For Claire Sprouse, Bar Sustainability Goes Beyond Straws

How the New York-based bartender and consultant is helping bars around the world reimagine their closed-loop cocktail programs.

Creating a gin specifically designed for cocktails is only one part of the Fords Gin mission, which aims to support the bartenders redefining the future of hospitality. Together, we’re profiling the industry’s most notable game-changers—the folks emerging as leaders beyond the bar by tackling key issues ranging from social justice to sustainability.

If you’ve enjoyed a drink at a bar that has reduced its carbon footprint, it’s a fair bet that Claire Sprouse, co-proprietor of Tin Roof Drink Community, had something to do with that. Within the past few years, Sprouse and partner Chad Arnholt have cast a spotlight on environmental sustainability, speaking out about related issues while working closely with bars to help implement meaningful changes.

Sprouse started out in Houston, where she earned a degree in art history and worked in non-profit art spaces. When a grant that funded one of her positions ran out, she started picking up bar shifts. “Houston was a small cocktail community at the time,” she recalls. In 2012, she moved to San Francisco “on a whim,” where her resume extended to managing Rickhouse, a high-volume cocktail bar, and working with the opening team at ABV.

It was also Sprouse’s introduction to California’s culinary scene. She began to work more closely with restaurants and chefs, embracing seasonal produce and, most importantly, thinking about sustainability in food, which led to Sprouse and Arnholt founding Tin Roof in January 2014.

“We just started zeroing in on sustainability,” she recalls. Although it wasn’t their primary focus at first, events like a particularly severe drought in California, which led to state legislation that restricted bars and restaurants from offering water to guests, soon pointed them in that direction. “It made us start thinking about how much water bars and restaurants use, and that’s inherent to operations,” she says. “We started to identify all these waste streams: energy, carbon footprint, plastic waste, non-organic waste. It’s been our main focus over the past four to five years.”

Today, everyone seems to have an opinion about sustainability, from plastic straw alternatives to energy-efficient freezers. But when Tin Roof started, resources were considerably fewer. “When we started this path, there were no ‘How to Be More Sustainable in Your Bar’ articles to turn to,” Sprouse says. “We had to turn to other industries. It’s been about sharing info and being open-source so people don’t have to start where we did four or five years ago.”

Today, the duo travel widely, teaching bartenders and consulting with bars, restaurants and other entities about key issues, and how to put improvements into action. Another go-to move: At speaking engagements at Portland Cocktail Week and elsewhere, the duo provide generously detailed checklists and resource lists to help participants make changes immediately.

“We continue to put our efforts toward education,” says Sprouse. “You have to make these things more visible in order for them to gain traction.”

Advocacy is also party of the business model for Tin Roof, resulting in changes that transcend the bar world. For example, Sprouse and Arnholt traveled to Houston to speak about ways to lower plastic waste, an initiative spawned from a conservancy in Galveston, TX. Back in New York, Sprouse is involved with a solid waste advisory board in Brooklyn, a municipal effort that has implications for how composting and processing of water waste will be handled going forward. She has also testified before a New York City board about alternatives to plastic straws, which might lead to a city-wide ban on them. In addition, with a ban on single-use Styrofoam products poised to go into effect on January 1, 2019, Tin Roof has put together a list of resources and recyclable alternatives to Styrofoam for the New York City Sanitation Department to share with bars, restaurants and myriad other entities.

In addition, she notes, it can take years for laws to get passed and go into effect. “What’s nice about what we’re doing is we don’t necessarily have to wait for the government,” says Sprouse. In the meantime, Tin Roof is providing concrete suggestions that can be implemented right away. “People don’t have to wait for a straw ban—they can see what it is, and they can go ahead and take action now.”

In addition to her work with Tin Roof, Sprouse is also working toward opening her own bar in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, an all-day café to be named Hunky Dory. The bar will focus on lower-alcohol and no-alcohol cocktails, as well as coffee and tea. And while the bar won’t be zero waste (“Chad and I always say the zero-waste cocktail bar is one that doesn’t exist,”) it will still lean toward sustainable initiatives for food and drink wherever possible.

“We will be very vocal about sharing that information, and we will share our failures as well as our successes,” Sprouse says, whether that extends to saving energy or water, or minimizing waste. In general, “We’re just trying to make better choices.”

When it comes her cocktails, Sprouse describes her style as “simple” and “purposeful,” with a nod toward fresh, in-season produce from her California days.  “I don’t love convoluted flavors,” she explains. “I want to be able to taste everything that’s listed on the menu under the cocktail.” Not surprisingly, she favors streamlined gin cocktails like the Martini—which, in the style of her former bar, ABV, she keeps batched and stored in the freezer—the Gibson and Tom Collins. She’s also a fan of Gin Old-Fashioneds and Improved Gin Cocktails, which she describes as “really underrated.”

Sprouse’s Shoot the Moon cocktail marries several of these elements in her typically deliberate way: a not-too-fussy Gin Old-Fashioned cocktail based on Fords Gin that’s sweetened with a local New York state pear brandy and stirred (but not strained) over ice to minimize water waste. “I don’t want to use anything just because it’s there,” Sprouse says. “It’s always in a cocktail for a specific purpose.”

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