From hand-picked kiwi plants to wasabi grown wild in wetlands, the team at Scout London harness the biodiversity of the British Isles with every cocktail menu. We caught up with head bartender (and co-owner) Rich Woods to talk foraged ingredients, conscientious spirits, and the reality of running a minimal-waste bar…

Since it was established in Shoreditch by Matt Whiley – the man behind London bars Peg + Patriot, Purl, and Worship St Whistling Shop – back in 2017, Scout has churned out hyper-delicious drinks that champion British produce and keep the bin men at bay. 

The venue moved to its Hackney home one year after opening, and in 2019, gained a co-owner in Rich Woods – the former cocktail wizard at Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle, and also Whiley’s long-time business partner (the duo run drinks consultancy company, Weapons & Toys).

With bottled cocktails and spirits in early development, and talks of a six-month pop up in central London on the horizon, 2020 has been no less busy for the team. Here, Woods brought us up to speed…

Best you can’t guess what Rich Woods does for a living

Master of Malt: London bars – with Scout at the helm – have been talking about sustainability for a few years now. How much progress has been made in terms of eco-friendliness?

Rich Woods: It’s definitely changed for the positive. There’s a few bars over the last five years who have championed a more conscientious approach to a bar’s operations, and through those key bars, a lot of mainstream bars are starting to open their eyes and realise how easy and simple it can be, whether it’s through splitting waste, reusing ingredients, being more sustainable in terms of approaching a drinks menu, taking things digital rather than wasting paper. But there’s a lot that can still be done. Take something as simple as a glass bottle; it’s one of the biggest waste elements in our industry. We go through hundreds of thousands of tonnes of glass waste every year. It’s one of the things I’m looking at now in Scout; trying to work with suppliers where we can either return our glass or receive stock in pouches rather than in glass bottles. I’m surprised at the amount of bars that aren’t looking at the bigger picture. They’re looking at how they can make cordials out of discarded lime zest, which is fantastic, but then going through tens of thousands of black beverage napkins every week, or still using plastic straws or glass bottles, or not separating their waste. It’s insane.

MoM: Your most recent menu, Ecösystems Vol.2, is split into three sections: Grasslands and Forests, Freshwater and Marine, and Towns and Cities. Could you talk about what you learned from developing it?

RW: One of the biggest ones for sure would be the amount of waste that we humans make. Towns and Cities champions a lot of upcycled ingredients, and the amount of businesses – even juice bars – that throw away, say, going-off fruit and veg… But working with other businesses and collecting some of their unwanted or unloved ingredients has been a delight, and we found some absolute gems of produce. For me, it was the most eye-opening section, and one that was very close to my heart, showing people how you could obtain additional flavour from ingredients or produce that we, as consumers, have been told are beyond their best and discard without consideration. Sourcing ingredients for Freshwater and Marine has been interesting, being not particularly close to the sea. But we were able to find British wasabi in Walthamstow wetlands, which is insane. I’m always surprised by the amount of ingredients we grow without realising. We’ve got a drink on the menu at the minute that uses British kiwi. Now, they don’t grow to the size of kiwis that we see in supermarkets –  they’re no bigger than the size of a grape. And the flavour certainly isn’t there in the fruit. But what most people don’t realise is that as a plant or a fruit tree grows, the flavour goes from the roots into the leaves and then finally into the fruit. When we don’t grow the fruit over here, the flavour is retained in the leaf, so we use kiwi leaves to get the kiwi flavour that we want. We’ve found lemon leaves, lime leaves, mandarin, clementine… And these aren’t fruits that we traditionally would use, because they’re not grown in the British Isles, but we’re able to obtain those flavours using the leaves. 

It’s a Back to School GNT

MoM: Which drink receives the most compliments from guests?

RW: Far and away, it has to be the Back to School GNT. If people see it go out on a tray to another table, they always ask what it is. It’s crystal clear, it’s weird and wacky, it has a tomato stem as a garnish, championing the zero-waste element. Visually it’s stunning, and it looks super fresh. It’s called Back to School because it has aromas and flavours that I associate with my childhood, when I used to go back to school after the summer break – the smell of the playing fields and fresh cut grass, my mum’s greenhouses in the garden and the smell of the tomato vines. We’ve taken discarded tomato vines and leaves and we distil them – so we distill the aroma of fresh tomatoes grown in a greenhouse, and then the aroma of fresh cut grass is rectified and distilled, and then these two elements are blended with Bombay Sapphire and then very simply lengthened with tonic. So it’s a G&T, but with a big difference.

