Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

These London Bars Are Pioneering the Sustainable Cocktail Movement

By rethinking their approach to a notoriously wasteful industry, these bars are reducing their effects on the environment.

Cub Greengage
Cocktail made with greengage, Belvedere unfiltered vodka, chamomile and cider vermouth at Cub in London. Image:

 Kim Lightbody

If you’ve been keeping an eye on trends within the bar industry, you’ll have noticed that descriptors such as “sustainable,” “closed-loop,” “zero-waste” and “low-waste” are used with increasing frequency, albeit inaccurately at times. Bars all over the world are embracing the movement toward sustainability, and while no bar is perfectly waste-free, a few in London are exploring just how far they can reduce their carbon and water footprints and are making genuinely noteworthy changes to their bar programs. 

“Being a sustainable bar or restaurant means thinking about many factors that affect what happens before and after your drink and dish: where it came from, who grew the ingredients you are using, what impact it will cause on our planet once it has been consumed and how it will affect the person enjoying it,” says Fernando Morzón, the general manager at Cub. “A sustainable cocktail is one that is made by removing the unnecessary elements, utilizing entire ingredients—not just using the pretty 10% and discarding the other 90%—and being mindful of how the ingredients were produced, where and by whom.”

Cocktail made with scotch, black currant, cobnut, smoked rye amazake at Cub
Cocktail made with scotch, black currant, cobnut and smoked rye amazake at Cub.  Kim Lightbody

Adjusting the Approach

While many bars in the U.S. have just begun to join this shift toward low-waste practices over the last few years, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s White Lyan in London—which opened in 2013 and closed in 2017—was the catalyst for thinking about sustainability differently. As White Lyan’s pioneering endeavors to eliminate waste proved successful, other London cocktail bars have taken note of White Lyan’s innovations and applied similarly sustainable practices to their own bar programs. More than a trend, the movement seems to represent a cultural shift in an industry that traditionally has produced an incredible quantity of waste.

“The concept of White Lyan was all about making the industry think differently,” says Will Meredith, the head bartender at Lyaness, also from Chetiyawardana. “Many people remember it for being the bar that didn't use ice or citrus, but it was so much more than that. The whole point of White Lyan was to get us to question everything we did and the processes used to achieve that.” The bar’s sustainability, says Meredith, also came from the longevity of its stable ingredients, as well as its staff’s intelligent R&D work and their deep understanding of the ingredients with which they were working. 

Cub
Cub.  Kim Lightbody

Since White Lyan’s closing, London bars such as Tayer + Elementary, Scout, Lyaness and Cub (also from Chetiyawardana) have all followed in White Lyan’s footsteps by tackling sustainability head-on. They give careful thought to how they use and preserve ingredients, where they are source ingredients from, how they can eliminate excessive packaging and transportation of goods by micro-distilling their own ingredients in-house (which is, unfortunately, not allowed in the U.S.) and how they can employ other bar techniques to eliminate waste wherever possible. 

Sustainable Lifestyles Matter Too

Not only do these bars focus on sustainable cocktails, they also stress the importance of social sustainability, as well, making sure their staff live “sustainable lifestyles,” in an effort to minimize burnout. “Sustainability consists of more than the environmental part. It also has two other pillars which we neglect: economic and social sustainability,” says Monica Berg, the co-founder of Tayer + Elementary. “These are as important in the bigger discussion.” 

Cocktail made with Krug Champagne, water jelly and spiked herbs
Cocktail made with Krug Champagne, water jelly and spiked herbs.  Kim Lightbody

Berg notes that all of her staff cycles to work and that the bar doesn’t allow staff to drink on the job or post-shift, in an attempt to prevent consumption-related burnout. Similarly, Cub encourages staff sustainability by closing three days a week to allow its staff to rest and do light prep work during nonservice hours, eliminating the pressure of balancing the heavy prep that’s needed for a sustainable bar and restaurant while simultaneously serving guests.

