The Conscious Cocktail Movement

How bars, barmen and liquor companies are stepping up their social awareness.

A collection of beverages represented by Greenbar Collective.

Aug 23, 2013· 4 MIN READ
A Canadian ex-pat with a passion for pop culture, Carly is a multi-published author, public speaker and screenwriter.

You’ve switched to organic snack foods, greened your closet, and pledged to use toxin-free cosmetics. What’s next in the quest for conscious consumerism? Alcohol, of course.

In fact, the movement is already afoot. “A lot of bars use sustainable ingredients, source alcohol from local purveyors and use products from socially aware businesses,” says Marcos Tello, a consultant who’s created cocktails for numerous spirit brands and outlets around the globe through his consultancy firm, Tello Demarest Liquid Assets.

Tello is at the forefront of cocktail culture, having worked with numerous companies aiming for change in the bar world. “Some of the best products come from California,” he notes, “like the Greenbar Distillery, which produces a number of fine products including rums, vodka, gin and bitters that are 100 percent organic and locally sourced.” He also recommends Marian Farms, based in Fresno, which makes a biodynamic curacao; and Veev, which is 100 percent sustainable and produces a spirit made from Acai. “They also benefit the planet on a global scale by donating a percentage of profits to the rainforest,” adds Tello. “All three of these companies have great-quality products, so why not be globally responsible while getting a little socially irresponsible?”

Global responsibility is part of the behind-the-scenes mandate of Southern California-based Greenbar Distillery, L.A.’s first distillery since prohibition—and the only one focused on creating a vast portfolio of organic spirits, which are available for purchase across the country. The company’s flagship is Tru organic vodka, which comes in flavors like straight, garden, lemon and vanilla. From there, they’ve branched out to include an organic gin, made from American wheat and hand-processed ingredients; Ixa organic tequila, featuring fully matured agave plants; a true white whiskey called Slow Hand; silver and spiced varietals of their Crusoe organic rum; as well as liqueurs, aperitifs and bitters.

And while Greenbar’s mandate is to provide great-tasting spirits, their commitment to sustainability is powerful. The company uses only certified organic ingredients and maintains a solid and direct relationship with many local farmers. Their lightweight bottles are made of recycled materials, as are their bottle labels. And for each bottle sold, Greenbar plants a tree in the rainforests of Central America. So far, the company has planted over 260,000 trees.

“People are definitely engaged in finding out where their food comes from,” says Greenbar cofounder Litty Matthew. “But we can only keep their interest if what we make tastes great. So for us, organic also delivers in terms of flavor.”

It’s a mandate Los Angeles restaurateur Julie Retzlaff adheres to at her restaurant, Muddy Leek. While the kitchen focuses on creating plateable treats that rely on locally sourced—and where applicable, house-made—ingredients, the initiative has also found its way behind the bar.

“We were so conscious about the food we were eating that we wanted that to translate to the bar,” Retzlaff offers. “It started with having fresh-pressed juices and making our own syrups from scratch. Then we met with a mixologist who was helpful in teaching how we could make our own sodas and how to avoid using anything that came from a bottle with preservatives. And you can really tell the difference—particularly in the flavors.”

Retzlaff—who, along with her husband and Muddy Leek head chef, Whitney Flood, marched against GMO practices—also partners with local farmers to ensure everything that goes behind the bar is as clean as possible, while offering support to local purveyors. But she’s also looking at sourcing alcohols from different, and unique, sources to support the restaurant’s bottom line.

“Corn is one of the most modified things on the planet,” Retzlaff says, “and we wanted to have a good bourbon behind the bar. So there’s a new purveyor that makes a bourbon out of quinoa. And with our wine list, we definitely source locally, but we also work with purveyors from France who make natural, biodynamic and sustainable wines.”

But you don’t have to hit the bar to have a socially conscious cocktail—you can always make your own at home. Just be warned, says Tello, that not all organic booze is created equal.

“Not all companies that produce organic products make quality products—organic does not necessarily mean better, so when tasting, it’s important to hold them to the same criteria as their non-organic counterparts in terms of workability and flavor,” he says.

Retzlaff maintains similarly high standards. Going forward, she plans to work with more small-batch distilleries such as Miracle Mile Bitters, while sourcing other options for whiskey (Corsair, a quinoa triple smoked) and tequila (an organic and sustainably harvested varietal made from mescal). Meanwhile, Matthew and Greenbar aim to continue conservatively using energy and resources to create their line, while inciting change to support small businesses and local farms.

And while it may seem that this is a trend that will reach a peak and fizzle out, Tello assures that’s not the case. In fact, conscious cocktailing has been a part of the bar community for years—it’s just now reaching the forefront of social awareness.

“We already use a lot of organic/sustainable products and we don’t even know it,” Tello says. “In this country we measure ‘organic’ by a USDA seal, but this is already widely practiced by many companies in France, Italy and Brazil. They just don’t have a USDA seal because their prices would go up, which is why it’s important to know about all the production practices of everything you drink or carry in a bar. Who knows—a bar that you frequent or work at could already carry many products that meet this criteria.”

As knowledgeable and insightful as Tello is on the subject of ingredients and recipes, it’s in discussing the less concrete aspects of mixology that he waxes truly poetic. “There’s an intangible when it comes to cocktails that no one talks about,” he shares. “And that’s the secret ingredient: love. Love can be put into cocktails when you believe in what you are doing. Therefore, when making cocktails, if you feel great about the spirits in the cocktails you’re creating, it’s easier to pass that love into the cocktail.” Cheers to that.

In the meantime, here’s Tello’s favorite organic cocktail, which you can re-create at home (don’t forget the love):

Celery Root Collins (created by Garrett Mckechnie)

1 1/2 oz. Ixa Organic Tequila

1/2 oz. Imbue Organic Vermouth

1/2 oz. Organic Agave Nectar

1/2 oz. Organic Lime Juice

1 oz. Organic Celery Root Juice

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into an ice-filled collins glass. Top with Q Tonic. Garnish with a celery stalk.