From the resurgence of craft cocktails to drinks devised purely for sharing on Instagram, there always seems to be a new beverage fad sweeping through urban cafés, restaurants, and bars. But a new movement might have some stronger roots.
Meet sustainable cocktails, the next wave of mixed drinks that could save money, time, and resources for bartenders and restaurant managers while also—in small part—help save the planet from added waste.
But the first step to spreading awareness about the trend might be defining what “sustainable cocktails” are exactly.
“Sustainable cocktails are drinks that seek to be more in harmony with nature by minimizing precious natural resources, conserving energy, and minimizing pollution,” explains Natasha Velez, a New York-based bartender and brand ambassador for Sombra Mezcal. “They often reuse, recycle, or upcycle ingredients that otherwise would be discarded as trash. This includes leftover citrus juices, citrus rinds, and the seeds and skins of fruits.”
Joseph Boroski, bar director for The 18th Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, suggests the concept of sustainable cocktails itself is comprised of many ingredients, including but not limited to: being made in-house; being made of organic, locally-produced products; and aiming for a zero—or even negative—sum of any “detrimental affect on our surrounding and the environment.”
“Pulp, skins, seeds, pits, leaves, stems, and roots are all parts of ingredients that may normally find themselves in the landfill but instead could (very creatively and deliciously and nutritiously) end up instead in someone’s cocktail, entree, or dessert,” Boroski says. He suggests that before anything that is still fresh and edible is thrown away, the question “can this be used for something?” should be asked. “Even inedible items can find new uses in cleaning supplies, fragrances, decorations, or donations to someone that can process them in some way,” he continues.
As part of the cocktail program at The Treasury, a cocktail bar built in a 1916 Beaux Arts space in San Francisco’s Financial District, head bartender Ryan Hall explains how they use an ingredient that most people pour down the sink, but in the last few years has become increasingly popular to reuse: aquafaba. This is actually the water or juice-like substance found in cans of chickpeas. But when whipped, aquafaba serves as an excellent egg white replacement, making it also very popular with vegans for cooking and baking.
In one concoction at The Treasury, dubbed “The Golden State of Mind” in a nod to the home state, Hall mixes two different strains of Scotch whisky, sherry, honey, smoked yuzu syrup, and aquafaba—topped off with an orange peel for garnish.
“It’s refreshing to see that more exposure on sustainability is being pushed by the social media platforms. We have a long way to go, but there is never a better time to start than now,” Hall says. “Sustainability is also very important as creating as little waste as possible and maximizing margins is part of the success of any bar [or] restaurant.”
When Life Gives You Lemons…
Boroski suggests the trend isn’t actually new, being that “aspects of sustainability in food and beverage have been around for decades,” pointing to the Slow Food Movement—advocating the use of locally-grown food and traditional, slower cooking methods—which has been around since at least 1986.
“Many conscientious venues around the country and the world adapt various aspects of the sustainable approach to food and beverage, from a focus on organic ingredients, to a low- or no-waste policy, to an investment in farm-to-table,” Boroski says.
Velez says the trend has already been building momentum in Europe and Asia in recent years, and is now taking hold in the United States, although she acknowledges the practice of waste management has been a cornerstone of fine dining kitchens (think Michelin-starred restaurants) for far longer given their use of expensive ingredients while demanding razor-thin profit margins.
Sombra Mezcal—which promotes itself as a “sustainable” producer of agave spirits out of Oaxaca, Mexico—recently launched its first-ever sustainable cocktail competition for bartenders, which is judged by Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths, two well-known bartenders from London’s acclaimed Dandelyan Bar who travel the world to promote anti-waste cocktails promised to be both delicious and cost-effective. The pair conducts this event through their pop-up program Tiki Trash, which seeks to educate bar and restaurant managers about how they can take even just small steps to incorporate remnants, unsold product, and other raw materials they’d otherwise throw in the garbage.
Ramage and Griffiths point to one ingredient that is jettisoned so quickly but could have the highest impact on the environment: citrus. The team says that it takes an average of four gallons of water to produce a single piece of citrus—including the shipping, sorting,and packaging to the when it is “used once and discarded, going straight to landfill.”
