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Food For Thought

To Go Green, Bars Try To Reuse Their Booze

Some bars are blending leftover wine with fruit to make sangria. Bastien Deceuninck/Flickr hide caption

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Bastien Deceuninck/Flickr

Some bars are blending leftover wine with fruit to make sangria.

Bastien Deceuninck/Flickr

You probably don't waste a whole lot of wine or booze in your own home. But bars and restaurants throw out alcohol all the time.

The booze, wine and beer left behind in customers' drinks have to be discarded per food safety law, of course.

But what about the wine bottles designated for serving by the glass? Those dregs often go right down the drain.

Just as the restaurant industry has been waking up to its significant contribution to the food waste problem — and coming up with creative solutions — bartenders are realizing they can also turn some of their waste into something useful. It's just one dimension of the new sustainability movement in the drinking industry that's seeking ways to reduce water use, packaging waste and energy.

Ryan McIlwraith is executive chef of Bellota SF, a Spanish-themed restaurant he plans to open soon with Jonny Raglin, co-owner of Comstock Saloon.

For his new venture, McIlwraith has been investing in used wine barrels and ceramic vinegar crocks with plans to turn leftover alcohol into vinegar. The process involves inoculating wine, beer or other alcoholic drinks with bacteria called acetobacter. They convert the alcohol into acetic acid — what gives vinegar that punchy kick. Eventually he hopes to supply most of his restaurant's needs with a homemade product.

Making craft cocktails can generate heaps of fruit rinds, spent flavorings and spices. Some can be repurposed for mixers or condiments like marmalade. Chiot's Run/Flickr hide caption

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Chiot's Run/Flickr

Making craft cocktails can generate heaps of fruit rinds, spent flavorings and spices. Some can be repurposed for mixers or condiments like marmalade.

Chiot's Run/Flickr

There are plenty of other ways to use old wine and cider in Spanish cooking, he says. Both can be used for marinading beef, braising pork, preserving seafood and pickling some vegetables. Raglin says he likes to make vermouth by simmering white wine that has been opened for too long with herbs and caramel and fortifying with brandy.

"A lot of this will be a learning process for us, but there are a lot of ideas to play with for how to use up our alcohol without throwing it away," McIlwraith says.

San Francisco seems to be emerging as a hub for sustainability innovation at bars. The Perennial is a restaurant and bar slated to open there in January that's partnering with the nonprofit ZeroFoodprint to lower its greenhouse gas emissions and use as little water and generate as little waste as possible. According to beverage director Jennifer Colliau, one of the biggest problems in the liquor industry are laws that prohibit the use of bottles larger than 1.75 liters and prohibit distilleries from reusing bottles that have been used before. So, more bottles are used, and often they are thrown in the trash.

"Buying spirits in kegs would be an easy system that has been working for years in other industries," she says. (Kegs are one reason bars usually have very little leftover beer — they get tapped until they're empty.)

To use less water than standard bars, Colliau says The Perennial will chill cocktails in the fridge instead of shaking them in ice and discarding the ice. She says unused fresh citrus juices will be used to make sherbet. (A lot of bars typically throw out the juice they don't use.)

Drinking establishments elsewhere in the country are also trying to curb their waste both to cut their costs and to lower their environmental impact. The Sportsman's Club in Chicago combines leftover aperitifs, liqueurs and spirits into amaro liqueur.

At RED Bar, at the St. Louis Hyatt Regency hotel, leftover wine is blended and steeped with fruit, then served as sangria, according to a US Foods blog post. (Most sangria is made with fresh bottles of wine.)

Concern about waste is driving other forms of innovation in the drinks industry, according to Chad Arnholt, co-founder of the Tin Roof Drink Community, a San Francisco-based sustainability consulting firm for bars that has worked with The Perennial, among other establishments.

Making craft cocktails can generate heaps of fruit rinds, spent flavorings and spices, according to Arnholt, who also tends bar at San Francisco's Comstock Saloon. They can be composted, or sometimes repurposed for making bitters. That's also true for other cocktail ingredients like gum syrup, sour mix and fruit-flavored syrups.

Such homemade products are primarily creative pursuits, Arnholt says. However, bypassing commercial suppliers and the packaging waste and transport miles associated with them is an added environmental benefit, he says.

Arnholt says he's also seeing better communication between restaurants' bars and kitchens. Whereas the bar may once have juiced a fruit — say, a melon — and discarded the pulp, chefs are increasingly making use of such edible byproducts, he says, turning them into sorbets and other desserts.

For example, at Trenchermen, in Chicago, citrus rinds from both kitchen and bar are turned into marmalade, chef Patrick Sheerin tells The Salt by email.

Arnholt notes that several nights ago at Comstock, as he was finishing a bartending shift, the restaurant's chef brought him a jar containing brine from pickled pears.

"He said, 'Hey, maybe you can make me a cocktail with this,' " Arnholt says. "I said, 'Why not?' I mean, you're saving money, you're reusing ingredients and it's good."


Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who covers food, agriculture and the environment.