Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
Photography by imagecomms
“Sustainability should be important to everyone everywhere,” states Odd Strandbakken, bar manager of Oslo’s HIMKOK, officially the world’s most sustainable bar. “Sustainability means that we have a future and if we’re not sustainable then we don't.”
HIMKOK placed 19th on the career-defining World’s 50 Best Bars list – and has featured every single year since it opened in 2016. Using almost exclusively local ingredients, from seaweed gathered by divers to Scandinavian fruit such as sea buckthorn berries, it’s the only Norwegian entry on the list and the highest placed bar in Scandinavia.
Yet, for Strandbakken, it was winning the inaugural Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award at the World's 50 Best Bars ceremony in 2018 that meant the most. “It's opened up a lot of doors for us to give talks and now travel and talk about our future and our view on sustainability,” he says. “It gives more meaning as a bartender to be able to spread some kind of hope for the future.” The award honours the bar with the highest sustainability rating in the World’s 50 Best Bars list, as audited by the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
While greenwashing is regrettably common in the hospitality industry, sponsoring the Sustainability Award was far from tokenistic. Ketel One takes the environment seriously, from the windmill that helps power the distillery to the sustainable bar the brand developed for World Class.
All entrants had to fill out a lengthy form. Then, Strandbakken reports, inspectors came in to confirm they were telling the truth. “We had plenty of assessment with an increasing interest in specifics,” Strandbakken laughs. “I don’t think they’re allowed to notify us if they are with the association. However, I can’t imagine normal people asking these questions.”
For Strandbakken, who grew up in a family that hunted, fished and foraged, and was past 20 when he first ate store-bought meat or fish, sustainability goes beyond the purely environmental aspect. Besides being financially sustainable, he believes bars should be socially sustainable, offering pensions, paid holiday, and a working day no longer than eight hours. But it is, of course, environmental sustainability that defines HIMKOK.
The team have thought, and continue to think, deeply about what a sustainable bar might look like. Local sourcing is a key principle, even within the challenging environment of Norway, where the growing season is just one month. That includes using rhubarb as a souring agent to replace imported citrus, fermenting their own fruit wines from (frozen) strawberries or rhubarb, and making their own mead from local honey.
Minimising waste and cutting energy use are also essential. HIMKOK boasts its own distillery, powered by renewable hydro-energy, which delivers against a myriad of sustainable goals, from waste to food miles. “For 80% of the spirits we sell – and we sell around 200,000 cocktails a year – you wouldn’t have to open the door,” Strandbakken says. “So that’s a substantial amount of gin, vodka and aquavit that would have to be transported from all around the world on a weekly basis just to cover our needs.”
Creatively, distilling in-bar is fantastic, yielding fun, small-batch specialty gins and aquavits. In environmental terms, it’s even better. “We reuse all the bottles for our own spirits. There are no bottles that are thrown away,” Strandbakken says proudly. “They are all reused until they break.” (It is greatly to Ketel One’s credit that they awarded a bar so sustainable that it won’t stock their own vodka to save on food miles.)
Going hand in hand with commitment to reducing food miles is a thoughtful approach to by-products, what some might consider waste. “Using aquafaba, which is chickpea water, instead of egg whites is a great idea because it has a great impact on the planet,” Strandbakken says. “It’s a lot cheaper when it comes to CO2 and then it's more sustainable because it lasts forever. It doesn't really have any expiration date compared to egg whites, which go off quite rapidly and leave you with a by-product, which is egg yolk.”
The by-products of chickpea water are, of course, chickpeas. Strandbakken recommends working with Turkish or Indian restaurants, either to give them your chickpeas or to take their chickpea water, so nothing is wasted.
Norway, where 97% of plastic bottles are recycled, is among the ten best performing countries on the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index. And Oslo is 2019’s European Green Capital, with green businesses, green government and even sustainable Michelin 3-star restaurant Maaemo all flying the flag for the environment.
Strandbakken, a well-travelled chap who remains thoroughly Norwegian, is passionate about getting other bar professionals to consider their impact on the planet. With the Ketel One award under their belt, HIMKOK representatives have been spreading the green gospel around the globe, from Milan to New York.
Strandbakken is off to Argentina to support Floreria’s Festival Atlantico de Coctelería, Sustentabilidad e Innovacíon (Atlantic Festival of Cocktail Bars, Sustainability and Innovation) at the end of the month; his colleagues Maros Dzurus and Carl Wiman will speak at Perfect Serve in Amsterdam in May. Singapore and the Lisbon Bar Show are also on the cards.
And the team do not want to rest on their laurels when it comes to sustainability, either. Looking to the future, they hope to work with lime oil, assuming they can find an environmentally friendly and palate-kind way to extract it. “We’re trying to perfect how to extract the citrus oils to have spray bottles full of this instead of wasting the peels,” Strandbakken says. “Of course, we peel them first and then we juice them, so we use virtually everything we can, but we would love to find a way that we could do that to still have a fresh nice vibrant aroma.”
Naturally, Strandbakken has recommendations for bar managers and owners hoping to make their venues more sustainable. “Look into your by-products and see if you can do anything with them,” he suggests. “If you have leftover pulp maybe you can make crackers or candies or any fancy dehydrated garnishes.”
Strandbakken also encourages bartenders to seek out the best of their local produce. “I would love to promote foraging and how there’s plenty of things out there in nature that we can go out into the forest and get,” he says. “If you look into it, there’s anything from roots, leaves and nuts to barks, woods and saps, so don’t be afraid to go local.”
And, of course, Strandbakken notes, individuals should monitor sustainability in their own lives as well. “We have to eat less meat. We have to make sure that the products we consume aren’t being transported just for our pleasure,” he says. “This has to happen for a conscious future for us all.”