Drink Green: These Are the Most Sustainable Bars in Southeast Asia

These bars reduce, reuse and recycle, plus replant the rainforest on the path to delicious drinks. Here are a few lessons in eco-mixology, complete with climate-conscious cocktail recipes. By Mark Lean

Mar 2, 2021

WHEN WE WERE ALL STILL SCRATCHING OUR HEADS at the concept of locavore fine-dining, Vijay Mudaliar was pioneering the elimination of drink miles. Since 2017, Mudaliar’s foraging approach to cocktail crafting has seen him and his team at Singapore’s Native, No. 18 on 2020’s World’s Best Bars list, plucking local plants and raiding traditional kitchen cabinets for herbs, spices and condiments. Often the results near the laboratory level. In their base on Amoy Street (often thought of as Singapore nightlife’s original beating heart), dry fragrant pandan, cultivate deliciously moldy koji fungus, and ferment acetic acid, lactic acid, formic acid, and citric acid to generate the citrus flavor in a more environmentally responsible way.

Another way to think about sustainability is through the lens of preserving traditions — in the case of bars, of traditional alcohols like Ceylonese arrack and Indian Amrut whiskey — and of supporting small-batch producers, such as Chalong Bay rum from Thailand. Without bartenders like Mudaliar, such lesser-known pours might not have reached renowned international menus, nor would other innovative mixology ideas focused on regeneration. Hence, this look at some of the most conscientious cocktail bars in our region alchemizing a greener scene.

Bar Trigona, Kuala Lumpur

Over in KL, at the Four Seasons Hotel’s Bar Trigona (44th place on the World’s Best Bars list last year), they’re putting their eco-aware money where their mindset is. “In the past decade, over 40 percent of Borneo’s rainforests has been felled,” says bar manager Ashish Sharma, “so we’re adding to a sustainable environment that includes bee colonies.” 

With the sale of each cocktail, RM5 goes towards planting in the rainforest trees bearing fruits that prop up a significant portion of Bar Trigona’s menu — namely, lime, lemon, mangoes and pomelos. Guests who chuck RM200 in towards the eco-cause get a share of a fruit harvest as well as a jar of homemade mead, jam or kombucha. In the past year, the bar’s clientele has adopted 90 beehives, which each cost RM500 to maintain annually. In return, sponsors receive five jars of honey.

Since the program began last December, 120 trees have been planted, and the hive ecosystem has grown to around 900,000 bees. “On an average month, if there are no movement control orders, we can contribute from RM1,600 to RM1,800 towards the program,” Sharma says. “In the next four to five years, a beautiful forest will be created with the ultimate goal being to plant a thousand trees a year. The hotel collaborates directly with the farmers, and has a hands-on approach.” 

One of the bar’s cocktails, Mango Overloaded, includes a homemade preparation of lacto mango honey — a sweet soup of honey, water and mango chunks. The drink called Judgement serves up a seemingly incongruous blend of aged rum, jackfruit and milk. An acquired taste? Probably. But for the more adventurous imbibers among us, the combination is a satisfying nightcap with a tart finish.

Penicillin, Hong Kong

Also planting seeds to our future are Agung Prabowo and Roman Ghale, the duo responsible for Hong Kong’s The Old Man (which was the best bar in Asia in 2019), who have taken over the popular after-hours venue Buddha Lounge on Hollywood Road, where the party used to begin only after 5 a.m. With a new name and a new approach, and without the early morning hangover, Penicillin is now more about thinking through the impact of delicate craft cocktails than, say, semi-consciously throwing shapes in front of the DJ console.

Prabowo planned Penicillin as a green bar pioneer in the Hong Kong scene — both in how it constructs its drinks, and how it was constructed. In the tiny space perched on an incline, and wedged between a pedestrian granite walkway, there is a laboratory and a fermentation room with humidity control. “This supports us in ingredient production. We work with rice, miso and soya sauce,” he gives as examples.

