If it seems as though your social media feeds are constantly buzzing with talk about how to make cocktails more environmentally friendly, you’re not imagining it.
The good news is that a growing number of bars and bartenders are taking steps toward this end, ranging from ditching plastic straws and paper napkins to recycling food scraps for elaborate tiki drinks. Even cocktail competitions are leaning on sustainability as a theme.
But retweeting calls to “skip the straws” to save sea turtles isn’t enough to spur change, experts say. “In the last couple of years, awareness has gone up in a huge way,” says Chad Arnholt, the cofounder, with Claire Sprouse, of the New York City-based consulting firm Tin Roof Drink Community, which counsels bars on how to reduce their environmental footprint.
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But, Arnholt notes, for every bar like London’s groundbreaking White Lyan (now closed), which famously threw away just a single bag of trash each night, or San Francisco’s The Perennial, which deliberately built a “low impact” bar, others “are just talking about it, using gestures.”
Of course, not every bartender has the luxury of designing a zero-waste bar from the ground up. But for those willing to answer the call to action, here are some ways in which bars can lessen their environmental impact, from small steps to bigger, sweeping changes.
1. Scrap the straws; ditch the disposable napkins. While many bars have traded plastic straws for paper, compostable or reusable metal versions, the correct solution, Arnholt says, is “no straw.” He points to ABV and Rickhouse in San Francisco, which no longer provide straws with drinks. Similarly, NYC’s Seamstress has replaced paper napkins under drinks with reusable leather coasters, while Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis employs cork-based coasters.
2. Recycle “waste products” into cocktail ingredients. Inspired by White Lyan and programs like Trash Tiki and Dan Barber’s WastED, many bartenders are upcycling spent citrus rinds and turning kitchen scraps into cocktail ingredients. For example, at Charleston’s La Farfalle, beverage manager Brad Goocher uses juice left over from the bar to make shrubs, syrups, and cordials.
3. Rethink how ice is used. Making ice consumes both water and energy during the freezing process. Drinks that are shaken with large ice cubes and then strained over new ice are particular water hogs, Arnholt notes. “Do you need to dump that ice down the sink and then strain over fresh ice?” he says. “There are best practices.” Drinks that are premixed and chilled, as at NYC’s Yours Sincerely, minimize water waste.
Ready to Make a Bigger Impact?
According to Arnholt, these are the three most important actions a bar can take:
1. Review your bar space. “Review your equipment and know how to use it and get the most out of it,” Arnholt advises. That might mean changing your glassware size to fit more glasses in a dishwasher to minimize water waste, or evaluating whether your freezer is energy efficient or whether you need a freezer at all. Arnholt recommends online tools like the Food Service Technology Center to help evaluate the bar equipment that will be the most efficient.
2. Be mindful when you purchase. “Purchase smart,” Arnholt says. That extends to spirits, produce, and anything else you buy for making drinks. “Do you have a lime-heavy menu when limes are out of season?” he says. “They’re coming from far away, and you own that carbon footprint.” He encourages bartenders to question where produce and spirits come from and how they are made, grown, and transported.
3. Advocate. Bartenders underestimate their collective power, Arnholt says, noting two now-defunct California laws—one prohibited infusing spirits in bars; another mandated the use of rubber gloves. “It was bartenders who got that erased,” Arnholt points out. “The strength of the bartender community is that it can be cohesive and loud when it wants to be.”
Arnholt suggests channeling that energy to make change: “Go after your suppliers, your brands, your state senators….When we get behind something and it becomes an issue, real things happen.” Bobby Heugel, proprietor of Houston’s Anvil, Tongue-Cut Sparrow, and other cocktail bars, has made a point of using his platform to champion various issues causes, including some related to environmental sustainability.
In the end, the point is just to do … something. And then do something else. “We need to get beyond the gestural things and do things that mitigate the impact [on the environment], and then sell it to guests,” Arnholt sums up. “It can take hold if bartenders set positive examples.”
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Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Shake. Stir. Sip., Nightcap, and Cocktails with a Twist (Chronicle Books).