From The Editors: The Science of Mixology

  • Larry Bean

What was not to love about a job in which your patrons’ requests could include sex, screws, and orgasms; and upon receipt of these, customers would offer generous gratuities if you had dispensed enough charm while fulfilling their desires? It was the 1980s, and this gig promised to be exciting and lucrative. And contrary to the implications of the preceding transparent and juvenile attempt at provocativeness, the position did not require moral compromises, health risks, or an Armani wardrobe. In fact, good clothing could be ruined by the sweet, sticky ingredients you would use to make alcoholic confections such as the alluded-to Sex on the Beach, Long Slow Comfortable Screw against the Wall, and Screaming Orgasm.

And so for the briefest period two decades ago, I worked as a bartender—or maybe as a mixologist, which, as cocktail expert David Wondrich informed Robb Report associate editor Jessica Taylor, is “a bartender who pays more attention to mixing drinks.” In addition to covering the history of the cocktail for “Original Blend”, Taylor asked some of the world’s most talented mixologists to create original cocktails for our annual Holiday Host Guide. If you cannot make it to the bars where these masters of their craft perform, then we recommend that you try their recipes at home. (The Martini Le Cirque that I mixed looked like grape-flavored Children’s Motrin and proved as soothing to me as the medicine is to my kids. My Leperliac was much lighter in texture and flavor, tasting like a cross between a Mint Julep and a Champagne cocktail—crisp and refreshing and a worthy cause for even a fine brut.)

Regardless of whether I was a bartender or a mixologist, after one busy night behind the bar, I was disabused of the notion that this was an easy way to make money. As former Met Bar manager Ben Reed told London’s The Independent earlier this year, “It’s not glamorous at 3 am when you’re clearing up broken glass and dealing with belligerent customers.” Nor is it easy to memorize the contents of a cocktail recipe book, as I did—more or less—just in case someone were to order a drink more exotic than, say, a White Russian. (Incidentally, customers claimed that mine were too weak: Who knew the term Russian was a reference to a third ingredient?) Although I had determined beforehand that there would be no shame in not knowing the ingredients of a Woo Woo or similarly silly girl drinks, learning the rest of the recipes still was nearly as taxing as preparing for an organic chemistry test. That was the sieve of a college class from a couple of years earlier that had separated the premeds from the liberal arts majors, the doctors from the editors. Today, in some bars and lounges, knowledge of chemistry or related sciences can distinguish the mixologists from the bartenders.

The last couple of years have brought us the advent of molecular mixology, an offshoot of molecular gastronomy. Practiced most prominently by Ferran Adrià at his El Bulli restaurant in Barcelona—where menu items arrive in the form of foams and gels, and others are frozen using liquid nitrogen—molecular gastronomy was pioneered in the 1980s by Hervé This. The French physical chemist describes molecular gastronomy as “the practical application of science and physics in cooking to create a new taste experience.” Molecular mixology, This says, “is the practical application of the theoretical findings of molecular gastronomy to the bar environment.”

Among the cocktail-menu curiosities that application has produced are items called pearls or caviar: instant jellies created by mixing traditional cocktail ingredients with sodium alginate and calcium chloride. At the Minibar at Washington, D.C.’s Café Atlántico, the Dirty Martini is a blend of olive juice, vermouth, gin, xanthan gum, and calcium chloride, all of which is dropped into a solution of sodium alginate and water so that it forms a stable, olive-shaped gel. Served in an empty glass, the orb becomes liquid when you pop it into your mouth. Next to this nouveau Dirty Martini, Sex on the Beach seems innocent, and completely out of vogue.

At Lumière in Vancouver, you may be able to persuade bar manager Jamie Boudreau to prepare a concoction that represented his early experimentation with molecular mixology. It consisted of three shot glasses, each filled with different contents: blueberries in one, heated apricot liqueur and Mangalore in another, and whipped cream with maple liqueur in the third. Patrons were instructed to fill their mouths with a taste of all three before swallowing. “You have solid, liquid, and plasma,” Boudreau recently told the Vancouver Sun. “You have cool, cold, and hot. You have sweet, spicy, and tart.” You did not have sex, a screw, or an orgasm, but you did have a Ménage à Trois.

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