A newsletter for the industry pro (or aspiring pro).

Creating the Closed-Loop Cocktail

If bars, like nose-to-tail restaurants, made the most of their "off-cuts," would we be one step closer to a more sustainable drinking culture? Tyler Wetherall on the efforts some bartenders are making to close the cocktail loop.

closed loop cocktail

There was a time I wouldn’t consider ordering spicy blood and pig’s head sausage. Or crunchy chitterlings. Or, any of the off-cuts that have made their way onto trendy menus since “nose-to-tail” dining hit London restaurants. Here, we have British chef Fergus Henderson to thank for all the bone marrow and brains. He has championed this style of cooking at his London restaurant since 1994, claiming it was quite simply “polite” to consume the whole animal. The trend was slow to cross the channel, but after Mario Batali made offal a mainstay at his New York restaurant Babbo, it gained legs, and by 2008 it’d become commonplace in New York.

Perhaps it had something to do with the recession, a reminder that there was indeed a time when wasting such nutritious parts of an animal in the name of squeamishness was unthinkable. But these days “nose-to-tail” has shifted to become as close as a committed carnivore can get to eco-friendly meat eating.

However, this streak of sustainable good will, or the cool cachet it still carries in the food world, has never really gained a foothold behind the bar. Craft cocktails are inherently decadent, and perhaps uncomfortably so when considering the environmental impact of your $15 Old-Fashioned—from the harvest of agricultural crops for spirits distillation to the creation of ice blocks just to be melted in a drink down to the 300-litre bins worth of waste the average bar produces per week, from hundreds of little cocktail napkins to countless lemon shells.

Of course, it’s unthinkable for a bar not to have lemons, which are generally imported, squeezed for their juices and then simply discarded. But what if you didn’t throw those lemon shells away? What if you boiled them, mixed them with the spent botanicals from gin distillation, and made your own falernum instead?

He created a hydroponic rig where the waste carbon dioxide from a homemade strawberry beer “fed” radish shoots in a connecting chamber.

This is the thinking of London bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana and the radical principle behind his bar White Lyan, which uses no perishables, no ice, house-distilled spirits and entirely pre-bottled cocktails. Initially, these ideals were about exerting control over every detail of his ingredients. It was almost by accident that Chetiyawardana realized he had created a low-to-no waste bar, recycling just 24 bottles a week. When he opened Dandelyan in the Mondrian Hotel last summer, he pursued this principle more consciously, carefully studying his ingredients in an off-site lab to discover how to use each element more completely.

At a recent talk, Chetiyawardana and his partner Iain Griffiths gave at the Barcelona Gastronomica Forum he showed how standard bar waste could be made into basic ingredients: mint stems into syrup, coffee grains into flavorful oil or tea bags into a tannic tincture. They aimed to prove a “closed-loop cocktail” was possible, where every ingredient is used in its entirety either in that or a future drink. In one example, he created a hydroponic rig where the waste carbon dioxide from a homemade strawberry beer “fed” radish shoots in a connecting chamber.

While Chetiyawardana’s work is at the experimental end of this concept’s spectrum, many bars are already employing these methods in the name of efficiency. For example, Yanni Kehagiaris at San Francisco’s Nopa makes his own Advocaat—the traditional Dutch alcoholic beverage made from eggs, sugar and brandy—using the leftover egg yolks from bar service; and New Orleans’ Neal Bodenheimer and Nick Detrich of Cure and Cane & Table use the older juice, wine or unwanted spirits to make punch or mulled wine. Back in London, the Nightjar’s Marian Beke candies the leftover zest for use as garnishes the following evening.

“We are constantly wasting goods from throwing away food to sourcing ingredients from around the world,” says Natasha David, head bartender and co-owner at New York’s Nitecap. “I love this industry and think bars and restaurants serve an important role in society and daily life, however, I wish we could all take little steps to try to leave less of an environmental mark.”

At Nitecap, they use vinegar rather than harsh chemicals to clean the surfaces; their cocktail picks and straws are biodegradable (wood, corn and paper respectively); and they’ve banned beverage napkins. They use only fresh juice daily, which presents the problem of leftovers. “I save all my day-old juice and turn it into cordial, and always make sure that our cocktail menu features those cordials,” David explains. “We try to have more than one use for all perishables. For example, we have strawberries on the menu in three ways: muddled in a cocktail, as a garnish and as an infusion. Or in the case of pineapples, we juice them, we pickle them, we use the pickle brine and we garnish drinks with the fronds.”

Some distillers are also doing their part. Clear Creek Distillery uses only locally-sourced fruit and one single distillation for each product. They then use the head from the first cut to clean the equipment and disinfect the floors. High proof and with a sweet fruit smell, it’s as efficient as Lysol or the equivalent, and safer for the environment. In other examples, Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco donates its leftover grain from beer production to a local Sonoma County farmer to feed his cattle, while 86Co designed their ergonomic bottles specifically for reuse in the bar with easy-peel labels, and free reusable tags for their next incarnation as juice or syrup bottles.

The cumulative impact of these examples is what could shift the industry away from the wastefulness it is associated with. “Just because we’re providing a luxury, doesn’t mean it needs to be wasteful,” Chetiyawardana says. “We shouldn’t have to give up exotic produce. We just need to use it better, look after the food chain and offset where possible. This doesn’t require specialist knowledge or equipment. Everyone can make small changes that will add up enormously.”

As with nose-to-tail dining, there’s a pleasing playfulness in the challenge. The incentive is threefold, from environmental awareness to efficiency and cost effectiveness to experimentation. But the demand for change has to come from the consumer. We are more aware than ever about what we put into our body, and this has had an inevitable effect on the bar industry. Though cocktail bars maybe inherently decadent and seemingly superfluous entertainment, their bar stools will always be filled, and their drinkers likely won’t bat at an eye at the absence of cocktail napkins.