Meet The Punk Rock Bartenders Who Are Greening The Cocktail Scene

It’s hard to not to get crazy emotional about the state of the world. Our single-use culture based around plastics has created trash on an unfathomable scale. The lime rind or apple core you send to a landfill releases toxic gases from herbicides and pesticides into our atmosphere. Add in the carbon emitted into the same atmosphere to get those Brazilian limes to your favorite cocktail bar in Soho — or your house — and you’ve got an industry that’s in need of a major shift in mentality. Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths are leading the punk-fueled charge to change that mentality.

I first caught up with Ramage and Griffiths at the Tahona Society Contest hosted by Altos Tequila in Guadalajara earlier this year. I knew of them through the legendary Dandelyan, they knew the bar I worked in Berlin, Victoria Bar — so there was an immediate rapport.

What piqued my interest this time around was Ramage and Griffiths’ conference of “Sustainability in Bartending” in Guadalajara — connected to the Tahona Contest. I knew of their new pop-up venture, Trash Tiki, and was dying to know more. Their talk touched on using your products multiple times to squeeze the most value out of your dollar spent but also touched on conservation ideals, sustainable mentality, and even the nitty-gritty of turning all that into a real profit for the business. Or, as Griffiths put, “We fucked climate change by not making it about the money in the first place. Now we’re fucked. So maybe if we talk about the money, we’ll get people to listen.”

Trash Tiki is more than pop-up. It’s an idea. It’s a collaboration. It’s the future of bartending — and to an extent cooking. Ramage and Griffiths took their years at the top of the cocktail game and folded all that knowledge into an open source recipe book and pop-up bar. You can go to right now and find recipes that require nothing more than what the average kitchen has to reuse and extract ingredients from literal waste. There are recipes for fermentations, infusions, syrups, and more. And it’s all open and free. That’s only one half of the story.

The other half is the pop-up bars Ramage and Griffiths operate around the world. Their schedule is brutal as they trot around the globe, applying the Trash Tiki model to every corner of the planet. They arrive in a city and immediately find bars and restaurants where they can score some local, organic food waste and start creating a menu from there. It’s always something special. It’s always local. It’s always trash.

Our time in Mexico came and went with far too much tequila to get any real work done. So I caught up with Ramage and Griffiths when they were in London … at Dandelyan of course. We chatted about what sustainability in bars really means to the environment and the bottom line before the discussion turned to great drinks and how you can be part of the punk revolution and truly #drinklikeyougiveafuck.

Walk us through what Trash Tiki is.

Iain: Trash Tiki is an online platform and a world touring anti-waste drinks pop-up. We basically go around making drinks out of would-be waste items to get everyone thinking about the threat of everyday waste and how we can be a little more environmentally conscious in the way we make drinks.

You’ve made all of this free to anyone online. Where’d that start?

Kelsey: I think when we started, we just saw a lot of bartenders trying to do a few techniques and doing them maybe in ways that were not necessarily the easiest way of doing things and maybe reaching out for equipment that they didn’t necessarily need.

So what we wanted to do was show them methods that are simple and easy to execute and don’t require a lot of the purchasing power or equipment. We wanted to give them a resource that they can reference when they’re making these recipes and just a way of doing everything a little bit simpler and a little bit easier, but still extracting the same amount of flavor from what they already had in their bars.

Iain: We’ve already noticed it in the year that we’ve been doing this all open source, it stopped people who were trying to claim sustainability as their IP. People were trying to say like, “look how fucking great I am because I can do this and nobody else can.” So it was a little bit of a middle finger to that as well.

Brands, as well as bartenders, are trying to say that they’re the “most sustainable” or whatever the fuck that means. So it made sense to make it an open resource. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, as long as you have internet you can do this. It shifts that mentality. It shifts that approach a little. And we see that, already. Everyone has already sent it around and just been like, “Cool, I can do this too.”

Kelsey: Yeah and bartenders have started reaching out and saying, “We’ve used you as a reference! Can we list you on the menu or give you credit?” And we’re just like, “no.” We want them all to start talking to each other as a community because that’s the way forward.”

Yeah, that’s the most punk way to do it. Just fucking go do it. That’s what’s sort of cool. Where do you source your recipes? Or is it trial by error?

Iain: Massively.

Kelsey: I think they stem from the networks that we already had. Both of us have worked in some mega-bars that taught us a lot and where we’ve implemented a lot. So we had the trial and error part already down. But a lot of it is massive retrial and error. So we’re already doing the legwork, especially doing tons and tons of pop-ups. We’re working with new ingredients and new recipes all of the fucking time.

