Camper English is a freelance spirits and cocktails writer in San Francisco. He chronicles his explorations of fine drinking at Alcademics.
One of my favorite talks at Tales of the Cocktail 2009 was The Molecular DNA of Classic Cocktails, hosted by Jacob Briars with Sebastian Reaburn. The talk centered around the idea that molecular mixology is not a new concept at all; we just didn’t use the same terms to describe it.
In fact, Briars started by mentioning the “Futurist Manifesto on Food” from 1909, in which an Italian writer said that the knife and fork should be banished, and that there should be courses in meals that are not to eat, just to look at and smell. I guess he had Ferran Adria beat by 100 years. Cocktails, too, took on new forms long before we called them “molecular.” The Ramos Gin Fizz changes the texture and shape of the liquid into foam. The Blue Blazer Briars called “ersatz distillation” as it burns off some of the flavor of the whisky. The Clover Club and other egg white drinks not only make a nice foamy texture on drinks, the air bubbles that foam on the surface trap air and aromas so we can experience them more intently when we sip from the glass.
The discussion then turned to the Bloody Mary, a drink that has all the different taste sensations: sweet (tomato), salt (salt), sour (citrus), bitter (olive brine), umami (tomato, Worcestershire), and the possibly newly-identified taste category of smoke.
Next they discussed the mental palate. A drink served by a surly bartender in an overcrowded bar will probably not taste as good as one served in a more pleasant environment. They expanded this concept to describe other aspects of the “cognitive palate,” including emotion, expectation, attention, memory, vision, and sound. All of these things we experience before we take a sip of the drink yet do influence our perception of its flavor.
Finally, we got down to some science. In the UK, the test drink that people use to judge the quality of the bar is the Old-Fashioned. At better bars they’ll take several minutes to slowly add the sugar and bitters, then repeated rounds of bourbon and ice with a slow stir. To find out why the drink tastes better than using the same ingredients splashed in the glass with a fast stir, they used an electric stirrer and measured the temperature and dilution of the drink. It turns out this doesn’t change anything about the temperature of the drink, but they theorize what is different between the two is that the gentler, slower method releases the volatile flavors from the alcohol, but they land in the liquid of the drink instead of in the air. Thus the slow-stirred Old-Fashioned is a more flavorful drink.
Their conclusion is that “molecular is just a way of thinking” about drinks, rather than a specific set of techniques. And that gave me a lot to think about.