Ever heard of a rotary evaporator? Me either. (Well, not until recently.)
Here’s what one looks like:
They run about 25 grand, and it’s the kind of thing you see and use if you’re a professional chemist, or a grad student in chemistry, or … a bartender at 69 Colebrooke Row, a lovely, fairly tiny (35-seat) bar in London, for instance.
Tony Conigliaro is the owner and mastermind behind this bar, where the first clue you’ll get that this is no ordinary bar is if you’ve perhaps noticed the windows upstairs above the bar looking rather like a chemistry lab, then once inside by having a look at its wonderful menu. English rose garden aromatics? Pepper distillate? Honey water tuberose hydrosol? What do some of those words even mean? Well, undoubtedly the bartenders there will tell you, and they might also tell you about how in addition to their shifts behind the stick they take shifts in the lab as well. If you’re anything like me you’ll want to hear more and more about this — you’ll learn about these and many other fascinating techniques that have begun to enter bartending from the world of science (SCIENCE!) at the seminar entitled “The Chicken or the Egg?”, Saturday July 23 in the Queen Anne Ballroom of the Monteleone Hotel.
This panel could very well be the most exciting and fascinating at Tales this year. Joining Tony is esteemed food/drink scientist and Director of Culinary Technology at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Dave Arnold (who’s wowed us at Tales seminars several times in the past), and eminent food scientist Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore, and Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes.
So what might we be learning about at this seminar? Earlier this year I had the privilege of attending a continuing education seminar offered to graduates of the BarSmarts program which featured Tony and a rotovap very much like the one he uses. What the heck is this daunting looking device, and what’s it doing in a bar? Dave Arnold offers a primer on its kitchen use at his marvelous blog, but simply put it’s a method for very small scale distillation using lower temperatures and lower pressure inside the very small vessel. The lab above 69 Colebrooke Row, called The Drink Factory, uses a Buchi brand rotary evaporator every day, making distillates, hydrosols and essential oils. It works on the same principle as a still — heating point, evaporation, condensation, and collection. However, in this apparatus distillation can take place at very low temperatures due to a pump that lowers the air pressure inside the vessel. (Ever try to cook or bake at high altitudes? Less air pressure, lower boiling point.) The average air pressure at sea level is 1013.25 millibars, and the boiling point of water is 212ºF. Water can boil at 154ºF at 300 mBar, and the Buchi rotovap can reach pressures as low as 10 mBar. This way very delicate ingredients can have their flavors extracted without destroying them by heating.
A hydrosol is a water-based distillate rather than alcohol-based, also sometimes called “flower waters” (remember the orange flower water added to a Ramos Gin Fizz), and are produced using either distilled or mineral water. These tend to be a lot more delicate and volatile; the flavors dissipate much more quickly and must be remade constantly as they don’t have a shelf life. Reductions can also be made in a more refined way than by simply heating in a saucepan and boiling them down — reduced orange juice is used for Blood and Sand cocktails, and a Port reduction tastes very much like the original item but more concentrated, as none of the flavor is destroyed by heat. These techniques, learned from the organic chemistry lab, open myriad doors for bringing new flavors into the bar.
Tony, Dave and Harold will also cover chemical overlap, the science behind why some flavors and ingredients go together. Ingredients have many connections, including chemical similarities and molecular weights; for instance, a key chemical flavor component found in blackberries is also found in grapes and red wine, which is one reason why some of your favorite Zinfandels taste so lusciously of blackberries. We’ll learn about “flavor wheels,” ingredients plus chemicals, and tasting notes for these chemicals. One great example from Tony’s earlier seminar was how to simply create the flavor of wild strawberries from regular strawberries simply by adding three very common ingredients and letting the chemistry do the work. The flavor was amazing. I won’t spoil it for you just yet, in case he uses this example again a week from Saturday. Between the amazing things I learned from Tony this year and what Dave and Harold have to offer, I’m oscillating with anticipation.
If you have tickets for it you should be pretty excited too. If you don’t … well, the bad news is that it’s sold out — lesson learned, book your tickets early! If you simply can’t do without it check with Tales registration to see if anyone’s cancelled. Otherwise, see you then, and bring your lab coat!