From foams and airs to gel-like spheres and dry ice-induced clouds, molecular mixology is heating up bars nationwide. While some processes involve expensive and complicated equipment, you can accomplish science-inspired cocktails with a few common kitchen tools and easy-to-order ingredients.
Just as bartenders are learning more about molecular mixology, guests are increasingly savvy about and excited to see these techniques in action. And experts say that you can add modern, avant-garde flair to libations, no matter the size or scope of a bar or drinks program.
“Molecular mixology is using culinary technique to add experiential elements to cocktails,” explains Micah Melton, chef de cuisine at The Aviary in Chicago. The 85-seat, culinary-focused bar offers a prix fixe menu of five cocktails ($135) or 10 cocktails ($165), each paired with a small dish.
Many drinks on the menu use molecular mixology techniques. Melton believes clarification and distillation are the category’s latest trends.
Distillation, for instance, has the capability to completely change a flavor. For his One Horned Wonder ($20), a 22-oz beer cocktail, Melton juices Fresno peppers and places them in a rotary evaporator, which boils the juice through vacuum and heat. The steam travels into a column, where it is cooled and condensed into a crystal-clear liquid.
Color, acidity, salt, sweetness and spice do not vaporize, so all that remain are the volatile aromas and flavors. The end result is a liquid that tastes like biting into a chili pepper that has great flavor without the heat, he says.
Melton uses the same technique for his Root Beer cocktail ($17); the spicy soda is distilled until clear, and then mixed with rum, Fernet Branca, sassafras caramel and Angostura bitters.
The Aviary also clarifies juice by either adding gelatin or agar agar, which turns it to gel. Freezing and thawing the gel allows the solids to become suspended by the gelatin or agar agar, and the water drips away.
Clarification results in transparent, not cloudy, juices that don’t oxidize as quickly. For instance, The Aviary’s Dune Buggy cocktail ($17) mixes rum, simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters and drops of Fresno tincture with clarified lime and watermelon juices. “The drink is see-through, but still bright red as watermelon,” Melton says.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
“Molecular mixology is a tool we can all use to deliver a fantastic effect into a cocktail to enhance the experience of the guest,” says Juan Coronado, cocktail innovator for the 16 concepts of chef José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. Coronado strives to incorporate innovative and striking techniques in relatable ways for the guest.
At Barmini, the 23-seat bar adjacent to Andrés’ molecular gastronomy-focused restaurant Minibar in Washington, D.C., several cocktails on the 100-drink menu use scientific techniques. One is a variation of the reverse-spherification technique created by El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià in 2003.
Reverse spherification requires no special equipment, but it does call for some chemicals not typically found at the bar. To make the garnish for the La Bionda cocktail ($15), Barmini bartenders puree fire-roasted red peppers and mango and add to water, sugar and calcium chloride. They then spoon the puréed mixture into a bath of water mixed with sodium alginate powder. The purée reacts by forming a thin, neutral-tasting membrane around itself, trapping the liquid inside.
Spheres can be prepped in advance, stored in the same liquid used to make them, and removed with a slotted spoon as needed when mixing a drink. Guests sip the cocktail, and then eat the sphere at the end.
SPHEREIFIED SHOTS AND BOMBS
Another D.C. spot, the 90-seat Izakaya above ramen house Daikaya, offers speres called Dai-drops. Chef Katsuya Fukushima, who worked at Minibar with Andrés, came up with the idea of molecularizing the Sake Bomb.
He created Dai-drops by adding yuzu juice to Geikkeikan sake to impart opacity and citrus flavor. The mixture is reverse spherified, and frozen into semispheres with a pastry mold. The frozen sake mold is then immersed in an algin bath to make gelatin spheres.
Priced at $7 (or six for $35) the Dai-drops are served either in a short glass of Sapporo lager, or in house-made ginger beer with Angostura bitters. Guests are instructed to bite down lightly on the sphere when taking the last sip, so that the sake mixes with the beer.
Daikaya bar manager Lukas Smith makes the spheres in advance for instant gratification for guests. “Sure, it’s ‘fancy’ and texturally quite different than what they’re used to,” he admits, “but it also means the guests don’t have to wait.”
Smith estimates that he explains the process of spherification about 30 times a week to guests whose interest in piqued in what they just tasted.
The reimagining of a shot and a chaser is a current molecular mixology trend, says Marcos Tello, partner for Los Angeles-based cocktail consulting firm Tello Demarest Liquid Assets. Also the brand ambassador for Mezcal El Silencio, Tello is currently working on a spherified sangrita chaser dropped into a shot of mezcal.
This is just one example of how “molecular mixology is the science of changing the format of how we normally drink something,” he says. In this case, what’s generally poured as a liquid is instead served as a solid, Tello notes.
PEARLS OF WIDSOM
Spherification can also create gel-like “pearls” or “caviar.” Coronado uses a syringe, pipette or a glass jar with a metal lid (typically used for red pepper flakes or parmesan cheese) to dispense a liquid mixture into the sodium algin bath, which then become small balls. These pearls can be added to sparkling wine or other cocktails to great visual effect and flavor.
At McCrady’s, a 170-seat modern American restaurant in Charleston, SC, bartender Ryan Casey creates pearls of St. Germain, rhubarb liqueur and beets for his State Street Pearl cocktail ($14). “We start with dried tapioca pearls, and through a proprietary process, fill them with full-spirit alcohol; each batch takes three days to properly prepare,” he says.
The pearls are then dropped into the drink, which is made with gin, Aperol, Mountain Dew vinegar and lemon, and served with a metal julep straw. “They look great, and add the occasional bite of sweetness to a fairly bright acidic cocktail,” Casey says of the pearls.
