That Heady Molecular Mixology

Paul Blow

At David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago, you can get a Manhattan made with leather-infused bourbon that includes a bitters-and-maraschino purée that becomes a gumdrop when placed in the glass. The Below Zero Nitro-Bar at the Miami Beach restaurant Barton G. features drinks frozen with liquid nitrogen—like the Classic Nitro-tini, with a swizzle stick made from frozen vermouth.

While it’s unlikely that the Margarita and the Martini will fall out of fashion, the merger of science and booze is a hot topic in the world of drinks. An offshoot of molecular gastronomy, the term coined by El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià, molecular mixology is the art of taking flavors we are used to ingesting in liquid form and turning them around so we get solid cocktails and alcoholic foams, sprays, and smoke—sensations we don’t typically associate with happy hour.

It’s a fine line between what works and what doesn’t in molecular gastronomy, as anyone who has experienced it at restaurants like Chicago’s Moto and Alinea or New York’s WD-50 can attest. There’s a certain intellectualization that doesn’t always result in tasty food. The same is true when science is applied to drinks.

Last fall in San Francisco, Plymouth gin organized a training session for local bartenders on the topic. Jason Crawley, an alcohol expert from Sydney, demonstrated such things as making caviar and foams, and freezing alcohol with liquid nitrogen (I burned my tongue on the supercooled gin and tonic). It was all good fun and a boost for creative energies, but little more.

Call me jaded, but there’s a ho-hum factor to all of this. Foams are so passé in the foodie world that they turn up in practically every joke made about El Bulli. And liquid nitrogen—well, who has the time and facilities? That’s the problem with these techniques. They take a lot of effort and prep, and you often end up with a somewhat predictable take on a drink we all know and love. When it comes time to order another round, most people find themselves craving the original, not another playful postmodern descendant.

But some people really are taking the molecular mixology tools at hand and emphasizing, refining, or improving flavor. That’s when it gets interesting. At Tailor in New York, head bartender Eben Freeman is making a drink named the Bazooka, which features a homemade bubblegum cordial, and one he calls the Asa Gohan, which pairs Grape-Nut-infused shochu with crazy milk nigori sake and a little raspberry syrup. It may sound equally as gimmicky as a Nitro-tini, but Freeman’s not just going for the shock factor: “I start with flavor ideas,” he told me. “The thing that interests me a lot which relates to, say, the bubblegum drink is the idea of sense memory, the idea that certain flavors really mean much more profound things to people in the form of deep, very personal connections. And if you’re able to capture a flavor that wasn’t in a liquid or cocktail form before, that’s really a key to opening up a broader and more penetrating experience of a drink.”

I love the idea of his root-beer rye: rye whiskey infused with sarsaparilla, sassafras, and licorice root. Root beer was my preferred childhood beverage, and I still drink it, especially when nursing a particularly grave hangover (it works). I’m more than happy to let cocktails encroach on my personal sense memory. But it’s easy to grow weary of the same old jokes.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.