Waste Not, Want Not: Sustainability Behind the Bar

August 5, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018    

Food waste has become a national topic of conversation over the past few years, thanks in no small part to restaurant chefs who are leading the way toward a more sustainable industry—with considerable help from their friends behind the bar. I talked to a trio of hospitality pros striving to shrink their footprint on three beverage-related fronts.

Key Ingredients

“Because we’re creating drinks to pair with food,” says Nick Talarico, director of operations at The Gray Canary in Memphis, “it makes sense to work off what the kitchen’s working with. If the kitchen’s using plums, we can use plums; if they’re not, we don’t.” The bonus is that “we’re able to use more than they can.” In addition to scraps, “we can take the ingredients that aren’t as pretty, the stuff whose shelf life is coming to an end, and do a lot of things—infuse spirits, make cordials and bitters.”

Case in point: the as-yet-unnamed corn cocktail they’re developing. While chef-owners Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman utilize the kernels, lead bartender David Hacking mixes mezcal, bourbon, Curaçao, Cocchi Americano, and lime juice with both jelly and bitters produced from the spent cobs. “We use them twice,” Talarico points out, “which is something the kitchen has taught us: ‘Let’s think about it before we throw it in the trash can.’”

A lineup of cocktails at The Gray Canary, whose bar aims to reduce waste through the use of kitchen discards such as pecan shells and corn husks. (Courtesy of The Gray Canary)

Such eco-minded collaboration happens on the regular at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, a zero-waste establishment in Phoenix, as well. From the kitchen, the bar obtains the cores of red bell peppers for what co-owner Dwayne Allen calls a “beautiful” syrup that “we’re using on a routine basis in our daily punch”; conversely, when the bar staff juices ginger for its house ginger beer, they give the solids to the chefs for further use. Citrus is of particular importance to waste watchers like Allen, because it’s vital to bar service in general. The Breadfruit crew makes an herbal liqueur from the rinds of the oranges, limes, and lemons that they juice for service; the discards then serve as the basis for agrumello (a mixed-citrus variant of limoncello).

(L) The Garrison, a cocktail at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix, contains liqueur made from leftover citrus rinds; (R) their Dark & Stormy contains housemade ginger beer; the bar’s ginger scraps go to the kitchen for reuse. (Courtesy of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar)

Meanwhile, many bartenders are reducing their use of citrus altogether via tinctures and sprays they can apply to drinks in droplets and spritzes. In that spirit, says Ky Belk, beverage director of Denver restaurant group Edible Beats, “It’d be great if we made more conscious decisions about garnish. When every glass has an orange or lemon twist, it’s just not that visually interesting.”  

Ice

“Ice is the bartender’s medium, like fire for the chef,” Belk notes. But it’s also a major culprit in water waste. So he designed the bar program for tapas bar El Five around low-ice cocktails. For instance, he explains, “Stirring a cocktail over ice simply chills and dilutes it; it has little impact on mouthfeel or consistency. So if you can find another way to chill and dilute, you can eliminate ice waste.” His alternative: prebatching typically stirred drinks and storing them in a cooler set to service temperature.

Then there are the “two-ice” cocktails, which are shaken with crushed ice to integrate their components and enhance their mouthfeel before they’re strained and served over fresh ice. For many of these—like margaritas and Zombies—Belk employs the spindle blender traditionally used to make milkshakes, the motor power of which allows him to forgo serving cubes.

Finally, he embraces cocktails that naturally use less ice “because the entire production happens in the glass.” These include Caribbean-style swizzles, stirred with a special pronged stick, and scaffas—potent blends of Scotch, Sherry, brandy, and bitters that contain no ice at all.

The Breadfruit tackles the issue in a different way. “We have two wells that generally have lots of ice left over at the end of the night,” says Allen. “We let it melt and use it to water our plants in the morning. It’s a small but valuable conservation of both water and energy.”   

Barware   

It’s worth noting that El Five serves several drinks in porrons, the Spanish wine pitcher designed for groups to pass around and drink from directly. This theoretically cuts back on both ice and dishwasher use—though Belk admits that most people, wary of spillage, ask for glasses anyway. Still, communal vessels are one avenue of exploration for sustainability-minded bartenders.

So are straws, a recent target of anti-pollution campaigns. The Breadfruit eschews their use as much as possible, offering compostable straws only when “it’s critically important to the cocktail experience” or for guests with special needs, says Allen. They “cost a good penny more” than plastic ones, but he feels they’re worth it. After all, “We’re concerned not only with how a drink looks and tastes but also with the impact it has on the planet.”

Ruth Tobias is a longtime food-and-beverage writer based in Denver, Colorado. To learn more about her and her work, please visit her website, RuthTobias.com, or follow her @denveater on Twitter and Instagram.