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Sustainable cocktails: The future?

In every industry, it’s pretty much the hottest topic right now, but what does the S-word mean when it comes to cocktail-making? Leading experts give us their take – and share eco-conscious recipes to replicate at home.

Ditching the plastic straws. Taking out the recycling. Beyond the basics, though, what are today’s top bars doing to minimise their eco-footprints? We spoke to four representatives from forward-thinking bars to see what sustainable cocktail-making looks like in their trailblazing venues.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to making green(er) drinks, but there are some common practices and themes that are being embraced. Could the below provide a blueprint for the sustainable mixology of the future?

Thoughtful sourcing

Giacomo Giannotti of Paradiso, Barcelona, pouring a cocktail

Giacomo Giannotti of Paradiso, Barcelona

Let’s start with the obvious: to make sustainable cocktails you need to use sustainable ingredients. But determining a product’s sustainability credentials can be tricky, particularly when you start to factor in packaging, shipment and production methods.

A good rule of thumb is to stick to in-season, local ingredients wherever possible. ‘Cocktails have finally caught up with the same localism and hyper-seasonality that kitchens have been practising for years,’ says James Pritchard of Silo, a zero-waste restaurant and bar in east London. ‘It used to be that you could order a cocktail with fresh strawberries in it during the high points of winter. That seems to have changed now.’

Giacomo Giannotti of 2022 World’s Best Bar-winner Paradiso in Barcelona agrees. ‘We are going back to the roots, using the main fruit and vegetable ingredients from that time of year.’

Sourcing produce directly from small and/or responsible growers is also becoming increasingly popular. Every bar we spoke to operated in this way, while some went as far as using waste from partner restaurants, breweries or distilleries to create unique flavour profiles. For example at Adam Handling’s bars – Eve in London and Ugly Butterfly in Cornwall – the team uses leftovers from the adjoining restaurants, such as apple cores and skins, oyster shells, coffee grinds and bone marrow, to infuse everything from spirits to syrups, as group director George Hersey says.

The Adam's Apple cocktail from Adam Handling

The Adam’s Apple cocktail reflects chef Adam Handling’s zero-waste ethos – it was originally devised as a way to use up leftover apple peelings and cores from the tarte tatin on his restaurant’s menu, by making an apple cordial and an infusion with Hendrick’s gin

Of course, sustainable sourcing is as much about what’s not being used as what is. Many eco-minded bars in cooler climates have reduced or even entirely eliminated imported fresh citrus – which certainly isn’t easy given its essential role in cocktail classics such as Daiquiris and Margaritas. But then again, it forces bar teams to be more inventive when it comes to making balanced drinks.

‘Instead of citrus, we use malic or other acids,’ says Paul Aguilar, head of flavour R&D at Oslo’s Himkok, named the world’s most sustainable bar by the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2018. ‘And because many of our local Norwegian fruits, such as gooseberries, cloudberries and raspberries – even whey, too – have acidity, we can use these as the starting point. Then malic acid can perfect the balance.’ Himkok has also stopped using egg whites behind the bar to save on discarded yolks, instead favouring powdered aquafaba (the viscous liquid in which legume seeds, typically chickpeas, have been stored or cooked) to create froth in sour cocktails. ‘At first, we used fresh aquafaba from chickpea tins, but there was still so much waste – there are only so many falafels our team can eat!’ Aguilar adds.

Base spirits are another consideration. Our experts agree that if you’re going to remain competitive in a crowded bar market you can’t ban far-flung-produced spirits entirely. Himkok uses local aquavit and vodka (even its Paloma contains aquavit rather than the classic tequila) and has even developed its own line of spirits, produced in its own in-house distillery, but still makes some concessions.

The important thing is to choose brands that are trying to create positive change. Giannotti rates Ketel One vodka – which is moving towards carbon neutrality – as well as Fair Trade Certified Flor de Caña rum and ‘planet positive’ Avallen calvados. Hersey recommends Discarded Spirits, which are made from banana peels, grape skins and cascara (the outer layer of coffee berries), and Cornwall-based Pentire’s botanicals as a non-alcoholic option.

