They say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Never does Arthur C. Clarke’s old adage ring more true than when faced with the newest breed of bartenders, creating drinks that aren’t drinks using molecular mixology.
Ordering a mojito and receiving it in cotton candy form is enough to make anyone wonder what arcane powers are at work. Or, what about that spoonful of caviar that isn’t caviar at all, but pearls of absinthe? And that innocent-looking scoop of ice cream you’ve just bitten into? That’s a caipirinha made with liquid nitrogen.
It’s like watching a magician make an elephant disappear—you know it is a trick, you know it involves some combination of smoke, mirrors, and misdirection, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive when the curtain falls, and the elephant is nowhere to be seen.
Molecular mixology doesn’t quite reach the scale of Copperfield’s greatest hits, but its subtler charms draw you in on a more personal level. The illusion is more sensual and all-encompassing than the visual trickery of stage magic. You can smell, touch, and taste the odd shapes these morphological marvels come in.
Of course, there is no real magic involved. It’s all an offshoot of that peculiar and wondrous discipline known as molecular gastronomy—the science of food. Anyone who was lucky enough to dine at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Barcelona before they closed their doors or simply watched Heston Blumenthal create one of his fantastic feasts on TV will be familiar with the idea of this experimental cuisine. It combines creativity and scientific techniques to push the boundaries of what we think of, as food. Hot ice cream that melts as it cools, powdered olive oils, salads in gel form—the only limits are one’s own imagination.
With the exciting variety of possibilities offered by molecular gastronomy, is it any wonder that bartenders and other creators of drinks should also begin experimenting with scientific techniques? While the art form itself is relatively new—less than a decade old—the techniques themselves, in their most basic form, have been in play for centuries. Layering cocktails by using varying densities of liquids was the earliest example of these principles at work. A Springbok anyone?
While this particular brand of mixology may be in its infancy as a recognised discipline, its proponents are building upon the theories and foundations of molecular gastronomy and establishing an exciting presence in the drinks industry. There is a strong relationship between the practitioners of molecular gastronomy and the pioneers of its mixological counterpart. Big names include Tony Conigliaro, who has partnered with Blumenthal to create the cocktail menu for his restaurant, The Fat Duck, and Eben Freeman, who has worked with, and been inspired by, burgeoning chefs in the food science industry to bring molecular mixology to the masses.
At its most experimental and impressive, molecular mixology births palate-defying cocktails that blur the boundaries between food and drink, liquid and solid, even edible and not-so-edible. Fancy a cocktail sphere that explodes in your mouth? Or one infused with the taste of cigar? Or how about a crispy whiskey sour that resembles a paper napkin? An eggnog truffle, or gin marshmallow, that appeals to your sweet tooth? Maybe you would just like one that goes down like normal but looks like it was inspired by an acid-soaked trip taken by Hunter S. Thompson.
All these and more might make for an unusual Friday night at the bar, but there is no denying their wow factor. Some of the more deceptive-looking ones (and their unusual shapes and textures) might be the only thing you remember about the night before.
But magic is ephemeral. Sceptics might argue that, while impressive, molecular mixology presents little more than novelty value—that once you’ve seen one cocktail gel, you’ve seen ’em all. That’s only half the story. It would be rash to call this kind of molecular magic a gimmick, as it is underpinned by a strong foundation of knowledge. Molecular mixology is about more than just appearance; it is about understanding what tastes and textures work well on a genetic level, what techniques enhance the taste and experience of drinks, and what concentrations of flavours are ideal from a scientific point-of-view. A good cocktail created using the principles of molecular mixology might not look at all out of place—the difference would lie in the taste.
That said, there is no denying the appeal of serving your friends a glass-less cocktail. Home bartenders and drink enthusiasts have taken to molecular mixology like ducks to water, for obvious reasons. What better way to show off your mixing skills than by serving up something that looks as if it was conjured from an episode of Harry Potter?
Here is where the term ‘molecular mixology’ is misleading. It sounds daunting, as if you need a PhD and secret lab just to create a martini, but much of it is having a sound knowledge of the ingredients you are working with, and knowing how to apply the right techniques. The experts may use sci-fi devices like rotary evaporators and liquid nitrogen machines, but there are plenty of simpler and more budget-friendly ways to get involved. Think jello shots, or alcoholic ice lollies taken to the next level.
The first thing to do is get your hands on your own conjurer’s bag of tricks—in this case, a molecular gastronomy starter kit, which includes the essential tools and food additives that go into making foams, airs, gels, and spheres. Some recipes also require equipment that any well-equipped home chef might have—ice cream makers and kitchen blowtorches.
There are many resources online that offer molecular mixology recipes, but they key is to find those that are detailed and doable. Save the tough stuff for later and get acquainted with the basic principles first. Then put on your mad scientist lab coat, and it’s time to get experimentin’.
Learning the secret to orchestrating an illusion often takes the fun out of it, but knowing the tricks of the trade behind molecular mixology does, in fact, make it even better. Far from being a fad, molecular mixology is leading to better cocktails and more skilled bartenders. It is the next step in the evolution of drinks, and one can only wonder where the mages of martinis, the wizards of whiskey, and the sorcerers of spirits will lead us next.
by Claudia Ferreira