Cocktail Bars Making Better Drinks With Chemistry Tricks


When chef Michael White opens The Butterfly in New York in mid-June, the cocktail bar will pay homage to White’s native Wisconsin with a brandy old-fashioned, a favorite libation in the Badger State.

Instead of muddling an orange with bitters, sugar and a cherry, however, Eben Freeman, head of bar operations for White’s Altamarea Group, will put all of the ingredients into a chamber vacuum sealer, a cumbersome device that recalls the hyperbaric chamber used to explode a man’s head in the 1989 James Bond film “Licence to Kill.”

Fortunately, Freeman avails himself of the chamber’s high-pressure environment for peaceful purposes: to draw out all of the delicious oils from the fruit, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2013 issue.

“You won’t necessarily know it was done that way,” he says.

The results speak for themselves: This is the best, cleanest-tasting brandy old-fashioned you’ll get, anywhere. Freeman’s approach is part of a larger technological revolution that’s changing the way we drink at ambitious cocktail bars across America (and, in one especially memorable instance, Barcelona).

Don’t call it molecular mixology, because this is less about spheres, foams and gels than it is about bartenders using expensive laboratory equipment with multisyllabic names to make the drinks we already drink far better.

Cutting-Edge Alcohol

And while bartenders have always availed themselves of the latest gadgets and gizmos, the modern era of cutting-edge alcohol is best traced back to El Bulli, the late, great Spanish temple of culinary avant-gardism, where guests would kick off their meals with frozen margaritas made with liquid nitrogen.

The subzero gas got a bad rap when an 18-year-old woman had to have her stomach surgically removed after ingesting a cocktail inexpertly made with the stuff at a British wine bar.

At Booker & Dax in Manhattan’s East Village, LN2, as the substance is known, is used to simpler and safer ends: chilling stemware instantly. A bartender pours a few ounces of the compound into a champagne coupe and -- presto -- the transparent exterior turns opaque, like a frosty winter window.

Ever try Malibu-brand banana-infused coconut rum? It isn’t very good. Booker & Dax’s Dave Arnold transforms the spring break staple by using a Vita-Prep mixer to blend bananas with premium Zacapa rum. Then comes the fun part: He throws the mixture into a $3,000 medical centrifuge, whose punishing G-forces separate out the fruit solids. The upshot is pure, smooth banana flavor without a hint of alcohol -- until you find yourself under a table.

Rotary Evaporator

Even pricier paraphernalia abounds at The Aviary, a Chicago cocktail bar from the team behind Alinea, America’s best avant-garde eatery, located across town. Beverage director Charles Joly gets the most out of his stinging nettles with a rotary evaporator, which creates a vacuum to lower the boiling point of liquids. Joly uses the $9,000 device to infuse alcohol with the delicate greens at a lower temperature than would otherwise be possible -- meaning more deliciously earthy nettle flavor comes through.

Sometimes the magic is resolutely analog. At the newly opened Barmini, in Washington, Jose Andres mixes salt, lime, water and lecithin and froths it with a motorized hand-held blender. The low-tech trick produces an ethereal cloud that seasons each sip of margarita with a whisper of salt rather than swamping your mouth with sodium.

And while the phenomenon is mostly American, if you’re looking for the equivalent of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, direct your attention to Barcelona, where Adria’s brother Albert is serving 41-course tasting menus and experimental cocktails at 41 Grados. Expect Campari served as a solid sheet of “glass” and gin and tonics infused with Moroccan shisha smoke.

’Beyond Trends’

Freeman, for his part, says he hopes that such technological phenomena are “beyond trends” and that they become the standard approach at bars everywhere. The Butterfly, for example, will have a cocktail-on-draft system that will serve pre-carbonated smoked bourbon and Cokes straight out of the tap. Pre-carbonating both the liquor and the mixer means one beautiful thing: no more half-flat cocktails.

“This isn’t about gimmicks,” Freeman says. “It’s about building a better drink.”

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at or

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