Working Toward a Sustainable Future: An Interview with Chad Arnholt and Claire Sprouse

Chad and Claire sitting and smiling
Arnholt and Sprouse's initiative to promote sustainable practices within the bartending and spirits industries awarded them the 2017 Golden Spirit Award.

A year after winning a Sustainable Spirit Award for their efforts to spread greener practices in the bartending community, Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt of Tin Roof Drink Community are debuting the Sustainability Summit at this summer’s Tales of the Cocktail®. The Summit, which showcases prominent industry members and sustainability experts alike, aims to highlight the importance of sustainable practices in our industry and explain why the bartending industry, in particular, stands to gain from adopting greener methods.

Here, Claire and Chad give a framework of what the Summit has to offer and discuss the thinking behind it.

What are you two most excited about for this summit?

Chad: Well, I can tell you what I’m most excited about, and it’s what you just said: it’s a big deal to talk about these issues and sustainability, and it’s been a big deal for a long time. Finally, our industry’s starting to catch up, and the issue is picking up steam. What I’m excited about is to see a bunch of faces and speakers and industry experts in a room, having an honest conversation and really learning about how our industry, our bars, and our livelihoods affect the environment in real ways. Then, talking about how we can change and build as a community toward more sustainable practices and, ultimately, a more sustainable industry. This conversation is something that’s been Facebook chatter for a long time now, and it’s great to have Tales on board to really help push this issue into the real.

Why do you think it’s important for bartenders in particular to adopt sustainability practices in their establishments?

Chad: It starts with a bartender in terms of instilling everyday practices that are proactive toward achieving sustainability, such as the way to design drinks. When a bunch of people start doing that, the tide will start to change. But it’s more than that: They’re our future. The 24-year-old bartender that’s two years into making cocktails today is the Julie Reiner or Bobby Heugel of tomorrow. So once they develop those good habits and that conscience early on, that’s going to be what they’re going to use as a foundation if they open a bar and drive an industry. The people I just mentioned started as bartenders, and now they have a huge, measurable impact — not just on the industry, but in the cities they live in.

There’s this association with sustainability and high expenses, or limited accessibility. Is the summit going to address that, and show that sustainability can be something accessible for everyone?

Claire: Our goal is to showcase different approaches, and show that, though it feels like a very daunting topic to tackle or to be engaged with, there are smaller steps things that can be accomplished without needing to start a whole new bar from scratch.

Chad: I would add to that, and say that the assumption that “sustainable” and “green” is more expensive is sort of that “Whole Foods” mentality; “if it’s better for you, then it must be expensive.” That’s not necessarily the case, and, even if you just do the small steps that Claire’s talking about, the reality is if you’re lowering your water and energy usage, and your trash output, those are three things that are utilities and cost you money. If you’re using less of them, you’re going to save money.

Can you discuss some of the presenters you’ve confirmed for the summit, and what points of view they represent?

Claire: The first session is geared toward product sourcing and ingredient sourcing, everything from an apple to a bottle of rum, and what kind of questions to ask yourself and ask producers. It also addresses the topic of the environmental footprint in a more general sense. For that session, we’re speaking with the owner of Don Q Rum, and the person he works closely with at the Surfrider foundation, which is a foundation that works hard to keep oceans clean and lower water waste. Their point of view is how distilleries affect the environment, and what brands are making an effort to lessen their footprint. We also have Francisco from Mezcal Vago confirmed on that panel; he’ll be talking a little bit about how they interact with the environment in more of an agricultural context.

On the second session, Chad will be leading a discussion on bar equipment, techniques, how to make drinks, and the things to think about throughout that process. He has Nicole Brisson representing one of Mario Batali’s restaurants in Las Vegas; that restaurant was the recipient of a Sustainable Spirit Award last year. Then, Chad also confirmed a representative from Fisher-Nickel – or “Fish-Nick” – from the Food Service Technology Center in California; they’re basically an organization that promotes efficiency in the food industry, and their specialist will be on hand to talk about how they measure footprint in equipment.

The last session is going to be about waste, and Kelsey and Ian from Trash Tiki will be heading that up. Then we have Jessica Lischka, the GM from Jimmy’s, a restaurant in Aspen. She’s completely revamped not only the restaurant, but the local community around it to make composting more accessible for restaurants. I’s really impressive stuff. We also have Dre Masso, who runs bar programs in and around Bali. He has to be very creative with the ingredients they get, and consider what happens to paper and other waste when they’re done using them since, on an island, there’s a limitation on where those things can go.

We tried to get a couple real-world practical speakers for each panel who can say “OK, we’re talking about this large concept, how does that apply to what we do every day in bars and restaurants?” Then, we tried to also back that information up with an expert or two in fields that can speak more efficiently about it. I think it’s been a great process to be able to reach out to some of these real experts and scientists, and have them confirm or open our eyes to different elements on these topics.

Chad: To reinforce Claire’s point about the specific examples: Fisher-Nickel, they run a food-service technology center sponsored by the state of California. Their job is to go through every piece of kitchen and restaurant equipment that’s available in California, and test it, then tell you, “Hey, this is how much energy this piece of equipment uses.” They give people the tools to predict the impact their restaurant has on the environment. That’s the type of information that has scarcely been available to bartenders, so we want to put that kind of real, hard facts in front of people in a new way that makes this conversation bigger.

Why did you choose the Mai-Tai as the running example to use throughout the Summit?

Chad: It’s delicious!

