Bartender Tony Conigliaro’s new beverage book is called The Cocktail Lab, and he’s not speaking figuratively.
Among the equipment at his London-based Drink Factory consulting business are a centrifuge (the better to filter macerated liquids), a cold smoker and smoke gun (for smoking garnishes as well as syrup ingredients), and a refractometer to measure exact alcohol levels. Not quite your standard-issue bar gear.
And an ordinary day in the lab can involve thermo-mixing, sous-viding, dehydrating – even stripping bark from trees, Conigliaro writes in the introduction to the book, due in July.
Conigliaro, a renowned British bartender, is a pioneer in so-called molecular mixology, but he’s got a lot of company these days as more bartenders on both sides of the Atlantic work on elevating the art of the cocktail into a science.
All of the regular tools of molecular cooking are in play: they’re Cryovacing (putting in vacuum-sealed packaging) and slow cooking ingredients, smoke-infusing liquors, carbonating drinks, barrel-aging cocktails, centrifuging juices to get clear liquids, infusing liquors with unexpected ingredients and using rotary evaporators to get strongly flavored distillates, says Erica Duecy, cocktail historian and author of the upcoming book Storied Sips. The high-end bar has become as devoted to this equipment and these techniques as the kitchen.
For Conigliaro, molecular mixology started with people asking questions. And the more questions people asked you kind of got to points where the only places where you could find the answers were either in the chemistry of food or the science of how it works, he says.
For years and years all we’ve ever had is recipes passed down and you get shown how to make them and shown what they should be like and how they should taste, but it was scratching below the surface of that and seeing what was actually going on that really proved to be of interest for us.
Kevin K. Liu, author of Craft Cocktails at Home, sees cocktail chemistry as something that fits into his overarching interest in how science can improve everyday life, something he began exploring while studying technology policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I wrote the book about cocktails because I thought this was a field where bartenders and customers alike could benefit from some simple scientific knowledge, but I think the concept applies to many other fields as well, he says.
The best of the new breed of drinks look like regular cocktails but taste like nothing you’ve tried before, says Duecy. Bartenders like Dave Arnold at Booker & Dax in New York are developing new techniques such as nitro-muddling (flash-freezing fresh herbs with liquid nitrogen, then crushing them into a powder and incorporating it into the cocktail). What you get – intense herb flavor. What you don’t get – herbs stuck in your teeth.
And in San Diego, Erick Castro of Polite Provisions, a new bar, works with carbonation so the cocktails are premixed and come out of a kegerator, a refrigerated dispenser, like beer or soda.
One of the best molecular cocktails Duecy has tried was at Eleven Madison Park in New York, where bartenders used liquid nitrogen to make a frozen gin sorbet, which they then mixed with bing cherry syrup and grapefruit juice and topped with Pop Rocks. The drink is refreshing and clean, yet invigorating and fun with those Pop Rocks crackling in your mouth. Surprise and delight is the reaction molecular mixologists are going for, and that’s what this drink delivered.
New tools open up new possibilities. For instance, a rotary evaporator is a piece of lab equipment that lets you boil water or alcohol at low temperatures. You can put orange juice in and end up with orange water and orange-flavored jam, both of which would taste clean and fresh, says Liu. Alternatively, you could put in bourbon and end with a super high-proof distillate of bourbon and bourbon-flavored powder.
Still, while gadgetry can produce new flavors, it takes a skilled bartender to balance those flavors, notes Liu.
Conigliaro would agree. He may create his cocktails in a lab-like setting, but he serves them in an atmosphere that’s anything but clinical. The menu at his Bar 69 in Islington, North London, has just 12 cocktails, three wines and Champagnes and one beer. The gee-whiz techniques are generally out of sight, though customers who want to know what went into a drink are welcome to ask.
Conigliaro rather likes the idea, he writes in Cocktail Lab, that the rest will contentedly sip on a Bloody Mary, blissfully unaware that it took two years to perfect each individual component of their drink.