“It’s pretty simple really, finding second and third uses of your ingredients reduces your purchasing costs,” Griffiths says. “All the usual techniques have application in this evolution, in fact that’s why we think it’s been so quick to be taken on board. There is no fancy equipment or new skill set required.”
Shawn Chen, head bartender at RedFarm, a Chinese-inspired restaurant with two locations in New York City that touts using farmers’ market ingredients, acknowledges how citrus can all too easily be tossed away and how it can be put to further use in the creation of his “Marisol” cocktail, comprised of mezcal, citrus liqueur, suze, lemon juice, pineapple juice, a pinch of sea salt, vanilla bean, and Oleo-Saccharum, a bygone ingredient making a comeback with contemporary bartenders.
“I don’t want to waste any of the zest from the lemon and orange I use in cocktails, so we peel the leftover zest from fruits we use to juice and create sustainable Oleo Saccharum,” explains Chen. “I wanted the drink to have earth-healthy taste to it, since I’m reusing the zests in my Oleo Saccharum, so I highlighted notes of citrus and botanicals.”
The Marisol isn’t the only sustainable cocktail on RedFarm’s menu. On the opposite of the flavor spectrum is the “Cafe Corsica,” a blend of mezcal, amaro, almond milk, and coffee liqueur—all inspired by the reuse of La Colombe roasted coffee grounds.
“It felt like a shame throwing the grinds out after we brew coffee, so we decided to use the grinds from cold brew coffee and reuse them to make a coffee liqueur,” Chen says.
Cocktail Trends Always Start Behind the Bar
Boroski says there is a very real economic advantage available here. “Although sourcing organic ingredients can result in higher costs, a big benefit of utilizing more of the ingredients—the result of reducing or even eliminating the waste normally associated with their use—is a higher profit margin,” Boroski says. “Sustainably donating a portion of proceeds from a particular item can often increase sales of that item, offsetting the donation and maintaining a higher profit as a result.”
But implementing sustainable cocktails will take a lot of work upfront, which could come with unforeseen costs.
“It takes an diligent person to make sure people aren’t cutting corners” says Charlotte Mirzoeff, bar manager of Temple Court at the Beekman Hotel in New York City. “A little extra labor here and there helps, but it does cost.”
Bartenders and restaurant managers who have the means to sell sustainable cocktails could see some financial rewards from the upcycling process, but marketing sustainable cocktails on their menus might be even more fruitful. Terms like slow food and farm-to-table are commonplace in most major cities these days, either to the delight or chagrin of restaurant goers and bar patrons. Regardless, many bartenders agree that more and more of their customers like to be educated about what they are consuming and how their choices affect the environment.
“Telling them that they have no negative impact certainly encourages more sales and repeat visits, so, yes, this approach seems to be wildly popular with our clientele,” Boroski says.
As Velez notes, some bars and restaurants do highlight their sustainability initiatives on their menus, but there is a growing customer base out there with a higher level of eco-consciousness that increasingly seek out bars and restaurants that promote their commitment to the environment.
At the same time, Hall admits that he doesn’t think most guests are truly aware of the extent of how far some bartenders and restaurants go to implement sustainable practices, but he stresses that its up to the establishments to make these changes, and hopefully they will trickle down.
“Trends always start amongst bartenders and feed into the public, so before you know it, we’ll have people asking for sustainable cosmos,” Mirzoeff concurrs.
Whether the terminology or the movement of sustainable cocktails goes mainstream remains to be seen—and could be a long way off. Yet these bartenders remain optimistic, pointing toward the anti-plastic straw movement—which has spread beyond well beyond bars into coffee shops, global food chains, airlines, and even city-wide bans.
Neither Ramage nor Griffiths have any doubts about about sustainable cocktail going mainstream: “Look at how in the last 20 years we’ve evolved drinks so far. In another 20, there is no doubt we’ll look back and realize just how wasteful those early days of modern cocktail culture were.”
“Sustainability in beverage is undoubtedly in the cards for bars everywhere,” Boroski says. “It’s ultimately the patrons that drive the direction and focus of the venues through support and sales, and I only see this movement getting more popular as consumers become more aware of how their choices collectively make a difference.”