What Are Closed Loop Cocktails and Why Are They on So Many Menus?
Talking trash has been a favorite activity at bars since some genius first poured gin into a fancy glass, threw in an olive and a spritz of vermouth, and called it a martini. These days, though, talking trash at the bar may not just be gossiping about your friend’s new haircut, but discussing your actual cocktail. A new wave of sustainably-minded bartenders are turning food waste that would typically end up in the trash into deliciously drinkable cocktails.
These cocktails, referred to alternatively as no-waste, low-waste, closed-loop, or anti-waste cocktails, all serve the same purpose—finding new uses for kitchen scraps that would normally end up in the trash. With people throwing away $29 billion worth of food every year, finding new uses for food that would otherwise get thrown out is a step toward cutting down that disgraceful figure. In the bar that translates into infusing gin with leftover bits of cilantro, transforming day-old pastries into almond syrup or using whey rescued from a cheesemonger. “In general, the idea is no different to that of food movements such as nose-to-tail eating,” explains Iain Griffith of Trash Tiki, which consults on anti-waste cocktails around the world. “It is about using the produce you have on hand as much as possible.”
The history of no-waste cocktails seems to have gotten its start in London. “Weirdly, I was the only one I could find at the time when I started and first coined the phrase 'closed loop cocktails',” explains Ryan Chetiyawardana, who was crowned "International Bartender of the Year" at the 2015 Spirited Awards. He started dabbling in closed-loop cocktails when he was working at Edinburgh’s Bramble Bar. “I was making falernum from used citrus husks, and did a drink and series of talks based on it in 2010 and no one seemed to care,” he says. Despite the lack of interest, he kept at it, making limited-waste cocktails at London’s Whistling Shop, before finally gaining some traction while doing some events with Hendrick's Gin and then at his own bar, White Lyan. He and Iain Griffith opened White Lyan in 2012 with a vision for a new kind of bar featuring no ice, no citrus and cocktails made in re-usable bottles. As The Guardian pointed out, their bar’s waste consisted of just “bottle caps, napkin wrappers and 24 glass bottles a week,” which were recycled. “We spent the first 12 months telling no one about White Lyan's sustainable practices,” says Griffith. “Every time we mentioned it to a peer or journalist, they straight up didn't care.” While White Lyan has closed to make way for SuperLyan and Cub, thanks to his new venture Trash Tiki, sustainability is all that Griffith and his partner Kelsey Ramage talk about at their pop-up bars where they serve cocktails made with rum infused with avocado pits and pineapple husks, and preach the gospel of anti-waste bar programs. “What we want every bar to understand is they can do their bit, to reduce waste via having no single use ingredients,” says Griffith. “This will mean they reduce their consumption, save money and ultimately their bar will have less of an environmental impact.”
While Chetiyawardana and Griffith were thinking about cutting waste through closed-loop cocktails in London, in New York chef Dan Barber had taken up dumpster diving of sorts for his wastED dinner series. For three months in March 2015, he transformed his restaurant, Blue Hill, into a pop-up devoted to the theme of food waste and re-use. Low-waste cocktails were on the menu then and still are today, thanks to the work of Benjamin Clayton and Oliver Holt, who raid the kitchen for scraps to turn into ingenious cocktails like mezcal margaritas infused with leftover cilantro roots or cucumber skins. When Barber brought wastED to London, Trash Tiki brought a Whiskey Sour using whey from a cheese manufacturer, egg yolks otherwise tossed from a local bar, and London-made honey, while Chetiyawardana combined heritage carrots, Ceylon Arrack, and Krug Champagne. “Careful sourcing and application can allow for luxury as well as conscientious consumption,” explains Chetiyawardana about the combination.
It was Barber’s work, as well as that of Griffith and Ramage that helped inspire Kim Stodel of Providence restaurant in Los Angeles. “Providence is a predominantly seafood restaurant, so during meetings I would often hear Chef Michael talk about sustainability and his efforts to avoid over-fished seafood,” explains Stodel. “That resonated with me.” He started foraging in the restaurant kitchen for ideas and soon implemented a low-waste cocktail program. “We've had close to 30 drinks on the menu using zero-waste techniques,” he says. And finally, despite Chetiyawardana’s early struggles, the trend is spreading. Tin Roof Drink Community is preaching the low-waste gospel in the Bay Area, there is a farm-to-bar program at Brooklyn’s Olmsted and Himkok, in Oslo, Norway reduces waste by making their own spirits. Julian Bayuni from Vesper, a cocktail bar in Amsterdam, heard about the movement in London and brought it to his own bar. He started an initiative called Trash the Place, in the hopes of inspiring his fellow bartenders to work in a more environmentally-conscious manner. Similarly, Kamil Foltan ran into no-waste cocktails in London and now serves them up at The Indigenous Bartender, which pops up around Singapore, Bali and in other Southeast Asian locations. While Foltan believes in reducing waste, he also believes in reducing costs, which is yet another perk of a closed-loop cocktail. “With running bars, every cost is accountable,” he says. “Sometimes, it is about cleverly utilizing ingredients and sometimes it’s about saving money.”
Whatever people’s reasons for joining up, the founders of the no-waste cocktail movement are happy to have the company. While they don’t think cocktails can save the world, they do think it’s a good start. “A move to balanced food systems is not being aided by the powers that be, but economics and buying power can be shaped by fashion and education,” says Chetiyawardana. “Showing how luxury, deliciousness and considered practice are not mutually exclusive can make a powerful and tangible difference.”
“Don't focus on saving the world,” says Griffith of how he views his work. “That’s a truly overwhelming idea to consider, instead focus on what your bar can do.”