup important in Tiki-style drinks). Mint leaves get muddled into drinks as usual, but rather than toss the stems, they’re used to infuse simple syrups or vodka. Unused cucumber slices can be soaked in Tabasco sauce, dehydrated and turned into bar snacks for the next day.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a few buckets and a deyhdrator,” notes Ford. “You can dehydrate almost everything.”
In most U.S. bars—even the current generation of relaxed craft cocktail bars—speed is emphasized, making it a challenge to incorporate the sort of detailed habits that Chetiyawardana and Griffiths have built into their bar. But it’s not impossible: White Lyan can produce a cocktail in seconds, and Dandelyan is a high-volume spot. Small practices can lead to big changes: From the increasingly popular method of harvesting rooftop herbs and vegetables (reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions) to remembering to turn off the bar sinks when not in use, a variety of popular techniques can already help make your drink a sustainable one. Pre-batched cocktails and cocktails on tap are both trendy, and simultaneously offer the opportunity to cut back on ice. Many bars are cutting back on inedible garnishes, or incorporating recycled materials into their service (increasingly, liquor bottles are being built to double as water bottles, syrup storage or other multiple purposes).
“Part of the effort of that tour was to point out that there’s so much investment into the bar world at the moment,” says Ford. “There are five new bars opening each week in major cities. It’s a global movement. If we’re not careful, the evils of our industry will catch up to us. If you can reduce your waste by 10 or 25 percent, it’s not perfect, but it goes a long way.”
Chetiyawardana agrees that it’s not about being perfect or insisting that every bar follow extreme ascetic practices. “Like travel, comfort and diversity, exotic ingredients can absolutely form part of our modern lives. We just need to use them better.”
While it’s unlikely that Americans will be convinced to give up their ice habit anytime soon (in fact, the preponderance of affordable ice and sugar in 19th-century America helped kick off the *first* golden age of cocktails), there are bars experimenting with the idea. In New York, the elegant subterranean spot Slowly Shirley offers a number of tantalizing “Room Temperature” cocktails on its menu.
And Rick Dobbs, owner of California’s The Last Word gastropub, has become a big proponent for composting. Thanks to a push in bars for fresh ingredients (over factory-made sour mix, for example), the trash bags in most bars is now an eco-freak’s nightmare but potential best dream: a massive proportion of the waste—from limes and mint to coffee and bar napkins—is compostable. Of course, compost and consumers don’t always mix, so a good bar will figure out how to keep the stored waste out of the way.
“The biggest thing for us is that our city (Livermore) supports small business composting,” says Dobbs. “We worked with our building owner to get an organic bin—it wasn’t that hard, we just had to ask—so we don’t have a big, smelly pile anywhere. After that it was a matter of having the right containers and hanging out in the kitchen during services to show everyone what things could go in with the organics. Obviously they knew stuff like vegetables and food, but they didn’t really know that napkins and cardboard can also go in there. It’s harder for the bartenders, because they have to pull out the straws before dumping.”
“Once we got in the rhythm, it became second nature,” he continues. We’re not perfect at it every night of the week, but we now end service with only maybe one or two bags of ‘trash,’ three or four bags of compost and two bags of recycling. We’ve seen a significant reduction in the actual waste we put out.”
The movement goes beyond doing good. Carefully executed reduction and reuse programs help save bars money on electricity, waste management and inventory, all of which can be passed on to the consumer. In the end, you receive an expertly made drink, help save the world, and save a few cents on your cocktail to boot. Not a bad way to spend an evening.