With humans advancing from hunters to businessmen one act has remained grounded, that of cooking. With the evolution of cookery mankind settled down and went for a nomadic existence to a more stationary existence. Water from nearby sources wasn’t always safe and that is why mankind processed alcohol, from the natural flora available to him. Alcohol would assist in digesting inappropriately cooked food as also guard against contaminated water. And so it came to be that alcohol was had with food. But that’s not where the origins of cocktails lies.
Monks used medicines to cure patients. But they would only heal them from the outside. The internal diseases were hard to disinfect as those medicine couldn’t perfectly penetrate. Thus, they mixed alcohol along with curing ingredients and fed the sick. Alcohol, having antiseptic values, killed the microbes and the ingested medicines cured the infections . A simple example of this is Gin which is distilled neutral alcohol mixed with Juniper Berries to cure stomach-related diseases. From thereon, liquor turned commercial and better. Though it remained a royalty for centuries, the poor had their own elixirs. Some spirits came as a result of prohibitions, some due to agriculture revolutions, while some were illegally supplied to circumvent various forms of excise and tax bill regulations. But in the end they existed together and kept us animated at all times. Many would agree that a much classier and funkier way of relishing this liquid treat is not in its pure form but blended with others in one form or another, aka cocktails.
The origin of the term cocktail is a mystery and has only mythical explanations. Since long there have been trends to improve the art of mixing and surprising the world around. But where did it come from? The principles of mixing are same as that of cooking; playing with ingredients, their flavours, and forms, to create a new concoction that play with all your senses at the first touch. Cocktails, in their most basic form, are inspired from cooking itself. The diners keep looking for new artistic meals and then eventually also seek new mixes to support culinary delights. Cooking and its techniques are the parents of cocktails. Thus it is maintained that good chefs are good mixologists. And with all that wooing in culinary department, the latest development in its beverage form is that of Molecular Mixology.
Molecular Mixology or ‘Lab coat Mixology’, as it is wittily referred to, is an extension of Molecular Gastronomy. Hervé This (pronounced Tees), the father of Molecular Gastronomy, simply puts it as science-meets-cooking. It’s a branch of science that toys with the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of ingredients and with applications of various techniques alters their forms to interchange them from their real form of solid, liquid, or gases. It is the play of textures, density, weights, shapes, pressures, and most importantly, flavours that are adopted and converted into other ways of presenting them. Food has interested many scientists for long. And molecular gastronomy is a result of that lengthy study. When this is applied to beverages it is called molecular mixology. It is believed that the oldest forms of molecular mixology came from the basic principle of weights to prepare layered cocktails. Heaviest to lightest ingredients poured slowly atop each other to create a mix with visual appeal and a wow-factor. Lab coat mixology then is a far-out version of the same.
So how do they do it? A mixologist needs to have a firm grip on the science of what lies behind the ingredients used. The study is tough and the execution even tougher and for this they have their own weapons. Using high-tech ingredients like blowtorches, smoke guns, vacuum sealers, high temperature percolators, infusing machines, foam guns, liquid nitrogen tanks, food dehydrators, centrifuge mixer, spherification kits, ultrasound machines, and tongue-twisting chemicals like malto-dextrin, hydrocolloids, sodium hexametaphosphate, lecithin or gelatine, edible paper, and the likes. All these put together makes a bar no less than a colourful funky laboratory, hence the term ‘lab coat mixology’
But is it safe? The ever-old cry of natural versus synthetic argument. It surely involves numerous scientific techniques and elements but it’s completely reliable. The chemicals are edible products and are merely used to alter the forms of the ingredients. Advancement of technology has made it all favourable for our sensitive palates and dying immune systems. So generous!
So where is the Mecca of molecular mixology? There are masters of this trade too spread everywhere. Mainly restaurants offering molecular treats have opened a bar offering surprising beverages with a similar art. World’s leading Chef Ferran Adria with his world’s best restaurant El Bulli in Spain has a bar doing justice to his technically-solid molecularly advance menu. His bar has introduced iconic products like cocktail caviars and cocktail raviolis as also a solid Cava.
Allow me to give you a trial run. Juice/puree’s viscosity is enhanced by adding sodium alginate and then is dropped in calcium chloride to convert flowing liquids into drops. The gel converts the outside into a small firm film and allows it to be liquid from the inside, much like a balloon. As you bite into them they burst with all the liquid to release a captivating sensation and texture. Based on this principle, New Yorker bartender Eben Freeman created a surprising revival of the classic Mojito. He converted mint leaves and lime juice to pearls by glazing them with gelatine and freezing it in liquid nitrogen. They are then added to sweetened and thickened rum in which the pearls appear suspended. But he came into critics notice with his Gin and Tonic Jelly cocktail. Freeman now heads the bar at Chef Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 restaurant in New York, USA.
Latest addition to this league is Chef Gran Achatz’s Chicago-based restaurant Alinea’s bar, Aviary. Headed by the chef himself the bar has created new waves with amazing cocktails and revivals of the classics. But that’s not the only talk of the town. MIT molecular biologist-turned-bartender Eben Klemm has headed bars like Blue Water Grill and Don Caminos that set the trend of such mixology in the country and gave it a supreme platform. Only renowned lady bartender in this field is Audrey Saunders after attending the Master Mixologist seminar in 1996 turned towards this profession and added many gems to its crown. Today she heads New York City’s well-established and highly-esteemed, Pegu Club.
Away from the US shores is the leader in this race bartender Tony Conigliaro, at my favourite chef Heston Bluementhal’s culinary Mecca, The Fat Duck at Bray, not far from London. Known for his accuracy and principle-driven exciting cocktails he has been practicing the art-cum-science for long now. Once he headed the famous Detroit and Isola bars in UK and now is also in-charge for the Shochu Lounge in Londons’ Roka bar. Making waves in France is bartender Colin Field at Hotel Paris Ritz’s Hemmingway Bar as the head bartender. Crowned as the World’s Best Bartender by Forbes Magazine in 2001, Colin remains grounded with the mixology of classic cocktails presented in surprisingly new forms with his molecular tricks. Japan’s Joe Choi at Tokyo’s largest and most successful bar Ageha impresses fellow Asians similarly. And the Aussies aren’t far away either. Linden Price, once a bartender at Chef Neil Perry’s Rockpool restaurant, he has become the face of molecular mixology in Australia. With work stints and skill-honing in London he’s now back to head his own team.
So is molecular mixology the future of our cocktail scene? If so, how far can it go? For now, it appears that this trend is here to stay. Scientists will keep experimenting to form now elements and design new principles and culinary masters will keep taking advantage of these revolutions. It may not become the mainstream of our bars just yet but it cannot be entirely ignored and no, it won’t just go away.