High-tech tipples: The future of cocktails

IT WOULD be lovely to have access to chromatography," Spike Marchant tells me wistfully. As a science journalist, it's the kind of remark I expect to hear from the people I interview. But Marchant isn't a scientist, he's a bartender.

A very special breed of bartender, mind you. What Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià and others have done for food, Marchant and his colleagues are aiming to do for booze. "We're not scientists but we use the ideas of scientists," says Tony Conigliaro, the creative force behind 69 Colebrook Row, a cosy cocktail bar in north London where I have come to learn about, and taste, the future of cocktails.

Their quest is a logical extension of the molecular gastronomy movement. Over the past couple of decades, leading chefs and pioneering scientists such as Hervé This have been thinking differently about food and cooking. Just because certain dishes have always been made in a certain way, does that make it the right way? Can science explain, or even improve on, culinary tradition? Thus was born a revolution of mouth-watering tastes and techniques.

That way of thinking is now being applied to mixology, the art of making cocktails. "People are thinking about cocktails in a more experimental and exploratory way," says food and science writer Harold McGee. "It's about tools and ingredients that have not been used in cocktail-making before." Not surprisingly, the term "molecular mixology" is bandied about, though mixologists themselves don't seem to like it.

I am led upstairs to Conigliaro's laboratory - a cramped, low-ceilinged cross between a kitchen and a chemistry lab, stuffed with shiny bits of kit. The first thing he shows me is a temperature-controlled water bath. It would not look out of place on a lab bench, but is actually a piece of kitchen equipment designed for a technique called sous-vide (French for "under vacuum"). In sous-vide cooking, food is sealed in a vacuum bag and gently cooked for hours or even days at low temperatures, typically 70 °C or less. Chefs say it preserves the delicate flavour molecules that are lost at higher temperatures or through typical extended cooking.

Conigliaro uses his to make rhubarb-infused gin. "I discovered that if you cook the fruit in alcohol under vacuum at precisely 52 °C, you get a cleaner, brighter, more accurate flavour," he says. "It's also much better than marination. If you just dunk the rhubarb in, the fruit falls apart." Conigliaro has used this technique to infuse clean flavours into all kinds of spirits - raspberries into tequila, rose petals into vodka, blackcurrants into gin.


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