Beyond spheres large and small, molecular mixology garnishes also take the form of vapors. Dry ice can be used to “trap” aromas so they remain on top of the glass for the guest to breathe in while sipping the drink.
For his Highlander cocktail ($18) at Barmini, Coronado mixes Scotch and mezcal with simple syrup, and adds to the glass a “cloud” made with carbon dioxide, rosemary sprigs, lemon peel and cocoa nibs. The cloud dissipates after 10 minutes, but the heady aroma remains.
To make the gin-based Ford’s Model Tea Party ($21), The Aviary mixes dry ice with Earl Grey tea to deliver the tea’s distinctive bergamot aroma.
Dry ice, along with liquid nitrogen, is also used in The Aviary’s hot drink Tea in Trinidad ($19). The dry ice expels the rum aroma to the table of guests as well as cools down the cocktail to a drinkable temperature.
Coronado believes foams and airs are a great jumping off point for operators seeking to dabble in molecular mixology. José Andrés has offered his popular Salt Air Margarita ($12 glass/$63 pitcher) for several years at his 125-seat Mexican restaurant Oyamel.
The drink is made with Milagro Blanco tequila, Triple Sec and lime juice, then topped with an “air” made from water, lime, salt and sucro—a powdered emulsifier. When whipped with an immersion blender, the sucro mixture creates a light-as-air foam that remains stable for several minutes or longer.
Lecithin also produces foam; Coronado recommends blending it with either carrot juice, or with wasabi, water, salt and lemon to create modern, eclectic Bloody Mary toppers.
He also suggests using a siphon to deliver a smattering of foam to a drink. His Hot and Cold Pisco Sour shakes and strains a traditional Pisco Sour into the glass, which is topped by another Pisco Sour that’s been poured into a charged soda siphon, heated to about 90 degrees and dispensed into the drink.
Guests sip the warm foam along with the chilled cocktail, much like sipping hot chocolate together with cold whipped cream. The texture and temperature differences make for a noteworthy experience, Coronado says.
Precision is key in molecular mixology, so kitchen collaboration is common. Measuring ingredients and following directions exactly are obligatory—the process is more akin to baking than cooking. At I|O Urban Roofscape, a 10,000-sq- ft. bar and event space at the 221-room Godfrey Hotel in Chicago, all of the signature cocktails begin in the kitchen.
“We are using refractometers to measure the sugar content, alcoholometers to keep the proof stable, and pH meters to keep the acidity levels constant throughout the year,” explains chef Riley Huddleston. I|O expands the chefs’ repertoire using modern ingredients and techniques, he says. “The cocktail program has been placed in the kitchen because of the chefs’ understanding of the techniques and sanitary environment in the kitchen.”
Vacuum sealers have become kitchen staples, as chefs turn to compression, infusion or sous vide to coax out flavor and texture from a food. For its Open Sesame cocktail ($14), Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, CO, uses a vacuum sealer to infuse sesame seeds into compressed pears. The pears are then macerated with Leopold’s Silver Tree vodka, added to fresh ginger and lime, and served on the rocks.
“By integrating [molecular mixology] into a traditional program, you can enhance the flavors, textures and overall composition of the drinks, bringing new and exciting elements to the cocktail program,” notes Ian Tulk, bartender at the 68-seat seasonal and locally focused restaurant.
But less is more with molecular mixology, says Tulk. He limits drinks to three or four ingredients instead of say, 10. “Too many ingredients or steps often backfire, and you lose the integrity of the individual flavors,” he says.
KEEP IT REAL
No matter the technique employed, molecular mixology needs to be presented to the guest in an approachable, rather than esoteric or pretentious way. “Invite them to share in [your] ‘geeky’ adventure as opposed to ostracizing them,” cautions Tello.
And timing is a definite consideration—especially in busy bars. “It is important to find a balance between complexity and drink prep times,” Casey says. “A bar can use all the tricks in the book, but if it takes 30 minutes to get [the drink], who cares?”
The Aviary’s Melton is always careful to make a distinction between molecular mixology techniques that add to the drink, vs. those done for their own sake. “People think it is all about show,” he notes. “It really needs to impact flavor, texture or aroma in order to be used. And at the end of the day, the drink needs to taste good.”
Coronado agrees. “Molecular mixology is not just smoke and mirrors; it has to benefit the cocktail,” he says.
Above all, cocktails need to seamlessly fit in with a beverage program, exist for the pleasure and enjoyment of those patrons who seek it, and have a clear purpose in a drink.
“As with anything cocktail-related,” notes Smith, “if the core idea or inspiration isn’t authentic, no amount of Mr. Wizardry can save it.” ·
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits write and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.
Smoke Gets In Your Ice
How can operators without access to expensive or hard-to-obtain equipment incorporate some of these molecular mixology trends into their drinks program? One way is creating smoked ice.
Ian Tulk, bartender at Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, CO, puts ice cubes into the meat smoker, where they melt into water. (A grill topped with a box of wood chips will work too.) The water is poured back into ice cube trays and refrozen, creating a clean flavor with a campfire aroma.
Why not just smoke a pan of water? “Ice cubes have more surface area, allowing for greater exposure,” Tulk says. He uses the smoked cubes in the Colorado Campfire cocktail ($15), made with grilled local Palisade peaches muddled with brown sugar and a dash of Stirring’s Peach liqueur, and house-infused pine nut Breckenridge Bourbon.
The drink is built on ice, stirred and strained over four house-smoked ice cubes. As the cubes melt they impart a subtle smokiness to the drink, he says.—KAM