We speak to Penicillin co-founder and Gen.T honouree Agung Prabowo on his dedication to creating locally-sourced and upcycled food and drinks

Just seven months after opening to the public, Penicillin has already won its first accolade in the form of the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award by Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021. The title, which was announced in anticipation of the 50 Best Bars reveal on May 6, is awarded based on an independent audit carried out by Food Made Good Global, 50 Best’s sustainability partner of the past eight years.

That Penicillin won the award is a well-deserved, if expected, outcome, given the paucity of wholly sustainable bars in the region currently. The bar comes from pedigree: opened in October 2020, it is the brainchild of Agung Prabowo and Roman Ghale—the co-founders of The Old Man, which was ranked the best bar in the region on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2019—alongside their partners, Laura Prabowo and Katy Ghale. Betty Ng, co-founder of award-winning architectural design firm Collective and fellow Gen.T honouree, was also involved in the project, designing the interior of the eco-friendly space.

Penicillin champions a closed-loop process of production, wherein ingredients are locally sourced or foraged, spirits are bought in bulk via Ecospirits to reduce packaging, and what is traditionally treated as waste in the drinks-making is reintroduced into the cycle to be reused and upcycled into garnishes or bar food. The bar also strives for regional impact—as part of its ‘One Penicillin, One Tree’ initiative, the bar plants a native tree in the endangered Kalimantan rainforest area in Borneo, Indonesia for every order of a Penicillin cocktail.

“We are pleased to congratulate Penicillin on winning this year’s Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award,” says Mark Sansom, content editor for Asia’s 50 Best Bars. “The team thoroughly deserve this recognition for their comprehensive and varied sustainability efforts—from supporting the local economy, instigating Hong Kong’s first closed-loop bar programme and getting involved in reforestation projects via their ‘One Penicillin, One Tree’ initiative. Even in its nascent stage, it is setting a sustainable example for the world to follow.”

Penicillin joins a roster of past winners that includes Bar Trigona in Kuala Lumpur (2019 and 2020), and Potato Head Beach Club in Bali (2018).

Ahead of the announcement of the award, we spoke to Prabowo on his reaction to winning the title so soon after their launch, the challenges that the bar industry faces on its road to sustainability, and the work that still has yet to be done in greening the craft of cocktail-making.

What does it mean to you to win this award during such a critical juncture in the conversation around climate change and sustainability?
We feel extremely happy and honoured to receive this award—Penicillin is still very young and winning this means a lot to us. We see this award as a responsibility to be a pioneer in the industry – to influence other bars to join hands with us to protect our planet. We feel encouraged to be recognised for our efforts, and it makes us want to work even harder to ensure sustainability is at the heart of every aspect of our daily operations. We hope to inspire everyone who visits Penicillin to rethink sustainability, and hopefully encourage them to do their part to save our planet—in any way they can.

What are your main sources of inspiration?
We want to leave behind a better planet for our kids and for the next generation. Being in the industry for 20 years, we’ve wasted a lot of things, and the F&B industry in particular is a huge contributor of waste. We realise that this can’t go on for much longer—we’ve all done too much damage to our planet and now is the time to change that. The pandemic was a turning point for us—we saw that the skies were so much clearer due to reduced air travel, and the ocean, too, became cleaner and it really inspired us to do something more to make our planet a better place for all.

What are some of the challenges you faced with translating cocktails into a sustainable format?
One of the biggest challenges we initially faced was having that awareness and realisation that our old ways of doing things were not sustainable and to make a conscientious effort to cultivate new perspectives, behaviours and habits. The F&B industry is the third largest contributor of waste in the world—and I remember how in the past we would freely choose any spirit, liqueur, ingredients from all over the world to concoct our recipes, but we have since stopped doing that.

Sustainability is now at the heart of our daily operations, and we pride ourselves for championing a ‘closed­‐loop’ bar programme, which means we not only use local ingredients, but we recycle and upcycle them to work towards minimal waste. At Penicillin, we use commonly discarded ingredients like coconut bark, used tea leaves and oxidised wine in our concoctions. Through the use of our fermentation room, we also ensure that previously discarded off-­cuts from the food menu can be upcycled to use as garnishes on the cocktail list, which is a key component of our ‘closed-­loop’ operation.

Penicillin’s sustainable mission flows through not only on the menu but in the design of the bar itself—ceramics are made from 50 percent recycled plaster, while salvaged wood and recycled aluminium have been employed as interior fittings. We’ve also collaborated with local artists for our tableware. As much as possible, we try to source everything we need from Hong Kong, but if there are some spirits that are not available here, we’ll source them from within the region.

How have you sustained operations during Covid?
It has been a challenging year, but like everyone else, we had to be quick to adapt to the changes and be more innovative and flexible. Some of the new things we did include opening for lunch and brunch service. Our kitchen was formerly incepted to offer a unique lab food experience, but we knew we had to adjust accordingly in order to survive. We also started offering delivery options, working with Deliveroo to sustain our business.

Do you think the bar industry’s mindset towards sustainability has changed because of the pandemic? What could be done better?
I think in recent years, everyone has generally became more aware about the importance of sustainability and how global warming is affecting the world. I believe everyone in the industry is aware of how they can make a little change in their day-to-day lifestyle to make this planet a better place. In terms of what can be done better, there’s this phrase from Sylvia Earle which really resonates: “Start with ‘some’ ‘one’. No ‘one’ can do everything but every ‘one’ can do ‘some’ thing.”

What are some developments in the world of sustainable drink‐making that you’re excited about?
It’s really exciting to see how more bartenders around the world are choosing to use ingredients from a local source. There have also been a lot more sustainable programmes and workshops, as well as training being offered to people in the industry in recent times; it really helps to educate and create more awareness. It is also really heartening to see more new bars championing sustainability practices—I feel that with more people in the industry getting on board the sustainability bandwagon, it will inspire more people to join hands and help make our planet a better place to live in.

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