Claire: It is delicious. We were trying to think of a classic cocktail that would touch on all the different elements and issues that we’ll run through during the day. For the Mai Tai, we’re starting with rum as the base ingredient, and that deals with footprint and ingredient sourcing. Things like: What is this distillery doing to be more responsible? How is this product getting to you? We’re just going to trace how the rum gets to your glass, and why you might want to choose one rum over the other.

Second, the Mai Tai includes orgeat, which is made from almonds. A lot of what Chad and I have worked on over the last two years is addressing water waste in restaurants. There is a serious problem with making sure we’re not wasting fresh water. Almonds utilize a lot of water, more so than other crops. So, we’re trying to look at that ingredient, and find other ways to mimic it. Kelsey and Ian from Trash Tiki have gotten really creative in the past, and used sunflower seeds to make an orgeat.

Then, just in general, when Chad is talking about drink-making, what are some steps with ice machines? What are some steps in the actual making the cocktail process where you can lower your footprint? The Mai Tai is just a really great example in its ability to touch on all those topics. And, everybody likes a Mai Tai. They know what it is. After all, sustainability is a really big topic, so we’re trying to find something relatable that people can tie all the information back to. If we have this small thing that everyone’s familiar with, we thought it would be easier for people to process and digest that information.

Chad: When you really break down any drink, there’s several different components that all have a very specific relationship to the environment. For the Mai Tai, you have an agricultural relationship, with the limes and almonds, and even the oranges that go into the curaçao. You have an industrial relationship with the rum, so you have waste issues there. You have your in-house concerns of energy. You have to think about how the ingredients got to you, how far they had to travel and how much gasoline that trip took.

That’s really conscientious, to think about sourcing on every level like that.

Chad: It is, and it feels good to think about those things — sometimes it feels bad, like when you get the answers to your favorite drinks and you cringe. When you think about it from a culinary standpoint, this movement started in restaurants years ago, and it’s great that the bars are finally catching up. The more you think about all those links in the chain to connect you to where that product comes from, how it gets to you, how you use it, what you do with the leftovers — we need to get to that kind of thought process if our industry is going to start to line up with other industries that are taking steps to become sustainable.

What really clicked, for each of you, that made you realize that sustainability was something that needed to be implemented in bars?

Claire: I think, really, that the drought in San Francisco, more than anything, was when it really clicked for me. At the time, the city had passed a law saying that you couldn’t even offer water to guests at bars and restaurants. They had to request it themselves. Government officials were taking it seriously enough to pass these crazy laws, and it made us start thinking that what we do has a huge effect. We started talking about how much water goes into a martini, and it was pretty shocking. From there, it kind of rippled out, and we were able to implement a lot of change through the consulting we were doing. We really got to nourish that seedling, and see where it would grow. We’d think, “OK, we’ve thought about water, but what about this problem of electrical waste? Where are these ingredients coming from? How can we use these ingredients to reduce our waste?”

Chad: The reality is that a lot of people don’t see the effects of climate change or pollution, but certain places see them a lot, and California is one of the more extreme environments. You could say we were there in the right time and right place — or wrong time, wrong place — to really see that impact. In places like Atlanta, you won’t see it as badly, but in places like New Orleans, you’re going to see it even worse. I heard on the radio recently that a football field’s worth of land gets lost to coastal rising every day in Louisiana. A study I saw a few weeks ago said that, in the next 30 years, 400,000 people in Brooklyn will be displaced by coastal rising, and that’s in Brooklyn. It’s a crazy problem, and it’s the biggest problem the world faces right now in terms of the survival of the human race. It definitely needs to be the No. 1 issue our community and industry focuses on.

One more question, how are you going to give the guests the resources to continue in their sustainability efforts after the summit?

Claire: Maybe an item in the form of an actual printed workbook, or a place on Tales of the Cocktail’s website — or our website — where people can contribute, and we can keep adding on to it to build a resource library, for people to access. Even people who weren’t at the Summit will be able to access it. There wasn’t really something like this when we first started digging into sustainability, and there still really isn’t a great example of it now. Every once and awhile, somebody will make a Facebook post like, “What are some plastic straw alternatives,” and I have all the resources separately bookmarked, and people will chime in with their own resources, but everything’s very scattered. The goal is to make a place where people can immediately find the resources they’re looking for to find more sustainable alternatives. We need to keep the conversation going beyond the summit, to keep drawing attention to these issues. All the attendees will be able to contribute ideas for action items that will hopefully, throughout the year, be able to tackle things through strength in numbers, and change larger policies with our larger voice. We want to give people the feeling that they’re part of something meaningful. Our country is in crisis over issues about the environment, and I think that, right now, it’s a time where people feel a little lost. Hopefully, we’ll create a platform where our industry can do something greater, because we are passionate, and we now have a sounding board to pull together our ideas and actions.

Chad: It’s been a real pleasure to work with Ann and Tales on this. This is a conversation that started when Ann brought up the Sustainability Awards last year, and she wanted to turn that into the summit. We started talking about how that would work, then all of the sudden it was New Year’s, and this started to become a reality. It feels really good to have Tales jump into this, because they’re the biggest voice, and they’re one that everyone hears. With thousands of people who are all passionate about our industry at Tales, if we can get that audience, that’s pretty rad.

The Sustainability Summit will take place on Tuesday, July 18, during the 15th annual Tales of the Cocktail®. To order tickets, click here. To learn more about Tin Roof Drink Community’s sustainability efforts, visit their website here.

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