It Starts with Suppliers

To help reduce its carbon footprint, Tayer + Elementary takes a tough stance with environmentally harmful suppliers. “We don’t accept single use containers, etc., from our suppliers and vendors, so they deliver in reusable crates [and other sustainable packaging], which they take back immediately,” says Berg. “Many of our suppliers also deliver by bicycle. Our glassware is quite expensive, so we never throw out chipped glasses; rather, we sand them down and then continue to use them despite their uniqueness.” 

Lyaness
Lyaness. Lyaness

At Lyaness, the team also opts to source ingredients from sustainable suppliers, even though it means going through a greater number of vendors, leading to additional administrative efforts on the bar’s part. “We work with suppliers such as the Rare Tea Company, who have a vision of working directly with tea farmers who operate in a fair and sustainable manner; Natoora, who champions British produce wherever possible; Bermondsey Bees, who are London beekeepers; Land Chocolate and many more,” says Meredith. “It means that we source from a wider range of suppliers, but we know that each of them follow practices that align with our view toward sustainability. We also order in bulk wherever possible in order to reduce the impact of transportation.” 

Before developing the bar’s current menu, the team at Lyaness visited with their honey supplier, Bermondsey Bees, to understand more about how its honey was made and its flavor profile. The team used their inspiration from the visit to create a tribute to the world’s most important pollinators by creating their own “vegan honey” (one of seven “signature ingredients” on the menu, with three cocktails made with each ingredient), which uses a proprietary blend of syrups to imitate the waxiness, spice and complex sweetness that honey brings to a cocktail. 

Nordic Old Fashioned made with Tayer x Maker's Mark bourbon, Amber, Linie aquavit, fino sherry and caroob at Tayer + Elementary
Nordic Old Fashioned made with Tayer x Maker's Mark bourbon, Amber, Linie aquavit, fino sherry and caroob at Tayer + Elementary.  Bernard Zeija

Using More to Waste Less

Lyaness’ take on the classic Grasshopper represents another example of its team using unique methods to create an innovative and sustainable cocktail. “Our team reached out to a chocolatier and carried out an exchange for some bags of cacao husks,” says Meredith. “We use these husks to create a cacao-whey liqueur that provides that ever-familiar chocolate note in a Grasshopper. I like the premise, because these husks are an often-discarded and overlooked byproduct, while both the team and chocolatier saw potential value in them.” 

At Scout, recently ranked 28th on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, the team often employs unexpected techniques to create low-waste ingredients. “I would say one of the most unique ingredients we develop is making soda using eggshells,” says Matt Whiley, the owner of Scout London and Sydney. “The byproduct of combining calcium from eggshells and acetic acid (vinegar) is carbon dioxide, so we add this to flavored waters and bottle them to create fizzy soda.” Whiley and his team also work closely with a local forager who sources a wealth of their seasonal ingredients for them, eliminating the need for long-distance transportation. With these ingredients, they create their own ferments and distillates (via a rotary evaporator) to utilize the entire ingredient and create flavors that are exclusive to their bar program. 

Tayer + Elementary
Tayer + Elementary.  Bernard Zeija

“We use distillation to create flavored spirits and utilize ingredients in them as quickly as possible from when they are picked,” says Whiley. “We also use fermentation as a way of preserving ingredients from the summer period when produce is in high supply, so we have a variety of flavors and ingredients for winter. We use wine fermentation practices and lacto-fermentation, as well as vinegars.”

While these initiatives and techniques just scratch the surface of how these London bars are tackling the issue of waste, they demonstrate how a holistic approach to sustainability is necessary to effect real change. 

“How we treat our environment, and the subsequent effect on our climate, is something that every single person must consider,” says Meredith. “If everybody took a minute to make small changes, they would add up and force larger groups to make a change. We have reached a point where we all know and love luxury. The trick now is to be able to enjoy all the luxuries in a way that doesn't cause vast amounts of damage.”