Scout’s Whiley urges industry to go green
As his seasonal produce and zero-waste cocktail bar Scout finds its feet in London’s diverse bar scene, Matt Whiley talks to SB about sustainability, urban foraging, and using fermenting and pickling to give perishables a second life.
*This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of The Spirits Business
The sustainability movement is continuing to make its mark in the international food and drink industries, inspiring change in countless venues. Ecological issues have made their way to the fore across the entire hospitality sector, prompting bartenders to ditch straws, introduce closed-loop cocktails, and reconsider their ice programmes.
A growing number of industry luminaries are leading the charge, designing entirely eco-friendly establishments with sustainability at the core – and Matt Whiley, the man behind London’s Peg + Patriot and Talented Mr Fox, is one of them. His latest Hoxton-based project, Scout, “is about having a passion for British produce and what’s growing in the UK, with a nod to reducing our carbon footprint”, he tells me. “As a country, we constantly fly in tomatoes and bananas and pineapples because they’re flavours that we expect and that we want to eat on a daily basis.”
Buying seasonally is discounted by consumers in part because it’s more expensive, but mostly because “we have this excessive need to want everything when we want it”. So, what’s on the menu right now? “We’re finding actually quite a lot of produce around London,” says Whiley. “We’ve got a drink made with a fig leaf from Muswell Hill. We’ve got a drink made with Oregon grape from Hackney Road, and which also contains mint from Shoreditch. We’re curing black olives from Brixton – they’re just growing on the side of the road.”
For Whiley, the bar was not built on a zero-waste philosophy from the get-go – it was about figuring out how to use cocktail by-products that would normally end up in rubbish bags. “The bar industry throws so much in the bin – whatever’s not used in the drinks – and it’s about looking at how we can using those bits, whether for a garnish or to go into food,” Whiley explains. “As we’ve progressed, we’ve questioned everything.” He uses carrots as an example. “The cold pressed juicer spits out all the raw matter it doesn’t want, and we’re dehydrating that and using it as carrot powder.”
Another key focus at Scout is fermenting and pickling fruits “at their highest point, when they’re really delicious”. At the end of summer 2016, Whiley bought 50 punnets of strawberries for 25p each that were destined for the bin – “they didn’t look good enough for restaurants to use, and they were kind-of going past their sell-by date” – and decided to make a strawberry wine, which now graces the menu.
“We ferment them in same way you ferment wine and beer – for some of them we use a fresh yeast, but a lot of the time the ferment creates its own yeast,” he says. In the event of the latter, the team collects and vacuum-packs any excess yeast for future ferments. Mapping out a menu that requires such detailed forward planning has not been without hurdles.
The team began working on the first draft of the menu in November, which was subsequently scrapped after Scout’s opening date was pushed back to the end of April. “It’s definitely been more challenging,” says Whiley. “Designing a menu where you can use any ingredient possible is quite easy, because you’re only limiting yourself with your own creativity.” On the flip side, he says, much of the groundwork for this coming winter has already been done. While the concept extends beyond ingredients, Whiley admits it is still a work in progress. “There’s still so much more we could do at Scout, and we’re always trying to evaluate and see how we can improve. We’re trying to figure an alternative for the waste that we do throw away – is there a solution to plastic rubbish bags?”
Indeed, the more questions the industry asks collectively, the better-equipped emerging bartenders will be to build on it – and the key to this is sharing ideas, he says. “Rather than being guarded, let’s be more open with what we’re doing so the younger generation of bartenders can learn from it and take our industry forwards.”
Scout’s contribution to this is a 10-seat basement laboratory, slated to launch at the end of June. Alongside a menu of rotating drinks that the team is developing in real time for future menus, Whiley will invite guest bartenders from across the globe to bring produce from their native country and craft a selection of cocktails using those flavours. In the future, he plans to create cocktail-centric tasting menus offering six cocktails with six snacks over the course of two hours. “It will be the opposite to a restaurant – where they would pair cocktails with food, we’re going to pair food with cocktails,” he explains.
As expected, the lab houses some seriously sciencey equipment: rota-vaps, centrifuge kits, even a sonic-prep water bath. “Personally, it’s the way I like to work – you can tailor-make drinks, you can make drinks better, you can stand out from the crowd,” says Whiley. Despite this, they’re not the focus of the bar. “We’re getting away from the idea that this is forward-thinking molecular drinking, when in actual fact you’re just redistilling a spirit, and people have been doing that for hundreds of years,” he adds. “If people are interested, we’ll take them down and show them, but we’re not really talking about it to consumers. They’ve got enough to contend with by trying a grape that we’ve foraged from Brixton.”
Accessibility and consumer education are two focal points at Scout. Whiley points to a cocktail containing knotweed, which he describes as “a really herbaceous rhubarb”. There are other flavour successes that have taken the team by surprise too, including a cocktail containing buckthorn juice, which has become one of the bar’s best-selling serves. As for the molecular cocktail scientist stereotype he is so often painted with? “To me we’re bartenders – our job is to make tasty drinks for people, to enjoy a great night and leave happier than they arrived,” says Whiley. “Whether it’s from me doing my drink how I do it, or someone making a classic cocktail, as long as consumers are having a great time it benefits everyone.”