Rotovap

Nerd Alert: Cocktails & Tech

We’ve gotten some attention recently for using fancy gear in cocktails, which is to say, we’ve been biting the style of much smarter people and taking plenty of credit for it: Dave Arnold (more than most — thanks Dave!), Eben Freeman, Don Lee, Charles Joly, Tony Conigliaro, our good friends in the kitchen Phillip Kirschen-Clark, Arnie Marcella, and many others. We’re not scientists or, really, innovators in this area, but our love for advanced technique has become essential in our bars. And here’s why.

My interest in using technology in cocktails began at the outset of my career, but it didn’t blossom into a obsession until much later when, ya know, I could convince business partners that buying a bunch of gizmos was a good idea. In 2007, I was lucky enough to trick an unsuspecting interviewer into giving me a job at an ambitious new restaurant — Tailor, in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. In all the hazy glory of retrospect, there was a magic to that place, a specialness to why we were all there. With a kitchen crew straight out of some of the most forward-thinking restaurants in the world (WD-50, Alinea), and a bar led by Eben Freeman, we all signed up to throw a big fucking wrench in what people thought a restaurant and bar could be.

Sam Mason led an all-star kitchen and Eben led an inspirational bar, and though my time working for him allowed a ton of new perspective on cocktails, culinary techniques, new tools, flavor, and shit-talking, more than anything, as a mentor Eben engendered a no-rules-apply approach to creativity and a healthy respect for the diligence and creative vibrancy of a professional kitchen. He could recite the most esoteric of cocktail recipes right along with every other dedicated cocktail nerd, sure, but his eyes only lit up when he talked about what his peers in the kitchen were up to, how they were pushing the envelope of cuisine. The cross-pollination of kitchen and bar was a fundamental part of Tailor’s culture, and though the restaurant only lasted a year (rest in peace), my time there has informed every step in my career since.

With the help of some new technology, I’ve finally begun to re-engage that spark of progressiveness in our own work.  As our company has grown, the use of technology has entered into our normal work flow more and more, led largely by the introduction of relatively low-cost tools that have a dramatic impact on how we work. As we get more comfortable with these techniques and their possibilities outside of novelty, we’ve begun settling into the same philosophy as any thoughtful modernist cook: that while it’s easy to get caught up in the process, inevitably the use of advanced culinary technology is simply another tool, and sometimes it’s not even the best tool.

Guiding Principles: When A Gizmo Is More Than Just A Shiny Toy

Chapter & Verse: our office in DTLA

Chapter & Verse: our office in DTLA

We learned a long time ago that the most successful cocktails are sometimes the most simple variations of classic templates – what our friend Phil Ward dubbed the Mr. Potatohead approach to cocktail making. Take out one ingredient, replace it with another = voila! Mixology! The creativity and the brilliance of this simple process comes in the choice of the substitution and a studious approach to knowing your ingredients like a freakin’ ninja, understanding what others have done in the past, and diligent execution. Phil is known throughout the world for his cocktails; they are delicious, but they are almost always that head-slapping simple variation that makes you say “Shit! Why didn’t I think of that?”

We aim at using new techniques and technology in much the same way. Our goal is to use these tools to create beautifully simple ingredients that excite the format of the cocktail and, hopefully, surprise the drinker. Never — ever — is the conversation about the technique, it must always be about the result.

Much of this is new territory in the beverage world, so we have to dig deep into the kitchen and see what cooks have been innovating long before we thought it was a good idea. Does that research inspire new ideas, à la Mr. Potatohead? And, most importantly, is the result better than what we could do by more traditional, less time-intensive techniques? At Proprietors, this is our Standard Operating Procedure. Someone on the team has to be a jerk and play devils advocate while I bounce around the room trying to convince them that toasted coconut and cognac run through the rotovap does not in fact smell and taste like sunscreen.

The centrifuge hard at work at Honeycut (www.honeycutla.com), clarifying juices for keg cocktails and house sodas

The centrifuge hard at work at Honeycut (www.honeycutla.com), clarifying juices for keg cocktails and house sodas

We’re not so original in using these tools.

There are tons of bartenders around the world gravitating to new tools in their bars. See the sidebar on the left for some of our favorite resources. I think the reason for the growing use of technology in cocktails is two-fold.  In every major city in the country, you can find great drinks made by studious and ambitious bartenders. Great craft cocktails are no longer in any shadow, nor solely the domain of speakeasy connoisseurs, recreating a theatric bygone era of questionable reality.

Cocktails are, in a sense, part of a much larger cultural vernacular and an active and healthy part of our lives. While this growth is great for the consumer, to stand out in this market requires bartenders to keep pushing the creative envelope, continue asking what the next evolution of our craft is and how we can take one more incremental step in innovating our product. While liquor importers chase the newest trends, bringing in pallets of obscure spirits for all us to jigger duteously into our drinks, bartenders are also creating new ingredients to stand out and peek the world’s interest. And though the rat-race of chasing new and specialness is sometimes an endless and unfulfilling game, we’re in the business of courting a finicky public (and media) who is more than happy to discount modesty as laziness.

Apparently rotary evaporators have ground effects. Who knew!

Apparently rotary evaporators have ground effects. Who knew!

Grapefruit distillate in the condensing flask

Grapefruit distillate in the condensing flask

The use of technology is an asset, a way of viewing what we know in a different way, and an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of creativity.

Banana Gin is perhaps my favorite accomplishment: an experiment of blending equal parts ripe bananas and Aviation gin (with a dash of citric acid to brighten the party up, a pinch of ascorbic acid to halt oxidation), throwing it in a centrifuge, and separating out the solids. What comes out the other end is a perfectly clear banana flavored gin liqueur, sweetened naturally with banana water, but also rapidly infusing the gin at the same time. The texture is all gin, the flavor bananas, but not the baby food texture that often comes with it. It’s fucking crazy and makes everyone smile. This one, extremely simple ingredient, is a perfect example of what new techniques can bring to the bar.

We’re also seeing more technology entering the bar world as the cost of gear is decreasing and more options become available. Thanks to shows like Top Chef and Master Chef, cooking is seriously cool, and general interest in culinary technique has grown to the point where supply and demand are giving the bar world more options that align with our financial restraints. Bars are notoriously stingy businesses – being profitable on paper-thin margins – but thanks to some forward-thinking gear companies, new tools are more and more at our disposal. Not every bar can reasonably afford a rotary evaporator (yet!), but thanks to folks at Polyscience, getting a sturdy immersion circulator is justifiable to more and more businesses.

Polyscience's Smoking Gun

Polyscience’s Smoking Gun

Dueling Immersion Circulators: syrup experiments

Dueling Immersion Circulators: syrup experiments

Testing Temperature: finding the right temp for sous vide syrups

Testing Temperature: finding the right temp for sous vide syrups

At Proprietors LLC and Gin & Luck, you’ll see a lot of shiny gadgets used in some of our ingredient preparations, but it is all used with the same classicist mindset as the most simple of cocktails. Those out there more historically-minded will be quick to note that there isn’t a drink that could ever match the beauty of a well made Daiquiri, and they’d be right. That is, until they try a stirred Daiquiri with clarified lime juice fresh from the the ‘fuge.  Huzzah!

But always, with respect and admiration for the classics...

But always, with respect and admiration for the classics…

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