Iain: Our new methodology is: if we don’t know what to do with it, soak it in sugar or add water, wait a day, and see what it tastes like. Honestly, sometimes we’ll arrive in a country and there’ll be products we’ve never worked with and it’s like, “oh I don’t know, let’s just see how we go with it all.”

Kelsey: It’s very honest. Some recipes on our website are labeled as ‘work in progress’ because that’s what they are. A lot of our articles even finish with, ‘if you’ve done something better or if you’ve improved this recipe, reach out to us, let us know.’ And we get that. We probably field five to ten emails a week of people we’ve never met before but are like, “Oh, I’ve done this, and it worked really well, but I changed this and I thought it was better.” And it’s amazing to see. It’s created a dialogue around the industry that didn’t exist previously.

Can you walk us through why you chose to do pop-ups as opposed to starting your own brick and mortar somewhere?

Kelsey: Well, we started doing it as a pop-up so that it didn’t create any competition for bartenders that already had bars. So other bar owners or bartenders aren’t gonna look at you and say, “Oh, they’re already doing that. That’s kind of our shtick. We might win an award for this and that … So I have to do something wildly different than that.” By doing it as a pop-up, the other bars don’t see you as a competition. It breaks down that wall so you can talk to them honestly about what you’re doing.

Iain: And that way it engages everybody. Thank God there is no award for world’s best pop-up or anything like that because we have enough awards and ratings in our lives. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point. But yeah, that’s it, we’re nobody’s competition. Everyone’s scared of the company to company competition. But this way we are just another cog in the conversation.

One of the things I noticed during your speech in Guadalajara was how we all screwed up the way we think about climate change by making it an emotional plea. You’ve sort of turned that on its head and made it about money and saving businesses serious amounts of cash. Since you are experts in this, how much cash does the average bar throw away?

Iain: We rolled out some new content in Berlin recently at BCB. We took a normal drinks program that had seven cocktails on their menu with 2,100 weekly cocktails being made (each drink selling 300 cocktails per week). We took that menu and we then posited that if that menu had a 50% reduction in their waste, the saving on that per week was over 500€ ($580). And that’s not huge steps but just little steps, like, change the way they make their ingredients, where they buy stuff from, everything like that.

So then you multiply that out by a year — which is 26,000€ ($30,100) the bar is literally throwing away every year. Then consider that’s only 2,100 cocktails a week. We’re sitting outside of Dandelyan right now, and Dandelyan will do 2,100 cocktails in two to three days, let alone a week. So saving €500 a week is a place to start.

It’s huge. And it doesn’t end there, either. That waste then goes somewhere where it turns into methane, CO2, and there’s an auxiliary cost that comes later that everybody has to take on.

Kelsey: By implementing some of these things where you can save yourself a little bit of money, you are actually consuming less. So that’s fewer fossil fuels that you’re using to get the product there. You’re not shipping things over long distances and also you’re not throwing things out. So it’s this whole system that isn’t as direct as you might think it is but there are all these other aspects and things that affect your carbon footprint as a bar.

So when you guys walk into a place what’s the first thing you look for that’s the quickest to fix?

Kelsey: Citrus is probably the biggest one. Just because it comes so far for a lot of places. A lot of cocktail bars are in cold climates where they can’t actually grow any citrus. And it is the most commonly used thing — lemon and lime.

And that’s because for a long time cocktail bars were looking into history books and into what people used to do for cocktails, and that was either grab a bottle off the back shelf and stir it up on ice, or mix it with a citrus and put it in front of somebody and that’s where our history has lied so that’s what every single bar is expected to be able to make.

Iain: And that’s not to say that we think that bars should stop using citrus, but that is to say that that is where the easiest amount of money saved because it’s the biggest food waste item in any cocktail bar in the world.

Kelsey: Easily.

Iain: Every single little step that you can do towards that is where so much money will be saved. It’s also where so much of an environmental impact will be fixed. Citrus is our gas of the car world. It is just so horribly wasteful.

We are so focused on bringing the drinks fresh and so focused on using it once and then throwing everything else away that by virtue of that, citrus is a single-use ingredient that every single bar could fix tomorrow if they wanted to.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about an acidic taste which can be achieved through other means, whether it be yeast fermentation or lacto-fermentation or various other means, so it could also be more local. If you’re up in the north, you could try something that’s more fermentation based to get your acidic value as opposed to something citrus based.

Iain: Exactly. And just using citrus more than once. That’s the biggest thing. Imagine just buying half as much citrus. You haven’t got to get rid of it. You just got to buy less. You just gotta consume less. Reduce that carbon footprint. That’s the big thing that we all miss the ticket on is, as Kelsey was saying, the craft cocktail culture has created this single-use ingredient. So it’s just the bar stepping back from that edge and going, “Cool, let’s just buy 50% as many limes and use our limes 3 or 4 ways.”

