Farming for cocktails: making drinks, growing garnishes

Victoria Burrows

Erik Lorincz, the World Class Bartender of the Year 2010 who led the legendary American Bar in London’s The Savoy hotel to win the World’s Best Bar title in 2017, opened his own establishment in Mayfair, London, an elegant tiki bar called Kwānt, last year. Being at the helm of his own bar meant he could design it exactly as he wanted, so he built sustainability and quality control right into its structure: he brought in a high-tech hydroponic system to grow his own cocktail garnishes right under the bar counter.

Blurring the line between bartender and urban farmer, albeit on a small scale, he grows several varieties of leafy plants, which, before Covid-19 lockdown, provided three-quarters of the garnishes for the bar. He also makes cordials from some of the plants.

He grows the herbs in what looks like a back-bar fridge, but is actually a state-of-the-art LED lighting and hydroponics system called Evogro. The system engages environmental sensors and smart cloud software to monitor and manage the health of the plants. Evogro provides the soil, which is comprised of coconut husks and volcanic soils, and the seeds. There is a camera in the unit, and sensors send automated emails to the bar if things are not running at optimal.

Erik says the biggest appeal of the system is that it puts quality control right at his fingertips.

“We have full control on herb quality – the herbs we grow taste delicious, and are 100 percent organic – and we reduce waste. If we order cut herbs, we have to use them in two or three days. But growing our own means we use as much as we need, and the rest keeps growing,” he says.

Before Kwānt temporarily closed during the pandemic, he was growing six varieties of herbs, including shiso and Mexican marigold, and was experimenting with more. There were plans also to expand the menu of food options available at the bar.

Erik controls the system on an app, giving him the ability to manage settings to best suit the bar.

“It’s a very clever programme. We set it to a cycle of 18 hours of growing, and six hours of sleeping, according to when the bar closes. The UV light of the system is pinkish, but there’s no pink in our decor, so we prefer it on sleep when we’re in full service,” he says.

The small size of the unit means it doesn’t take up too much space behind the bar.

“The big, restaurant-friendly units wouldn’t fit in my bar, but this smaller system is right here, behind me, and during service my team and I can access our herbs in seconds instead of running to the cellar,” says Erik. “It also looks nice for our guests, garnishing with literally freshly picked herbs.”

 

Evogro is more well known in the restaurant business than the bartending world, and the system is appearing in a growing number of kitchens, especially in the UK. Chef Michael Wignall installed his first Evogro system while at the Latymer in 2015, and subsequently installed systems at Gidleigh Park and at The Angel at Hetton. At The Angel he normally has about eight different crops on a cycle system in his Evogro cabinets at one time.

Hotels, such as Claridge’s and The Ritz London, are also using the hydroponic set-up. Martyn Nail, executive chef at Claridge’s, grows mainly micro leaves to use as garnishes, but also larger plants, generally lemon verbena and peppermint, which he uses to make fresh tea.

Simon Rogan uses Evogro in his UK restaurants, and was the first chef to introduce the system to Hong Kong when he opened a branch of Roganic there. He uses a substantial Evogro system mainly for food service, but the freshly grown herbs also end up in drinks and cocktails.