Have you ever ordered a cocktail, taken a sip, and wondered just how much energy went into making that magical concoction? Centuries of wisdom passed down from bartender to bartender, years of experimentation with nuance and flair converging in 21st-century awareness of profit and, increasingly, sustainability. It could take a thousand thoughtful decisions to make one perfect drink, and nowadays, mixologists are considering sustainability as part of the process. From the bartender to the establishment to the liquor supplier, the alcohol industry, and the big agriculture behind it, the spirits in our glass impact a whole lot more than our happy hour. With over 120 billion pounds of agricultural crops grown for alcohol production annually, how the crops are grown–conventionally or sustainably–marks the first big impact. From grain to glass, the energy and resources necessary to ferment and distill the spirit, the waste generated, the packaging, and transportation all add up to one big carbon footprint. Wouldn’t it be just a little sweeter, a touch brighter, a bit more relaxing to know that what is in your glass is not contributing to the warming of the planet, rather your drink is sustainably sourced and ready to be raised to your health and the health of the entire planet.
The good news is, the big liquor industry wants to be sustainable, the craft liquor industry is already doing it, and perhaps most importantly, our favorite neighborhood bartenders have been hard at work building fabulous cocktails with sustainable spirits, fresh ingredients and zero waste. We can only assume the rest of us, from home mixologists to occasional imbibers, will be following their moves before too long. It’s no surprise, bartenders have always been skilled persuaders, experts in behavior, scientists of society. In the 19th century, “Professor” Jerry Thomas changed the game by insisting the bartender be viewed as a creative professional, a role he himself aptly played from east to west coast, paving the way for world-renowned mixologists to come. Thomas had a formidable rival in Harry Johnson, who established the first bar management consulting firm after publishing his New and Improved Bartender’s Manual, or How to Mix Drinks in the Present Style in 1882. Things have changed a bit since then, but we still enjoy variations of those same recipes from Thomas and Johnson, and we can bet if they were alive today, they’d be experimenting on how to make sustainable cocktails to keep us drinking well into the morning.
Today’s bartending pioneers are as near as our neighborhood bar and they’re innovating in the spirit of Thomas and Johnson. Not only are they choosing “green” spirits, they’re growing their own ingredients, sourcing locally, composting waste, choosing glassware over disposable types, recycling liquor bottles, and concocting not only cocktails, but natural cleaning products to reduce their environmental impact and ultimately fix us all a more sustainable drink. Down in New Orleans at the bar Loa, Alan Walter, aka Spirit Handler, uses fresh, local ingredients that he sometimes forages himself, creating cocktail menus that change with the season. He makes dozens of syrups, tinctures, and aromatic bitters on-site, and when you order a cocktail, it will most certainly arrive in a vintage glass from Walter’s own collection.
Meanwhile, in Denver at the world-renowned Death & Co, bar manager Alex Jump reflects on her profession: “From co-workers to guests to everyone in between, there is a beautiful connection created through the sharing of food & drink that is irreplaceable.” Just before the COVID shutdown, Death & Co was featuring a drink called the Free Tail, and for every one sold, they’d donate $1 to the Bat Friendly Tequila & Mezcal Project, dedicated to protecting the long-nosed bats that are often agave’s number one pollinator. No bats, no tequila. Even more reason to go green. Jump says: “If you’re looking for a great tequila to drink at home, Siembra Valles is always going to be my number one recommendation for the sustainability and conservation work they’re doing in Mexico.”
Sustainability breeds innovation and vice versa. Kristin Koefod, co-founder and COO of 18.21 Bitters, says many of their flavors were born of an attempt at using up excess ingredients. They soak cherries in high-proof whiskey to make their Tart Cherry + Saffron bitters and to avoid wasting the delicious boozy fruit, they started making limited edition Whiskey Soaked Cherry Shrub. Their White Jasmine + Grapefruit Shrub came from hundreds of grapefruits left bald from zesting. Like the way a dash of bitters can change a cocktail, Koefod says using “sustainable spirits is a small and meaningful part in helping the environment.” 18.21 Bitters has a new line of carbonated cocktail mixers linked to different non-profits, one of which is focused on beach and water cleanup. “When we owned a bar, we used anything in the kitchen that was about to go bad as a garnish, we only used paper straws, all of those small things are important for the future of our earth.”
Bartenders are particularly poised to lead the sustainability movement, with some of them enjoying celebrity status online. Ashley Hupp, a 28-year-old breakout star,Hupp posts on TikTok as @TheParadise.Bartender. She’s got the attention of 2.7 million fans who showed up pretty much overnight when Hupp started posting video recipes of herself making drinks against the backdrop of her native Hawaiian coast. In a time of social distancing, her bright persona and positive message have had an especially engaging effect on viewers. Like Jerry Thomas, today’s bartenders–including professionals like the Kobricks, Koefed and Hupp–all have a huge opportunity to help us build a better cocktail, and a better future for the world. But at the end of the day, whether you’re pouring a beer at a dive bar or stirring martinis until your wrists hurt, sustainability is where we’re all heading. Just don’t get too fancy with it. You’ll end up looking like Tom Cruise.