So let’s take it to a consumer level. What would you tell a consumer to look for in a bar to find places like that are following this ethos?

Iain: It’s definitely the emerging ideology behind bars. A lot of bars do tend to wear it on their sleeves. So there’ll be the usual words kicking around like “close link” and “sustainability.” The straw thing has definitely become a really big issue. There’s now the One Less Straw movement. And there are people employing different materials so they are more reusable coasters at their bars. If there was anything to keep an eye out for right now in a bar that’s very tropical, that would actually probably be it.

But I think ultimately it’s always just about having a conversation with your bartender and seeing where they fall with it all. That’s where we landed on this ideology of no more single-use ingredients. ‘Cause in every bar it’s different and every locality is different. So it’s much more about what we are looking at, what that bar does, and if they’re doing it the best way possible or if they’re just employing some environmental sensibility for their brand.

Kelsey: Yeah, a lot of bars have taken on the straw thing. That seems to be the number one issue that’s talked about in the community a lot right now. Another thing to look for is something on the menu that’s served in more than one way.

We were sitting at the bar at Native and noticed other men started up the question with Vijay (Mudaliar) — who was tending bar for us — about the pineapple on the menu. It was in there different ways but it didn’t say it directly. Around the menu, you noticed it though. Pineapple shrub, pineapple fermentation, there was cordial, and there was this and that. And you notice these different ways that they’re using things. So, like Iain said, it’s more about having a conversation with the bartender as to why they’re doing that stuff instead of just putting it on for the sake of putting it on.

Let’s take a step back. In a classic cocktail, you have a base, a sweetener, and a bitter. Are those a little more sustainable because they’re not using quite as many ingredients?

Kelsey: Yeah, for sure. Obviously we never really thought of it that way because we’ve been doing tiki drinks for so long. We had to stir a drink the other day and we were like, “what the fuck is this?”

Iain: Yeah if you do drink 60 ml of bourbon and splash of sugar and bitters then you’re shooting less than if you have a whiskey sour. So maybe that’s the key to sustainable drinking is everybody just needs to start drinking straight alcohol again instead of mixed drinks.

Straight alcohol, no rocks.

Iain: Yeah that’s it. Straight alcohol, no rocks.

Kelsey: No ice, no water, no nothing.

Iain: Shooters only and draft beer, that’s where we’re headed.

So just to round this out, what’s the drink that you’ve come up with that is not only a great fucking drink but that hits all the points of sustainability and the Trash Tiki ethos?

Iain: Yeah… in March this year we did an event called Wasted with Dan Barber, the head chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. It ran for a month and it was on the rooftop at Selfridge’s. We did 6,000 covers in a five week pop-up. It was huge and it was crazy busy. So hilariously the drink we’re giving you is not really tiki, but I think that’s why it’s resonated so well as a great demonstration of how classic cocktails can be augmented in this reality.

So a classic whiskey sour, you’ve got whiskey, sugar, lemon, egg white. What we did was instead of the lemon we blanched lime shells after they’ve been juiced and then put in a bucket and then we fill them with boiling water and hibiscus and we made a lime shell tea that we then acidify. And so we used that as a base, acidifier and all. Then for the sweetener and the textural agent, we created an ingredient (and the recipe is on our website) called honey cream. It uses whey (which is a byproduct of cheese and yogurt production), egg yolks (that typically always get thrown out because every bar just uses the egg whites and they leave the egg yolk behind), and local honey to kind of tie in that notion of locality and considering how far your products actually travel to get to you.

And then to garnish it we got a flavored salt. The way they flavor salt is they get highly intensified flavored water and then they wash sea salt with that water and they re-dry it. But the water that runs off that is a byproduct as well. So we work with a Welsh salt manufacturer called Halen Mon and take their runoff. Then we got the pastry chef at Wasted, Chip Richie, a wonderful guy, to actually take the smoked water byproduct and do a candied glass out of it that’s sat on top of it.

Kelsey: So that smoke element plus the whiskey sour itself tastes just like a whiskey sour — if not a little better. And a lot of people’s minds are absolutely blown that it had no lemon or no egg white in it. It was just one of those shining examples of how you can make good drinks out of stuff that you wouldn’t normally think goes in a cocktail at all.

Iain: Yeah, for that drink everything was trash except for the whiskey. The whiskey was a delicious, Craigellachie 15 year old. But everything else was something that modern society throws away every single day.

You can check out Trash Tiki’s Pop-Ups across the world for the next four months at the following spots: