Where to find the next trends in sustainability? Try behind the bar.

Minty drink on bar
CC BY 2.0 Pixabay

While most of us have control over food waste and sustainable sourcing at home, dining and drinking out is much trickier. Whether you’re at a sleek and chic restaurant in Soho or a cozy French bistro nestled in New Orleans, the food and drink industry is one of the most wasteful in the world. The combination of food sourcing and shipments, extreme water usage (those dishes won’t wash themselves), and a never-ending stream of food waste add up to one very large carbon footprint.

A 2014 study by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance found that 84.3% of unused food in American restaurants ends up being disposed of, while 14.3% is recycled, and only 1.4% is donated. Though there aren’t specific statistics related to just cocktail bars, there is no doubt that your martini or Manhattan is contributing to this waste.

Luckily, some innovative bar owners around the world are rethinking their approach and coming up with some adventurous techniques. Take for example Elixir in San Francisco, the first bar in America to be certified green in 2006. H. Joseph Lehrmann, the owner behind Elixir, told Tales of the Cocktail in 2016:

“I’ve always said that if the bar industry could set norms and break patterns, we can be a role model for so many others. It’s actually easy for the bar business to be low impact. It just takes a matter of sustained focus on changing the way things are done operationally, and then you’ll never look back.”

Ehrmann’s tactics are similar to any conscientious homeowner: he composts or recycles what little waste is left at the end of the day. Low-flow toilets and faucets were installed to cut back on water usage, as well as efficiently using ice. Their menu only includes ingredients that are local, organic and sustainably produced whenever possible.

Over on the East Coast, a husband-and-wife team called Tin Roof Drink Community is leading the educational charge. Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt consult with various businesses and brands in the spirits industry on how to create a beverage program and physical space that make efficient use of, well, just about everything. When it comes to cutting down on waste in the industry, there is admittedly only so much one can cut. Arnholt stressed to NPR in 2017 that:

"This point cannot be overstated: Bars are a luxury business. At the end of the day, it is inherently wasteful because it's not fundamentally necessary."

From offering individual consultations with bar owners to helping large-scale events leave a smaller carbon footprint, the two-person team is committed to making sustainability the number one issue in the bar industry.

Looking across the Atlantic, one name to follow is Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr. Lyan). He made waves when he opened White Lyan in London in 2013. The bar was a pioneer in the low-waste movement, getting rid of two significant (and very uneconomical) cocktail ingredients: ice and fresh fruit and citrus. Their replacements? Housemade citric acid powder and vinegars, pre-chilling drinks so ice isn't necessary, and absolutely no napkins or straws. Chetiyawardana told The Guardian in 2014:

"If you look at the cocktail part, you see hedonism and fun. Then you look at the philosophy and ethics that drives us to be so DIY and thorough about what we use and how we use it. We'd like to persuade a classically led bar to not accept the status quo, to think deeply about what they do, and make changes to push them ahead."

While White Lyan closed in spring 2017 in order for Chetiyawardana to focus on opening a restaurant and two new bars that incorporate his closed loop approach, the ripple affect of his innovative, never-been-done-before bar tactics continues to spread.

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