Singapore’s Recipe for a Sustainable Bar Scene
Singapore boasts some of the most interesting and environmentally friendly bars in the world.
The weight of a golf ball is roughly 46 grams, about the same as a cooked egg. That’s something to keep in mind when you ask Vijay Mudaliar how much waste is produced on any given night at his compact bar Native on a winding street in Singapore. He’ll cup his hands and, without drama or ceremony, he’ll say “less than 50 grams.” He’ll follow up that by mentioning there’s also zero food waste. Then your jaw will drop.
Native, which opened in 2016 and garnered the number 12 spot on this year’s World’s 50 Best Bars list, is discretely located above a Japanese noodle restaurant in a 200-year-old building. Shiny steel-and-glass skyscrapers, the quintessence of modernity, cast shadows on this historic structure. But Native, however modest, sits as a bold suggestion for an idealistic and sustainable future.
Sustainability has become a buzzword and a practice of varying degrees at bars around the world. Sourcing ingredients locally is increasingly common and the abolition of plastic straws has evolved into something of a movement—in bars and beyond. Many spots now serve drinks with compostable alternatives or even metal varieties. Composting or repurposing the night’s food scraps is gaining momentum, but it’s still a long way from being widespread. But all those steps are perhaps best equated to undergrad exercises in comparison to Mudaliar’s doctoral-level daily routine at Native.
“We’re using ingredients our grandparents used to use. Singapore has seen a growth in import culture. We tend to forget that we can grow ingredients that have been grown here a long time instead of bringing in, say, strawberries,” he said. He also noted that all the 60-plus spirits on his menu are made in various parts of Asia—and that’s to say nothing of the local beer, wine and mead. I also got the distinct idea that he was inspired by generations that lived much longer ago when resourcefulness meant survival. Pineapple skin, old coconut, laksa leaves and pine kombucha all make appearances in drinks on the menu.
On a steamy afternoon this fall, I listened as Mudaliar rattled off his astonishing inventory of low-impact initiatives. Starting, of course, with his micro-heap of trash. The staff records everything that gets tossed. Most of it is stuff customers bring in, like candy wrappers or tissues. The empty liquor bottles are recycled or reused. In the case of products from Rachelle the Rabbit, a new local meadery and distillery known for imaginative spirits, like the honey-based Rojak Gin, Mudaliar returns the bottles directly to the distillery, where they’re sanitized and refilled. Native also employs lotus leaves as coasters, which can be used up to 20 times before they get composted, and there are no straws offered at all. Even the soiled cleaning towels are sanitized, coated with beeswax and repurposed as a plastic cling-wrap substitute for food storage. And the staff never ever uses staples.
And that’s not to mention the building itself, with its LED lightbulbs and solar power. (Mudaliar is even planning to install his own solar panels next year.) The bar’s furniture is made entirely from upcycled wood and the walls, in accordance with a Japanese practice known as shikkui, are coated with a thin layer of porous algae, which diffuses humidity in the room.
The efforts also don’t end when they close up for the night. “We use linens as napkins and every day when we lock up at 3 AM, someone from the team goes home with a sack of dirty linens,” said Mudaliar. “Someone takes them home, washes them, dries them, then goes to sleep. We take turns.”
And then there’s the lab. It occupies an entire level upstairs from the bar and contains a Rotovap and dozens of jars of dried herbs, barks, and teas as well as a variety of concoctions in different stages of fermentation. There is even an ant farm. (“There’s the queen!” a young staffer joyfully pointed out to me.) Its residents will ultimately be used, like everything else in this room, for cocktails. They contain formic acid, Mudaliar explained, which tastes like lemon or lime, flavors he extracts by various methods, like blending the insects by hand or even distilling. It lends a drink acidity with no food waste.
When I visited, Michelle Lai, who oversees Native’s sustainability, sourcing and gardening, was playing around with various kinds of food waste and agar. She’d blended it all into a pulp to create flat sheets that could be used as coasters and other objects. With uneven veins of color and abstract patterns it looked like a miniaturized aerial view of rivers running through Colorado’s snowy landscape.
“It’s more presentable than an earlier prototype,” she confessed. “I changed the recipe and added more glycerin. I’ve tried different kinds of binders to see what’s more malleable and what’s more firm,” she said, noting that at some point she wants to try molding it into cups and firing it.
Singapore’s size—about 10 square miles bigger than Texas— is its virtue and its shortcoming when it comes to sustainability. “Local” produce is limited to what can grow in a tropical environment. There’s also no national recycling program and a serious dependence on plastic bags. The average Singaporean, according to the Straits Times, uses 13 of them each day. But on the plus side, if a grassroots enterprise gains traction, it’ll spread pretty quickly. That’s exceptionally true for Singapore bartenders, who have a sustainable bartending WhatsApp group with about 100 members. Some credit it for the spread of projects like composting and fermenting to new bars.
“The bartending community here is incredibly communicative and supportive,” said Jesse Vida, who works as head bartender at Atlas, the glorious, Art Deco-inspired bar with a colossal tower that holds thousands of bottles of gin. Vida worked at New York’s world-famous Dead Rabbit and its sister bar, BlackTail, for five years before heading east. “New York is a more competitive market,” he says. “In Singapore, it’s way more of the idea of a rising tide raises all ships, so everyone is keen to share. Anything any bar can do that’s easy will be shared.”
And one of the first things that Vida tackled upon arrival was the ice situation: Single-drink ice rocks were delivered individually wrapped. At Atlas, which can see upwards of 3,000 guests in a week, that’s a fearsome amount of plastic, so he worked with the bar’s ice delivery company to transport the goods without wrapping.
Food waste is another vexing matter at a bar this size. The sheer volume of it inspired Vida to make clever use of food scraps and come up with a house-made cordial that he uses in his signature Gimlet. “I was manicuring garnishes one day shortly after I got here and we had hundreds of garnishes. It was a pound or two of extra scraps of citrus by the end of the night,” he recalls. So instead of pickling or fermenting them, he cleverly combined the piles to make a triple-citrus cordial with lemon and orange peels, sugar and lime juice. “It was just obvious to me because the lemon and lime juice drops off in a few days. We had a lot left over, so I poured that into a cordial.”
At MO Bar, a fashionable lounge in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel with exceptional views of the harbor, manager Michele Mariotti takes a community approach to his drinks in an effort to reduce impact anywhere he can. Mariotti previously bartended at renowned London establishments like the American Bar at the Savoy before arriving in Singapore last year to open MO Bar. He was soon overseeing a “Nomadic Foragers” program that took his team to 16 destinations across South East Asia and the Pacific to partner with different producers, bartenders, farmers and local shopkeepers. It’s resulted in a garden behind the hotel, where they grow drink ingredients.
As the harbor lights twinkled, I sipped a Sea Beast, an enchanting opaque mix, involving earthy black ink coriander soju and a sashimi garnish. Mariotti mentioned to me the drinking vessels he’s making out of cloth woven from finely shredded pineapple leaves that come from industrial plantations. They are soaked in melted beeswax to become waterproof and then formed into a cup shape. It’s an ingenious idea that seems to sit at the intersection of progressive thinking and old-world resourcefulness.
Mariotti also told me about the menu they’ll launch in 2020, which will contain drinks made with ingredients his team discovered along their travels then adopted and cultivated as their own. He took me out back to show me the bounty, including a small, flourishing fig tree that they’re growing. It was brought from Malaysia by a colleague, just another way that all the flavors of the world seem to converge and thrive here, without the hassle of shipping or packaging. I’ll drink to that!