As for the “super minimalist” interior, Prabowo says, “we worked with design firm Collective Studio. All the tables and chairs are made in Hong Kong from fallen trees during Typhoon Mongkut. The neon lights on the wall are recycled from shops that have closed down.”

With the purchase of a One Penicillin, One Tree (HK$110) cocktail, a mallotus muticus tree will be planted in Borneo’s Kalimantan rainforest. Each tree has potential to grow to 42 meters and has a two-century-long longevity. In sustainability terms, each tree will reduce 4,400 kilograms of CO2, comparable to 8,000 single-use glass spirit bottles.

As a “scrap-less bar,” Penicillin puts its eco-chops to work. It functions as a closed-loop, in that no ingredient is wasted. They ferment vegetable and fruit potions, the contents of which are locally sourced, like the guava, carrot and green tea blend, a healthful drink populated by live bacteria and muscled up with key minerals and vitamins.

Wasteland, Bangkok

Another spot sourcing scrumptiousness from the scrap-heap is Wasteland, billed as Bangkok’s first sustainable bar. Located within Michelin-starred bo.lan, Kitibordee Chortubtim and Dharath Hoonchamlong’s new drinks den takes a near-to-zero waste approach, and repurposes toss-away ingredients from the celebrated restaurant’s kitchen. “We work with parts that chefs find no further usage for in dishes,” Hoonchamlong says. “For example, picking herbs, we then work with stems, parts of simmered liquid, parts of peel and skin that have been cooked and partially removed and won’t be served but are still edible.”

The cacao cola is a bubbly combination of soda pop and cacao husks. For cocktails, try the Mini Heart — and herby assortment of rice wine, Thai oregano, pear and soda — or the Flower Market 1.5: gin, pink guava, plum, bitter orange and milk soda. “We learn something new about cooking,” Hoonchamlong says, “and the chefs also learn something new about making drinks.”

For nibbles, Wasteland’s offerings are straight out of a Thai grandmother’s snack stash. Choose from their organic garden (literally, there’s one right outside) of pickled delights from mustard greens to turnip to garlic — not quite your standard of salted peanuts or cashews, but just the right side of piquant when paired with the equally unexpected drinks.

Other eco-aware bars to check out

The cozy Ends and Means in Melbourne’s Fitzroy focuses on sustainability from its up-cycled furniture to its takeaway cocktails in cans. And at The Sukhothai Shanghai’s Zuk Bar, the bar team ferments, distills and ages drinks with considerable skill and flair.

Recipes

Test out your green-thumb by making these two climate-positive cocktails at home

Sloe Motion
By Wasteland

20ml Sloe Gin
30ml Sloe Motion Tepache
Top with tonic as preferred
Serve in a highball glass with ice cubes

How to make Sloe Motion Tepache

Ingredients:
200g pineapple skin
Ripe mango peel of two mangoes
One cinnamon stick
3g clove
500g sugar
3 liters water

Tools:
1. Glass jar
2. Cheese cloth
3. Airtight bottle

Directions:
1. Clean pineapple skin with water
2. Mix pineapple skin with sugar, spice, and water in a glass jar, and cover with cheesecloth.
3. Let sit for three days, and strain.
4. Pour the liquid into an airtight bottle and let sit for another three days, or til it meets your preference.

*The cheese cloth can be cleaned, dried and re-used.
**The remains of pineapple skin, mango skin, cinnamon stick and clove can be composted.

Mango Overloaded
By Bar Trigona

Ingredients:
30ml white rum
15ml dark rum
10ml cognac
Yellow chartreuse
5ml fresh lemon juice
15ml lacto-mango honey
15ml fresh mango puree
30ml angostura bitters (four dashes)

To create lacto-mango honey:
Mix 1L of honey and 300ml of water with 400g of mango chunks with skin. Add 20g of salt, and place in a vacuum pack. Leave for five to seven days at room temperature. Strain and bottle.

Directions:
Mix all the ingredients in a Boston shaker, and shake with ice. Strain and serve in rock glass with crushed ice, and garnish with a fresh slice of mango.

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