A London cocktail bar is remixing a few old-fashioned ideas of what goes into a drink, and what goes into the rubbish. White Lyan, in the East End’s Hoxton neighbourhood, prides itself on being a pioneering low-to-no waste cocktail joint.
It uses no ice, no fresh fruit, and has reduced the number of bottles it sends for recycling to just 24 bottles a week – the average bar recycles up to three 300-litre bins’ worth.
Founders Ryan Chetiyawardana and Iain Griffiths first set themselves the challenge of disposing of the ice machine and fresh ingredients. Ice and fresh fruit, they argue, can’t be relied on to deliver a consistent flavour.
“It dawned on me just how little waste we were going to have,” says Griffiths. “The smallest amount of citric acid powder is needed to replicate an actual fruit on the palate. The environmental effect of the bar has become an increasing focus by the nature of just how little waste we produce.”
The bar is dark, black on tasteful black, lit by the frosted light of a wall of fridges stocked with pre-made cocktails and drinks. There’s a basement dance floor. Beyonce once commandeered the whole place for a post-gig party.
It might be an eco-bar, but there was never any question of compromising ethics for style or vice versa, says Chetiyawardana.
“My view of sustainability is not sacrifice. Luxury and comfort is something that we build towards,” he says. “We’re into starting new conversations around environmentalism. If what we do here prompts other bars to use what they have better, that’s important to us. That’s why we’re so open about what we do.
“We’ve reduced bar waste so that the only thing we actually throw away are bottle caps and some of the plastic packaging around things like our napkins. Everything else gets recycled or reused.”
Everything is made in-house. By day, the bar is a drinks factory. Spirits are ordered in bulk, citrus acid powders and vinegars replace fresh fruit, things like bone (chicken bones dissolved in phosphoric acid) and ambergris (ethically sourced whale bile) are made into tinctures and fed into traditional drinks and bottled cocktails.
Bottles are washed out and reused. The bar only serves one beer, which is spritzed up with hops for people who prefer a pale ale. The duo have made a carbonation rig from a home-brewing kit. They make a set amount of drinks for the evening, and filter their water with charcoal.
“The average bar throws out two or three 300-litre glass bins a week,” Griffiths points out. “Unless we use something like Campari or Aperol, which we’re not at the point of making ourselves yet, we recycle between 18 and 24 bottles in a normal recycling bin. That’s per week.
“We buy in bulk so most of what we do has a slow-burning financial return, which we pass on to the customer. I’ll take a price challenge against any other high-end cocktail bar in London and see how we square up.”
For energy, they’re still on the national grid. “Because of where we are, we can’t really control too much of that supply,” says Griffiths. “But, like finding an alternative means of refrigeration, that’s all part of our evolving concept of how to do things. We will address it, but we want to do it right, and that could take time.”
Some years ago, the pair devised the “recycled cocktail”, which used all the parts of a drink that were normally thrown away – the pips of a lemon, the oils on the lemon skin. But the inspiration for White Lyan came more out of frustration with the drinks industry.
“The industry wasn’t questioning how things were being done and everyone went with what was known and accepted,” Chetiyawardana says.
Chetiyawardana and Griffiths are also opening a new bar, Dandelyan, where they will use fresh ingredients. However, they insist that they’ll use as many by-products as possible – such as lemon husks and pickling liquors from the kitchen – to see if they can work towards a closed loop.
“If you look at the cocktail part, you see hedonism and fun,” Chetiyawardana says. “Then you look at the philosophy and ethics that drives us to be so DIY and thorough about what we use and how we use it. All seeds of change need to be sown – what’s needed is a nugget of an idea and people willing to take that risk to try it. We’d like to persuade a classically led bar to not accept the status quo, to think deeply about what they do, and make changes to push them ahead.”
Griffiths adds: “Every aspect of this venue utilises ingredients, products and methods that already exist. That’s the key to sustainability. We’re by no means creating or depleting another industry. We’re drawing on what already exists in the world and just applying it in a different way. It’s a case of finding everything under your nose, but just a new way of using it all.”
This article was first published in the Guardian, 04 June 2014.