What are sustainable cocktails? The top three finalists of the recent Singapore leg of the Flor De Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge 2023 share with us their approach to sustainability in the cocktail industry.

There’s a current trend in cocktail culture towards sustainable practices. But for the more sceptical among us, sustainability can often seem like a buzzword. So what really are the environmentally-friendly initiatives that bars and bartenders employ in their work and business?

We caught a glimpse of some of those innovative green initiatives during the recent Singapore finals of the Flor De Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge 2023. The Singapore leg was ultimately won by Jez Carreon of Employees Only Singapore – making it a back-to-back win – with a cocktail called ‘My Redemption’ that not only leaned on bar discards, but converted kitchen waste into a recyclable coaster upon which to place his cocktail. He goes on to represent Singapore in the regional APAC finals of this year’s competition held in Vietnam.

To find out more, we grabbed the talented Carreon – along with Kelvin Saquilayan of Manhattan, and Kafe UTU’s Zachary Ibrahim who together made up the top three in the Singapore leg – to ask about sustainability as applied behind the bar.

Kelvin Saquilayan of Manhattan
Kelvin Saquilayan of Manhattan.

Congratulations on being in the top three for the Singapore finals of the Flor de Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge 2023! Tell us the inspiration behind the cocktail you made, and the sustainable techniques you employed.

Kelvin Saquilayan: The inspiration for my drink is mainly to repurpose ingredients that are commonly written off as waste. Since waste isn’t waste until we label it as such, it made a lot of sense to turn food waste from the kitchen – leftovers like peels, citrus skin, and rinds – into a brand new ingredient. That’s where the name of my drink, ‘Peel Brand New’ comes from.

Jez Carreon: What I wanted to do was to create a cocktail that would not only elevate the natural flavour profile of Flor de Caña 12 Year Old but also close the loop and ensure zero waste. Some of the sustainable techniques I employed was to reduce the use of ice in the making of ‘My Redemption’, reusing the ingredients previously used in my infusions to make a coaster and garnish, and also recycling glass bottles and using it as a vessel to serve my cocktail in.

Zachary Ibrahim: The main inspiration behind the drink is the fact that, aside from using all “waste” products from our coffee bar as well as our kitchen for the drink, was finding out Flor de Caña uses 100% renewable energy as well as donates back to the Nicaraguan power grid. I wanted to make a drink that used close to zero additional energy for all the ingredients. For example, no induction stoves, sous vide, rotovaps were used. All the methods used to make the ingredients in my ‘Ubuntu’s Harvest’ just utilized old-fashioned methods such as the oleo saccharum method and infusions.

What do you think are the most wasteful practices behind the bar when it comes to sustainability, and how does your bar approach minimising such waste?

Jez Carreon: In my experience, I realised that a lot of ingredients tend to go to waste during cocktail prep in the back of house. Surprisingly, a lot can be done with these wasted ingredients – even scraps like spent fruit or citrus peels can be used to make syrups or dehydrating it to make an edible garnish or even a coaster. Another way is to save empty bottles and reusing it as a container or a vessel to store or serve syrups and batched cocktails.

Kelvin Saquilayan: Overconsumption. We make sure we only order the amount that we need to avoid excess and spoilage. We also monitor quality by labelling items with best-by and best-to-consume dates so that we use everything in a timely manner. At Manhattan, we have implemented proper disposal of food waste in comparison to general waste in order to control the amount of waste generated. I also used Fair Trade products which support producers that are environmentally-conscious.

Zachary Ibrahim: To me, it would definitely be batching perishable produce such as fresh fruits, etc. What we do at UTU is try our best to only order and prepare what we need for the day ahead. We do not make big batches to store in case of a slow period that would lead to a lot of wastage.

Zachary Ibrahim of Kafe UTU
Kafe UTU’s Zachary Ibrahim.

Share with us one signature drink at your bar that employs a sustainable technique.

Zachary Ibrahim: I would say it’s a drink we call the ‘Dawa’, which means medicine or drug in Swahili. Nothing is premade for the drink! So even if it isn’t sold, there is no wastage. Also, the drink is served in a glass made from recycled glass from our friends over in Nairobi, Kenya, at Kitengela Hot Glass. The dawa sticks served with the cocktail to help muddle the citrus at the bottom of the drink are made from wood by local communities in Kenya to help create jobs for their daily needs.

Kelvin Saquilayan: Our ‘Lady of Song’ contains an orange-chamomile oleo saccharum, an ingredient that we use in most of our signature cocktails as well as claret snap and fruit punches. It serves as a citrus stock and sweetener made from leftover citrus rinds after juicing and is one of the most elegant ways to bring the flavour of citrus fruit into your cocktails.

Jez Carreon: We have a drink that is a take on a clarified milk punch which incorporates a technique that uses milk and citrus to clarify a cocktail. After straining, the cocktail can be stored in a recycled empty bottle ready to be served. This method of clarification also extends the shelf life of the cocktail. Through the straining process, cheese is also collected from the whey of the milk and can be used as garnish or can also be given to the kitchen to be used in cooking.

Jez Carreon of Employees Only Singapore
Singapore winner of the Flor de Cana Sustainable Cocktail Challenge 2023, Jez Carreon of Employees Only Singapore.

Where and how do you think the cocktail bar industry can do better when it comes to sustainability?

Kelvin Saquilayan: I am proud to say that the local bar and restaurant industry in Singapore is always striving to create new ways to implement and execute unique and sustainable practices. I believe it will add to the efforts if we continuously encourage and work with local small businesses like hawker centres, local pottery artists and small edible farms to form a community where different parties can reuse or reduce waste in a closed loop.

Jez Carreon: For most, it means to operate in ways that preserve and restore the environment. For some, it is a practice that benefits the business by reducing operating costs. For me, practicing sustainability can also be a matter of creativity, and creating sustainable cocktail recipes. A good practice that I feel bars can adopt immediately, and in the long-term, is recycling some of the ingredients used while preparing their menu cocktails. For example, there can be a process in place that ensures that all peels and rinds can be upcycled as part of new cocktail creations via syrups and garnishes.

Zachary Ibrahim: It’s just small things that add up. I think this leads back to the second point of wastage – not only should we be thinking about reusing and recycling bar ingredients, we can also look towards our appliances and energy consumption. For example, the amount of water wastage that comes from making a high-volume cocktail is huge. So while installing a dishwasher might use up a little bit more electricity, the amount of water it saves greatly outweighs the amount of electricity used.

What would you do if you won this year’s Flor De Caña Sustainable Cocktail Challenge?

Jez Carreron: Haha I haven’t thought that far ahead yet! I guess I would encourage our team to practice sustainability when it comes to prep and service. I am also open to sharing my knowledge and mentor bartenders who are willing to take part in the Flor De Caña’s sustainable cocktail challenge in the future. To keep striving to be better, I look forward to taking part and winning other prestigious cocktail competitions as well as one day, hopefully, being able to judge future Flor De Caña competitions.

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