Technology is sharply raising bar for high-end mixology.
Want that cocktail shaken, not stirred? How about centrifuged? These days, it’s possible as high-tech tools shake things up behind the bar with a razzle-dazzle flair that could make even an old fashioned feel newfangled.
Take the “Highlander,” a cocktail offered at Barmini in Washington, D.C. The drink is a combination of bartender Juan Coronado’s favorite highland ingredients, scotch and mescal from Oaxaca, combined with a touch of simple syrup and served in a glass with a floating cloud of crème de cocoa, rosemary, citrus peels and dry ice.
Quite a switch from the usual garnish of a chunk of citrus impaled on a rim.
“It’s quite amazing to see this floating cloud and smell the aromas,” says Coronado, whose official title is “cocktail innovator” at the ThinkFoodGroup founded by chef Jose Andres, a leader in so-called molecular gastronomy, an avant-garde approach to cooking that borrows techniques and tools from the science lab for the kitchen.
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Or, consider the “In the Rocks,” created at The Aviary in Chicago. This starts with a water balloon dropped in a super chiller, an immersion circulator running on half water, half a neutral grain spirit. This lets the temperature of the bath drop into the negatives and freezes the water balloon from the outside in, explains Micah Melton, beverage director. After seven minutes they pull the balloon out, cut the balloon away, drill a hole and use a syringe to suck out the excess water, leaving a hollow shell.
The prepared cocktail — also super chilled — is then drawn into the syringe and injected into the ice ball. The ball goes into a glass, the glass goes to the table. At the table, a slingshot is used to smash the ball open and, presto, your drink is on the rocks.
While those drinks are both showstoppers, a lot of the bar tech going on right now is behind the scenes.
“I’ve always held that using new techniques and equipment shouldn’t be because of just presentation tricks or making things that are crazy,” says Dave Arnold, inventor/partner in Booker and Dax, the high-tech cocktail bar adjacent to Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City.
One thing you can see if you sit at the bar at Booker and Dax is “nitro muddling,” in which liquid nitrogen is put into the mixing cup, freezing whatever’s being muddled — mint or basil, for instance — so brittle that it can be turned into a powder. Liquor is added afterward, which prevents oxidation and keeps the colors intense.
High-tech prep going on out of sight includes using a centrifuge to clarify juices and make silky-smooth nut milks. Meanwhile, liquid nitrogen is used to chill glasses and to purge the neck of bottled premixed cocktails, again to avoid oxidation.
Then again, some of the innovations are quite low-tech. Arnold uses droppers of saline solution, much easier to use at a bar than pinches of dry salt, and something that more bartenders are adopting.
And some are extremely techy. The ThinkFoodGroup has worked with MIT mathematician John Bush to use 3-D printers to create cocktail garnishes including a “cocktail boat” that floats around the drink driven by a high-proof alcohol “fuel.”
For Coronado, Barmini’s “cocktail innovator,” the road to high-tech mixology began with a sewing machine he bought some years ago. He learned to use it and “from that moment on became friendly with machines.”
These days, he boasts an array of equipment worthy of a pharmaceutical lab. Along with centrifuges and a dry-ice maker, he has a rotary vacuum system. One use for the latter is extracting the aromas and flavors from roasted fresh peanuts to create the Veruca Salt cocktail.
A Polyscience Sonicprep, which emits ultrasonic sounds waves that create low-heat vibrations, is used to emulsify and create a type of instant barrel-aged flavor. When making a Ramos gin fizz, Coronado puts real vanilla in with gin, turns on the Sonicprep and “we get to create the most amazing vanilla gin profile ever.”
“I’m not a scientist, never will be,” says Coronado. “But I’m very curious and I like to find my way around things. In the case of cocktails, I’m able to have the luxury of having specialty machines that people in the pharmaceutical industry have.”
The technology’s been around a while, “it’s just we are finally using it for cocktail applications and food applications,” he says. “And it’s fantastic.”