Sipping on a banana peel: the Sydney bar making waste minimisation sexy

You don’t expect to see 82,000 milk bottles in a cocktail bar. You won’t see them at Re in Sydney’s South Eveleigh either, but they’re there. They’ve been transformed by Melbourne’s Replas into a sleek terrazzo-style bar and tabletops.

“Everything you touch as a guest is recycled: the seat, the top, the glass, your plate,” Matt Whiley says of his new venue. He wants Re to be a zero-waste bar, and his eco-friendly brief goes beyond what’s in your martini or spritz.

The bar’s sleek counter, staircase and other plastic fixtures once transported milk. The Philippe Starck stools are moulded from “stuff swept off the floor from warehouses,” says the award-winning bartender, who moved to Sydney in November 2018 to launch a pop-up version of his London bar, Scout. The plates are shaped from excess clay from tableware brand Mud Australia, while the glasses are “imperfect” rejects from candle and glass makers Maison Balzac. They usually get trashed, but now they serve margaritas flavoured with rescued rockmelons.

Early hype around the venue billed it as the world’s first permanent no-waste cocktail bar. After opening in mid-April, Re now describes itself as a “Regenerative bar and kitchen”.

Re's BP & B cocktail, made with banana skins and distilled peanut butter
The BP & B: Re’s cocktail is made with banana skins and distilled peanut butter. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“I think it’s very easy to go ‘that bar’s zero waste’. We’re not zero waste, we’re not going to be zero waste for a while,” Whiley says of the change. Getting there will be a long-term goal, and will involve a website that documents Re’s waste-eliminating efforts, failures and lessons as well as his Never Wasted initiative, which helps other bars develop sustainable cocktails.

Zero it may not be, but Re already does an impressive job turning landfill-destined produce into highly drinkable fare.

Rescued banana peel mightn’t sound appealing, but Whiley rests the skins in rum and distills peanut butter to create a caramelly-rich tribute to the Old Fashioned, topped with a plantain crisp. It’s the same with the Wimbledon Gimlet. Pickled strawberries plus cordial made from leftover ricotta whey Whiley has fermented since last March? No thanks, you might say. But combine it with vodka and bartending magic and it tastes like strawberries and cream.

Matt Whiley at Re bar
Matt Whiley at Re, now billed as a ‘regenerative bar and kitchen’. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Whiley is supplied with a wildcard assortment of surplus ingredients from Sydney Direct Fresh Produce. Trays of unsold nectarines are easily juiced for cocktails. But a request for “some herbs” resulted in six boxes arriving at the bar. Most will end up in compost. Whiley admits he has to get better at communicating what he wants.

He’s helped by a team with great CVs: Ho Song (Cantina OK, PS40), Jake Downe (who worked with Whiley at Scout) and Evan Stroeve, who was bar manager at Bulletin Place when it won the best sustainable bar program in the 2019 Australian Bar Awards.

When Re was recently delivered a tray of avocados, Whiley instantly admitted defeat. “They were just a bit too soft and they’re so time-sensitive,” he says. “Ho had an immediate solution: to take them to his mum’s [sushi] restaurant.” They became salmon-avocado rolls and were used up before lunch.

The Autumn Americano cocktail
The Autumn Americano cocktail includes red vermouth, spent coffee grounds and a fizzy drink made from diverted food waste. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“In our first order, we got loads of cherry tomatoes and beetroot. And Evan made a beetroot and cherry tomato soda,” Whiley says. “I’m not sure about this, mate,” he told Stroeve. “But it was so good.”

The soda adds a dark pink fizz to the Autumn Americano, where it’s combined with a local café’s spent coffee grounds, red vermouth and a Campari-like aperitif called St Felix. This might sound like bad cocktail maths (how could these ingredients taste good together?) but the result is like an adult, boozy creaming soda – highly delicious.

Whiley doesn’t always succeed. “I’ve tried about 10 times to ferment rockmelon and it never works. It just goes slimy and horrible,” he says. Instead, he serves it as a bar snack, rubbed with wasabi oil and salt. He also creates a refreshing syrup for Re’s bestselling melon margarita.

The interior of Re
At Re everything a visitor touches is recycled, from the tabletops to the plates, Whiley says. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Not that you can always tell. The lights once were mushrooms and the banquette coverings were formerly pineapple leaves. But they resemble the designer furniture you’d see in any cool bar. Whiley wanted to combat people’s low expectations of a green venue. “Are you going to sit in a shed and eat stuff that’s going off?” he imagines people asking.

That’s why there are no hippie-ish platitudes on the menu. You could easily leave Re and have no idea about the bar’s waste-minimising mission. You mightn’t realise your drinks were flavoured with leftover strawberry pulp from a charity cocktail event which Whiley saved in his tiny home freezer for nine months (his wife was relieved when he turned it into strawberry wine and she could finally put ice in her freezer again). “I’m not here to tell people how to enjoy their night,” he says.

Working at Re involves distilling, dehydrating, fermenting, centrifuging or breaking down ingredients so they last longer – and become drinkable. Sometimes the results are hidden away: the bar’s outdoor furniture conceals fermenting sauerkraut, barley wine and other goods made from salvaged produce (such as 50 litres of strawberry wine).

“We don’t see it as hard work, we see it as a reward for our efforts,” he says. “We don’t ever look at produce as waste, we don’t ever discuss waste, we talk about rejuvenating it – giving that thing that no one else wants purpose.”


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