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Meredith Barnett: How Technology Is Changing The Way We Drink

Meredith Barnett: How Technology Is Changing The Way We Drink
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How the secret ingredient in the latest cocktails has nothing to do with flavor.

Meredith Barnett
  • 15 february 2013

For a generation that scarcely remembers the age of cell phones before smartphones (not to mention life before email), it’s no surprise that the omnipresence of technology has extended all the way to the cocktail hour—and not just to texting during drinks but to the drinks themselves.

Like many culinary trends that begin in the kitchen and then move to the bar, molecular mixology, as the movement is called, grew out of molecular gastronomy—the practice of applying principles of chemistry and physics to cooking. The always-experimental chef Ferran Adria of Spain’s cutting-edge El Bulli restaurant (a wildly popular but money-losing venture that closed last year) pioneered techniques such as the transformation of liquid foods into solids using liquid nitrogen; by the mid-2000s he was inspiring chefs the world over.

Soon, bartenders began applying the same method to cocktails. At Kansas City’s The Drop, for example, “Drops”—hand-to-mouth gourmet jelly shots—have been the house specialty since 2008.

But more recently, innovators like Dave Arnold of Manhattan bar Booker & Dax have taken the concept to new levels. Arnold, who serves as director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, has turned his bar into a chemistry lab, employing liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and a 500-watt hot poker he made himself. “I’ve always been a gear head and a food guy,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. Among his specialties: Friend of the Devil—a mixture of rye, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, Pernod and bitters that he zaps with that hot poker, smoldering at 1,500 degrees, to caramelize the sugar in the liquor.

In 2012 for the first time, the James Beard Foundation introduced a category for Outstanding Bar Program to its awards ceremony. Among the five nominees was Chicago’s Aviary, a cocktail lounge whose every drink is an exercise in theatricality. (It even has its own legendary ice program.) “We start with a great drink and then add another method—a sight, a sound, some smoke, some fire,” said Micah Melton, who focuses on developing new drinks and supervising the bar area.

Take the Midnight Mary, one of the first drinks added to the menu by Charles Joly, formerly of The Drawing Room, who joined Aviary as beverage director this past summer. Says Melton: “We take some basil puree, make it into a foam and freeze the foam in liquid nitrogen. We take the frozen foam, muddle it at the table and mix the drink … So when you scoop the foam into the glass, there’s foam pouring out of the glass [and a noise when it foams]. Instead of just dropping a glass with a cocktail in it at the table, it’s a more in-depth cocktail experience.”

There’s also the In the Rocks, which utilizes the super chiller, a machine manufactured by Polyscience (a science company that now makes food preparation products) that can circulate liquids to keep them at the same temperature constantly instead of continuing to cool them like a common freezer would. Says Melton:

“The ice chef fills water balloons and drops them into the super chiller—into a bath that’s half water and half grain alcohol, so the bath is 100-proof and will never freeze. It circulates down to around zero degrees Fahrenheit—much below the freezing point of water. It’s so cold that as soon as the balloon hits the surface, the outside freezes and forms a shell, like an egg… We drill into the egg … and use a syringe to suck out the water that’s not frozen; so then you have a hollow piece of ice. We then put the cocktail in bottles inside the super chiller … It gets so cold that when we shoot it into the ice, it won’t melt the ice. So what you have is a cocktail that’s inside of a piece of ice … We put the ice cube inside of a rocks glass and send it to the table. We give you a slingshot, and when you pull the slingshot, you break the ice cube open and then you have a real drink ‘on the rocks.’”

Todd Maul, the envelope-pushing bartender at Boston’s Clio restaurant, says, “You have to look at a ‘rule’ and say: ‘What does this rule adhere to? What were the limitations they were forced to this by and what limitations were they trying to overcome?’ A situation is created by limitations. These limitations are all really breakable by technology.”