MoM: There are some incredible-sounding ingredients on the menu, like pineapple weed and cotton lavender. What are they, and how do you make them drinkable?

RW: We infuse the leaves – lime leaf, mandarin, as I mentioned just now, clementine, which is just coming into season – we infuse them in spirit and then we distil. We rectify a neutral spirit and either make it into a vodka or, in some cases, we go a step further and we distill into a gin. Cotton lavender is a subspecies of the lavender family, more like a cousin, and it’s one of my all time favourite ingredients. The cotton name comes from the fact that it’s a very pale white-coloured leaf. It gives the most amazing flavour, nothing at all like your mum’s drawer in a bedroom – not that typical lavender flavour – it’s so subtle, absolutely delicious, and we infuse that into a vermouth. Pineapple weed is actually wild chamomile; it’s from the chamomile family but it has a very distinctive pineapple note to it, which enables us to use a flavour that wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with a bar that only champions British ingredients. We’re able to get a tropical pineapple flavour into a drink. Likewise with fig leaf, it has a distinctive coconut flavour. 

MoM: Scout has had a zero-waste philosophy since the very beginning. What does that mean in practice?

RW: As a business, Scout produces no more than household waste every week. As a commercial business to achieve residential waste is fantastic – we’re literally talking a bin bag, that’s it. Our coasters, for example, are made out of collected plastic carrier bags, which are melted down and then moulded into shape. They end up getting stolen a lot, people are like, ‘These are amazing!’. So I’m not quite sure that’s as eco-friendly as I’d have liked, because I end up going through so many [laughs]. One of the things that sets Scout apart from so many other bars – and I know we’re certainly not alone with this – is our hospitality. It’s super important to me that the guys in the team interact with guests and talk them through the process. For every person who comes into Scout who knows what they’re coming in for, there are five guests who have just come into a bar thinking they can have a Daiquiri or a Margarita or a G&T with a squeeze of lime, but we don’t use these citrus fruits, so we find ways of incorporating elements of sourness and saltiness into a drink where you would ordinarily use a lime or a lemon. We’re very open with the ingredients that we make, sometimes even as far as showing people some of the equipment we use, because we want people to understand that at least some of these ingredients can quite easily be made at home. A lot of people find it really insightful when we sit and talk to them about what we do and how we make things. 

Rich Woods in action

MoM: Spirits producers are also starting to focus on sustainable practices – are there any distillers that you feel are going above and beyond?

RW: We touched on Bombay Sapphire earlier, they’ve been championing sustainability for some time now with their biomass boiler at Laverstoke. Some producers are working towards reducing their glassware, or using a different form of packaging to reduce the weight of their shipments. There are brands that are producing bottles that bartenders can reuse as syrup bottles or juice boxes, by putting measurements as a scale on the outside of the glass. There are brands that are championing discarded waste by using otherwise discarded elements like banana skins and making their own spirits from them. What’s ironic is that for a lot of these brands – Bombay Sapphire being one of them – it’s something they’ve been doing for a long time, but it’s not something they’ve been shouting about until recently. And it’s credit to them, because it’s not PR for the sake of PR. It’s done in a conscientious way because brands want to be conscientious. It’s just human nature. It’s only when you’re fortunate enough to go and visit the distillery that you see this beautiful piece of land with the river Tess running through it, the biomass boilers and the beautiful greenhouses. And you realise it’s not only from an industry perspective that they’re doing great things, but from a consumer perspective, they’re doing wonders for the environment. I just wish there were more people doing it.

MoM: Cheers Rich! To round things off, what do you wish you knew when you started bartending that you know now?

Woods: One of the things I wished that I had when I was bartending was a mentor. You have all these online seminars and drinks shows now, it’s fantastic. There wasn’t anything like that when I was starting out. There were a few bars with great training programmes, but they were very much about ‘me, me, me’ and the arrogance of the bartender. Now, bartenders have taken a bit of a step back and it’s about teaching hospitality. For me, I want to pass on knowledge to other people to keep our industry moving forward. We did a seminar in Bar Convent Berlin two years ago where we released our online database, The Lab. It has all of our recipes, all of our preps, everything, and we gave everyone 48 hours complete no-holds-barred access, just to share what we do and give people ideas or inspiration. Until lockdown, we had quite a strong staging programme. We’d have one or two stages at a time working at the lab to understand the processes. And foraging walks, showing people where we go and what we do and what to look out for; the do’s and don’ts. It’s so important.