Preparation methods

Repurposed ingredients for cocktails at Ugly Butterfly in Carbis Bay, Cornwall

Repurposed ingredients for cocktails at Ugly Butterfly in Carbis Bay, Cornwall

The right ingredients only take you so far – our experts agree that how they’re used within the bar space can have a far-reaching impact. And one of the greatest enemies of sustainability is, of course, excess waste. Menu planning plays a critical role. Paring back is an increasingly common theme, whether that’s by having fewer drink options and therefore less that could spoil (as at Silo), or using simpler recipes with fewer ingredients (Himkok). The latter also takes an interesting approach, working for several months to produce a yearly new menu of 13 cocktails, some of which are then added to its ongoing signature cocktails list. ‘We know we have enough resources for that and we can do the maths for the whole picture,’ says Aguilar. ‘Changing too often can generate so much waste, unless you’re a really small, 10-seater bar.’

Whichever ingredients they use, bartenders need to work harder than ever to extend the lives of those products through infusing, preserving, fermenting and other methods. ‘It’s not just about using the leaves from herbs such as mint or thyme, for example,’ says Hersey. ‘It’s finding another use for the stems – perhaps by creating a pressed juice or infusing them into a rum.’ Gaining a variety of expressions from every ingredient is that much easier for bars that have invested in equipment such as centrifuges and rotary evaporators, but it doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.

Finally, despite what has been said about seasonal produce, don’t think that everything has to be fresh. ‘People are obsessed with fresh produce, but we actually buy a lot of frozen stuff from local producers,’ says Aguilar. ‘It can be far more sustainable because you create less waste, throw less out. And frozen berries, for example, are picked in their prime – so they can taste better than fresh ones.’

Sustainable sips to make at home

Negroni cocktail

Forest Negroni. Credit: Anna Janecka / Getty Images

Himkok’s Rhubarb

Glass Stemless wine glass

Garnish Thin slice of rhubarb dipped in sugar

Ingredients 20ml Linie aquavit, 90ml light sour beer, 30ml rhubarb syrup, 15ml lemon juice or malic solution

Method For the rhubarb syrup, combine rhubarb juice and sugar in a one-to-one ratio in a pan over a low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. To make the cocktail, add all of the ingredients over ice to a glass and stir.

Silo’s Forest Negroni

Glass Tumbler

Garnish None

Ingredients 30ml Vault gin, 30ml Vault Forest vermouth, 30ml Vault bitter

Method Pour ingredients into a glass over a single large ice cube. Stir to mix, then serve.

The bigger picture

The in-house distillery at Himkok in Oslo, Norway

The in-house distillery at Himkok in Oslo, Norway

Any bar manager will tell you that it’s impossible to separate the logistics of running a bar from the sustainability picture. ‘In cocktail-making it represents a commitment to minimising the environmental impact of the entire process,’ says Giannotti. While these days recycling is perhaps a given, he believes that composting must also be championed to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. ‘What isn’t being used can go towards enriching soils in a closed-loop system,’ he says.

Many bars that take sustainability seriously work closely with suppliers to have their deliveries sent in bulk, avoiding unnecessary trips and reducing packaging. ‘Because we work at high volumes, we can order 1,000 litres of whisky and get an IBC (intermediate bulk container) – that can be harder for smaller places,’ says Aguilar. Similarly, Pritchard says: ‘All our spirits come from suppliers who provide larger quantity refills, and we reuse glass bottles many times over.’

It’s also important that the sustainability ethos runs throughout the business, which means getting everyone who works in the bar on board. ‘It helps when staff understand the costs of ingredients; they can be more incentivised to reduce waste,’ says Hersey.

Ultimately, to drive the sustainability agenda forward in a meaningful way, what’s needed is wider discussion among industry members, idea-sharing and establishing new norms. Giannotti now runs the Paradiso Sustainability Summit each year, inviting international bars to demonstrate, discuss and share knowledge of greener practices with their peers.

Industry members and consumers must also do more to push the sustainability agenda with large, influential supplier brands that have the resource to drive real change. ‘Sustainability is not just a bar problem but a society problem,’ says Aguilar. ‘We all need to stop greenwashing, to be more careful about talking about sustainability. We need to be honest: we can’t change the world with a single bar, but there are good things we can do.’

It’s true that your next Martini isn’t going to save the planet, but make it the right way, and you could be one sip closer to the answer.

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