Among the limitations-breaking tools in Maul’s arsenal: A rotovap (a rotational evaporator, most often used in bio-science), which he says creates a vacuum to break apart alcohol at a very low temperature. A centrifuge to extract and manipulate flavors from lemons, fruits or even yams. A sugarcane extractor for making fresh sugarcane water. A blast freezer that makes ice colder and harder so less water melts into a drink and dilutes its flavor. And mini hibachis Maul uses to burn fruit in order to release the sugar (a technique long favored in flavor science).

Not far away, at Blue Inc in Boston’s financial district, the bar team incorporates somewhat less technically elaborate but equally showstopping techniques. Bob Lupo, a member of the restaurant’s bar team, describes using liquid nitrogen to make beer slushies during the summer and utilizing maltodextrin—a chemical that “extracts the fat out of whatever it comes in contact with”—to make powdered peanut butter for a PB&J martini.

Lupo confesses that kitchen concoctions such as these can be “a pain in the butt” (and pricey, too—Maul says rotovaps cost around $8,000 and a good centrifuge will run you $12,000). So why bother?

Clearly, there’s the “wow” factor. “If someone has a gin and tonic,” says Lupo, “and then all of a sudden the server is coming down and there’s a drink that has liquid nitrogen and is smoking everywhere, it really starts a conversation”—and has customers coming back for more.

Melton of Aviary also notes that this kind of experience can bring customers outside of their usual cocktail comfort zone: “People will order things they’ve never tried before because they want that thing that the table next to them got. There’s a boundary-breaking of what we can do and get away with … It’s a lot more engaging.”

But exciting experiences aside, all of these bartenders insist that at the end of the day, it comes back to making a better drink. “What we’re doing,” says, Maul, “is looking at science and technology and saying we can make better drinks encompassing and incorporating what is available.”

So what of the at-home bartender who, having had her fill of experimenting with the “Mad Men” playbook of classic cocktails, now wants to try something not retro, but new?

When Aviary customers began walking off with the Porthole, an infuser designed to change the flavor of a cocktail as it was consumed, its inventor, industrial designer Martin Kasner, decided to manufacture a version for the home. He launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, which rapidly raised more than $700,000 over his $28,500 goal. The product should be shipping out soon.

Similarly, noting an interest in turning the home kitchen into a chemistry lab, Canadian company Molecule-R has come out with a series of at-home molecular gastronomy kits, including a drinks-focused version called the Cocktail E-Revolution. It comes complete with a variety of food additives, pipettes and a DVD containing a series of recipes.

But for folks wary of experimenting with calcium lactate or xanthan gum in their own kitchen, there are subtler nods to the trend. Take Electricity, one of the flavors produced by ODDKA, a new vodka brand from Pernod Ricard. Unlike other, more clear-cut flavors in the brand’s arsenal (say, Apple Pie or Salted Caramel Popcorn), Electricity is meant to defy existing flavor expectations, offering not just taste, but tongue-tingling sensation—like lightning in a bottle.

“With ODDKA, we wanted to explore flavors beyond the expected, and Electricity is one that comes to mind as a really fun and exciting example of the way we were looking to expand the palate of adventurous consumers,” said Maja Johansson,  Global Brand Manager at The Wyborowa Company, which operates ODDKA.  “More than any flavored vodka on the market today, Electricity was developed with a nod toward today’s tech-obsessed world, and also with an eye on the trend of molecular mixology.”

Even pros agree: “Anything that gets someone excited before they drink it is always a plus,” says Micah Melton when asked about Electricity ODDKA. “So if by the look, the name or the color you can get people interested in it before they drink it, it makes them much more likely to like it”—even without a hot poker or blast freezer in sight.

Meredith Barnett specializes in developing editorial experiences for non-traditional media companies—the meeting of content and commerce. She has contributed to publications including Capitol File, Parade, The Huffington Post and Stylecaster, and has appeared as a shopping expert on “Today,” “Fox & Friends,” and QVC.

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