Whether he’s competing in major competitions or behind the bar at Re, Evan Stroeve shows how cocktails can start a conversation on climate change – and how a little creativity goes a long way in helping to offset hospitality’s carbon footprint.
If you’ve ordered one of the 10,000+ martinis Evan Stroeve has poured throughout his career, congratulations – you helped him become Australian World Class Bartender of the Year last April.
Years of making whisky sours and old-fashioneds played a role, too. They all added key pages to the encyclopedia of cocktail knowledge in his head.
You understand that this ratio is always going to be one that works,” he says, referring to the cocktail math that fast-tracked him through the contest’s challenges at Sydney’s Golden Age bar, where the Australian final of the global competition took place.
It was a momentous time for Stroeve. “It was my third time competing,” he says.
He’d also just started working at Re, the sustainably minded bar in South Eveleigh that turns coffee grounds, unsold tomatoes, banana peels and other unwanted ingredients into something that actually tastes great in a cocktail glass. Re’s interiors – from the pineapple-leaf banquettes to the tabletop made from 82,000 recycled milk bottles – also reflect this eco-conscious approach.
This was a lucky advantage when it came to one of the competition rounds. “You had to envisage a more positive future, a more sustainable future, which works really well considering I work at Re,” he says.
For Stroeve, some parts of the night have become a worn-out blur, but this round is so clear to him still.
“It was literally the best I’ve presented or worked on a cocktail – I can tell you exactly what was in it,” he says. “We had to develop a bartender-led initiative that connected with the community around us somehow and showcase that in a bottled cocktail. So, I had three initiatives.”
The first one, Our Country, highlighted Indigenous-owned companies — particularly smaller business not so well-known in Sydney. Stroeve included them in a supplier database that other hospitality figures could access, and featured their native botanicals in a pear-based vermouth he’d fermented for over a year.
The second initiative, which he credits to his boss Matt Whiley at Re, is called Never Wasted, and continues on at their bar today. For the final in April, he took spent ingredients he’d collected from various Sydney bars (Cantina OK, Bulletin Place, Maybe Sammy) and distilled them into a citrus ponzu for the aforementioned cocktail. “There wasn’t an ingredient, aside from the Indigenous produce, that wasn’t waste in the drink,” he says.
Then there was the Martini Syndicate, the last initiative he unveiled for the round. This involved forward-planning with 15 or so venues: they agreed to put on a special featuring Ketel One vodka, with a dollar from each sold cocktail going towards a carbon offset scheme by the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation.
“We were able to offset the drinks program and the whole competition through that one bottled cocktail – World Class 2021 was carbon neutral,” he says. “So, I guess that was the mic drop at the end.”
Stroeve recalls the moment when he realised he’d won the competition.
“It was amazing, it was so good,” he says. A crush of people tried to congratulate him at once. “It was chockers, it was a bit overwhelming actually. How many different ways can I say ‘thank you’?”
His cheer squad included his parents, who’d travelled 200 km from their hometown of Bathurst to witness his win. “Man, my dad was crying. It was so sweet. He’s such a bleeding heart,” he says.
In contrast, competing in the World Class international final in July was an isolating affair. “It happened just at the start of the lockdown,” he says. The championship was a virtual event, unfolding over Zoom.
Regardless, Stroeve stuck to what he knew well, focusing on showcasing sustainability and the Indigenous ingredients that make the nation’s landscape so unique.
First, he expanded the Martini Syndicate. “We ended up going global, we had bars in New York and New Zealand and one in every state in Australia. Then, for a round on subterranean ingredients, he showcased murnong (yam daisy), “which has been a staple in Indigenous diets for 50,000 years”, he says. “I just wanted to showcase the things I cared about and the things that make Australia so unique.”
For a challenge on hidden aspects of your hometown, Stroeve teamed up with a local forager and incorporated ingredients that most people walk past every day – eucalyptus, bottlebrush, passionfruit marigold, smoked paperbark – which he turned into a base cordial. To complete this round, the judges in London had to execute his cocktail recipe, so the bartender had to contend with an international shipping system that the pandemic had severely disrupted.
“It’s a nightmare,” he says. “I sent four different packages to four different friends in London, just in case one was held up in customs or something broke.”
Unlike the Australian final (where he learnt about his victory in person at the Golden Age), the international results were unveiled in a more sobering way.
“I was up at four in the morning to jump on a Zoom, where you’ve got 50 different people from across the globe,” Stroeve says.
He thought he’d place higher, “but I ended up coming third”.
Stroeve adds, “it’s still great, I’m still stoked”, but he did – like any human – replay certain moments and wondered how he could’ve scored better.
Ultimately, he’s happy with “the message [he] tried to convey” and how his initiatives evolved. The Martini Syndicate had, through its incremental international expansion, raised $4,000, which he matched with his national prize money. “It’s quite a simple concept, but its potential is huge,” Stroeve says. It can be adapted to different places worldwide, to support local causes and communities.
Never Wasted continues to develop at Re, where the team repurposes leftover ingredients from Brickfields bakery, Margan winery, and other local producers and offers them a second life in cocktail glasses. “Saint Peter give us some of their Murray cod fat which we use in a martini twist,” he says. “It doesn’t taste fishy at all, it just adds a depth to the drink and a minerality and it’s fucking delicious.”
From Gelato Messina alone, Re is supplied with the tops of strawberries, the remaining pulp from juiced pandan, and chocolate caught in tempering machines. “They just vacuum seal that up and we distil it and make a chocolate liqueur out of it.”
The creative afterlife of every landfill-destined ingredient is huge, as are Re’s ambitions.
“The issue is we are an 80-person bar and we can only sell so many cocktails,” says Stroeve. “All the waste items, there’s plenty of; the concept needs more people, because you need to remove those items and we, by ourselves, won’t be able to shift every single item of waste that Messina produces, but at least it starts a bit of a conversation.”
Re’s future plans include a Never Wasted documentary (catch the trailer, where OzHarvest’s Ronni Kahn says, “food waste feeds climate change” and another participant notes that if food waste was a country, it’d be the third-largest emitting country in the world); the bar also wants to document its attempts to be sustainable, and set up a circular economy between venues – for example, perhaps something from Firedoor gets repurposed by Maybe Sammy, or Cantina OK upcycles something Maybe Sammy can’t use up. “It’s got a lot of holes and potential problems, but I think that comes hand in hand with a big vision like that, right?” he says.
“Everything from what we built the bar from to our process within those four walls is zero waste. Now it’s a case of how things come to us outside of those four walls and how to readjust,” he says. “We’re not zero waste, but that is still definitely the end goal.”
So what’s the reception been like from patrons? Well, there are the bankers and corporate clients. “They just want a gin and tonic, a dirty martini, a tap beer, and we can do all that. They’re not here to hear this story,” he says. And that’s fine – Re is a bar that caters to everyone.
“Then you get the other 50 per cent, who actively want to ask about the mushroom lights and the milk-bottle bar top and the menus that are made from recycled coffee cups, they want to drink every cocktail on the menu and know the story behind every ingredient. It’s a blend of everyone and that keeps us interested.”
And you can raise a martini glass to that – Murray cod fat and all.
Catch Evan at Re in South Eveleigh — make a reservation here.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.