Bar Book Reviews: The Cocktail Lab

Bar Book Reviews: The Cocktail Lab

I see the future of molecular mixology in this book.

For all of the travelling he does, and as much as he waxes poetic on the street food culture of Vietnam, nobody has promoted orgasmic culinary experiences like Anthony Bourdain.  It’s impossible to read him and not want to surrender your credit card, dietary restrictions, and soul to an austere omakase specialist, fantasize about the French Laundry, and want to bite into a candied wild strawberry at El Bulli.  The latter, alas no more, put molecular gastronomy, which led to molecular mixology on the map.  Over the last decade, innovations have been made in food science that have spread to cocktails.  Making foams, spheres, homogenization, these were going to be the drinks of the future.  At least they were supposed to be.

As I write this, Philadelphia, for all its culinary innovations, does not have a single bar that uses molecular techniques.  The reason is the same reason bodybuilders make poor rock climbers.  You have to carry the engine.  In restaurant speak, the bar has to turn a profit.

Mixology manifests itself in reality in this order:

1) Fresh Ingredients.

2) Precise Measurements, and tasting of every cocktail.

3) Artful and elaborately carved ice, mixing methods (Japanese hard shake), and glassware.

4) Molecular techniques.

Mixology is the neocortex of the evolutionary bar scene.  You can be a fully functional and profitable bar without it.  And the costs of molecular mixology are stratospheric.  Homogenizers, thermonixers, rotavapors, reftractometers, and using and maintaining them are…Simply not feasible for most craft cocktail bars.  And should they be?  My own experiences with molecular mixology have left me skeptical, the elements of timing, cost, and preparation render even something simple like spherification impractical unless it’s New Years Eve, or you’re entertaining at home.  With respect to manipulating texture, I can think of better ways to use time and money.  Locally sourced ingredients, artful infusions and combinations, and freshness are costly enough, and they make a dramatic, visceral difference in the finished product.

Tony Conigliaro solves this problem like an artist.  Interestingly enough, before cocktails became an obsession, he was experimenting with smells in his paintings.  It’s worth noting here that Conigliaro, an art school grad, and Adria, a high school dropout, have helped pioneer these scientific techniques in the modern restaurant and bar.  Whoever disregards the scientific acumen of artists has misread history.  The greatest innovations in most fields are in fact made by technicians, and then retroactively explained by science, or as Nassim Taleb puts it, “teaching birds how to fly.”  Tony’s mixology is not the hogwarts wonderment of El Bulli, but the simplicity of a samurai sword cocktail menu, with a dozen cocktails, two wines, and a beer.  And a score of advanced techniques hidden in plain sight.  He prefers his customer not know the details of the astronaut ice cream like cosmo pop corn, the lime cordial of which is produced with an induction heater, and which uses liquid nitrogen precisely applied to reach the desired consistency.

This is molecular mixology hidden in plain sight.  This is the right approach and what more bars should be doing.  Ultimately, we the customers do not care why the better mousetrap is better.  We JUST want to close our eyes and be taken for an internal ride of sensation.  And it has to be worth the $20+ we’re shelling out, it cannot simply be what dipping dots is to ice cream, the guest will ALWAYS prefer some gelato made from raw milk from a farm 30 miles away.  Just like refinements in pot distillation are nice marketing copy, nothing means anything unless it tastes better.  Conigliaro understands this as uses MM with a scalpel, not a broadsword.

The simplicity of the book is its greatest strength, and the greatest weakness is it’s almost complete inaccessibility to all but a tiny minority to actually implement and practice.  For those who want to get their hands dirty immediately, and are of the scientific persuasion, Craft Cocktails at Home is excellent.

Masterful achievement regardless, which will gain in utility as costs for the molecular kitchen goes down.