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Magical Molecular Cocktails - Alexis Forsyth

April 26, 2010 by John Collingwood

Liquid nitrogen, calcium chloride, sodium alginate… You probably wouldn’t associate any of these with your average tipple around town, but in the world of molecular cocktails, mixologists use these to create fabulous concoctions that are certain to wow your senses.

So what are molecular cocktails and why are they proving so popular? Molecular mixology, in simple terms, changes the molecular structure of a liquid, altering its texture, density and viscosity. It uses equipment and techniques from the practise of molecular gastronomy, championed by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià.

This foray into science can create unimaginable drinks infused with tantalising new tastes and enhanced flavours. And just as important as this ultra taste experience, the cocktails are also visual masterpieces – although teetering on the gimmicky side in some cases!

“In my eyes, molecular mixology is all about manipulating and playing with consumers’ minds,” says John Collingwood, mixologist and founder of cocktail training and events company Want To Impress.

“There’s nothing better than someone expecting a drink to smell and taste a certain way, but when they pick it up and put it to their lips, it’s completely the opposite. Then, they get a rather puzzled look on their face, trying to fathom what is going on!”

Wondering what surprises await you? Think hot substances you’d expect to be cold, Champagne with an aroma of Chanel perfume, spirit-filled ice cubes that illuminate under UV lights and alcohol drenched jellies. John adds: “The cool thing is looking like a mad scientist, wowing guests by introducing them to wonders they have never seen before.”

In The Mix…

Creating these couture cocktails takes a lot of skill, a good dose of creativity and lots of experimentation; it’s science with an imaginative streak – ending in tongue-tastic results. For example, mixologists can infuse ingredients together inside a vacuum called a sous-vide; add flavourings from non-edible substances such as leather, and skilfully create pasta-like gels or caviar-esque spheres. Some cocktails even have frothing tops resembling something from a lab experiment.

It doesn’t stop there. John says that there are numerous techniques in molecular mixology, including foams, gels, mists, clarifying or solidifying liquids and spherification.

From apple martini lollipops and whiskey marshmallows to orange infused candyfloss and spirits – there are plenty of weird and wonderful molecular cocktails out there to try. You may even find what first appears to be a ‘conventional’ cocktail, with its own molecular twist!

John’s most memorable example is a concentrated and clarified Bloody Mary with celery caviars served in a shot glass. “It looked amazing – a near perfectly clear liquid with little green caviars floating around,” he enthuses, “but when I drank it, the spicy flavours exploded in my mouth.”

He’s also created his own version of a Dirty Martini:

“I make a classic Dry Martini with Plymouth Gin and Lillet,” he explains. “Then comes the surprise… I’ve discovered how to make large pearls of olive puree with a translucent skin. The olives look normal, but when you put them in your mouth with the Dry Martini, the pearls explode, creating a Dirty Martini.”

The Molecular Destinations

To try one of these gorgeous concoctions, you’ll need to head somewhere special, as the craft has yet to hit the mainstream bar scene.

If youre in London, then 69 Colebrooke Row is a must. The venue is owned by one of the pioneers of molecular mixology, Tony Conigliaro, who won the International Bartender of the Year 2009 award. With a film noir feel and a capacity of just 40 people, the bar oozes exclusivity – Tony even has a lab situated above the venue. The bar’s beautiful cocktails have intriguing names to match, such as the Lipstick Rose and Death in Venice.

If you can, make what those in the drinks business dub as a ‘pilgrimage’ to elBulli in Catalonia. The restaurant, run by Ferran Adria, can accommodate 8000 people in its six month season but reportedly gets over two million booking requests! Ferran announced that the restaurant will close in 2012, but will re-open in 2014, so there’s plenty time to get your name on the waiting list…

Another top notch venue is Honey Ryder Cocktail Lounge in Copenhagen, promising ‘hyper Scandinavian, classic and molecular cocktails made from exquisite ingredients’. Offering chic surroundings, this bar will appeal to even the most discerning of cocktails lovers.

The Plaza Athenée in Paris, which offers bubblegum Pina Coladas and Martini ice lollies, is world-renowned for its drinks. Here, you can enjoy daring cocktails and relax in a quirky interior; the bar is made from sandblasted glass, resembling an iceberg, while its framed pictures are so deep that you can even sit inside and become part of the artwork!

Thirsty For More?

If molecular mixology has got your juices flowing then why not take a look at one of the many mixology courses on offer. Shaker has bar schools in London, Birmingham and Cape Town and have a dedicated one day molecular mixology course.

Alternatively, take John’s advice and pick up a molecular gastronomy starter pack from an online specialist such as Infusions4Chefs or Cream Supplies. These contain all the ingredients you’ll need to get going.

He adds: “I better warn you though that once you start you will never stop experimenting!”

Alexis Forsyth