Better boozing through chemistry: Molecular mixology shakes up Boston’s cocktail scene

Trish LaCount of Blue Inc.

Trish LaCount of Blue Inc. Photo: Conor Doherty

The mixologist is dead. After a brief dalliance with that highfalutin job description, most of your better drink-makers have decided they’d rather just go back to being called bartenders. The term always carried a whiff of pretension anyway, they say, and failed to acknowledge a primary aspect of the job: hospitality.

But that doesn’t mean that the practices of mixology aren’t still with us. In fact, things have only just started cooking. Literally.

Culinary movements have often trickled down to the bar — hence why so many locavore-leaning restaurants are increasingly pouring New England brews and spirits, for instance. “The great thing about the bar and kitchen is that there is so much crossover and opportunity to collaborate,” says Vincent Stipo of Deuxave (371 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.517.5915). But Boston bartenders’ intense focus on a return to the basics of pre- and post-Prohibition cocktails made the prospects for molecular mixology seem less certain. For a while, its forerunner, molecular gastronomy, turned playing Mr. Wizard in the kitchen into the hottest thing since sliced bread — if you sliced that bread with a laser, dehydrated it, sucked out its essential bread-ness, blasted it through an atomizer, and breathed it in through a gas mask in an anti-gravity chamber. But some of that shit got old quick. Foam is not food, people. Also, get off my lawn.

But it’s far too soon to write the obit for such experimentation behind the bar, say some of Boston’s more inventive mixolo — err, bartenders. Some might even argue that a scientific approach lends itself to cocktails more than cuisine. Molecular gastronomy may be art, but it doesn’t necessarily fulfill the primary function of food, which is to provide nourishment. (And serve as emotional comfort for those of us without any friends.) On the other hand, no matter how much you screw with them, cocktails are still going to do what they’re intended to do: satiate thirst and get you drunk. (And, you know, serve as emotional comfort for those of us without any friends.)

And while the potential for unique presentations and showmanship is clear, the bottom line here is often enhanced drinkability. In other words, today’s bartenders are using high-tech techniques born in the kitchen as tools rather than as tricks — and infusing their watering holes with a sense of wonder.

 

DRINK DECONSTRUCTION

Consider mad scientist Todd Maul, who is designing a cocktail list for Clio (370A Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.536.7200) that would befuddle a chemist. Or at least someone like me, whose most significant exposure to chemistry comes from living out — ahem, I mean watching — episodes of Breaking Bad.

I spoke with Maul while he was working with a couple of Harvard PhD candidates in bio-chemical engineering to “crack open” green Chartreuse with a rotary evaporator, a machine often used in molecular gastronomy. “It allows me to deconstruct alcohol, basically to break things down to their molecular components,” Maul explains. It’s a multi-stage process, with each use stripping off more voluble molecules. The first to come off, Maul says, are the aromatics, which create something similar to a perfume. Next is the straight alcohol, which comes out at 160 proof, regardless of the spirit you begin with. (Don’t drink that.) Further steps strip out rounder, bigger molecules. Eventually, you’re left with the essence of what makes, say, Chartreuse Chartreuse. “The point of it is, I’m able to break open Chartreuse, just seeing how it works and what I can do with it,” Maul clarifies.

The essence of Chartreuse is then introduced to heat in a sugar pan, where it takes on a thicker viscosity. Now it’s ready to be used for cocktail mixing. I tried it in a variation on a Manhattan called a Somerville, where it’s mixed with rye and the essence of a cigar, which Maul creates by soaking a cigar in vodka until it breaks open and running the mix through the rotary evaporator. Drinking a cigar doesn’t exactly sound appetizing, but the result is a lightly smoky cocktail that mostly just tastes like a perfectly made Manhattan, with the essence of Chartreuse working off the high notes of the rye.

Over at Blue Inc. (131 Broad Street, Boston, 617.261.5353), Trish LaCount is likewise reaping surprisingly good results from whimsical infusions. For her Dinner and a Movie cocktail, she starts with a Myers’s rum base and infuses it with buttered popcorn and malt balls before pouring it over Pepsi on the rocks. If drinking Maul’s Somerville is like having a manly whiskey and a smoke in a handsomely appointed study filled with leather-bound classics, hers is a sketchy date night at a trashy movie. Both sound like fun to me.

 

COCKTAIL CHAMELEONS

The deconstruction process described above can be applied to almost any spirit. Maul has recently tried it with beer, port, and Lillet Blanc, a fortified wine that features in Mary’s Liquor Cabinet — a gin cocktail that’s truly transformative. After he pulls out the water and alcohol and applies heat, what’s left of the Lillet is a caramelized raisin-like substance that Maul uses to coat the inside of the martini glass. The recipe is rounded out with gin, the bitter liqueur Gran Classico, Cocchi Americano (another fortified white wine), and wormwood bitters. As the paint dissolves over time in the glass, it changes the nature of the cocktail, which finishes with a more grape-forward character and more caramel undertones than it began.

Booze isn’t the only thing Maul has broken down. He has also separated citrus into its essential components using a centrifuge — just another part of his quest to reimagine cocktails that seem basic and immutable. A gin and tonic, for example, is four parts: gin, lime, ice, and tonic. “I wanted to look at how I could rethink it,” says Maul. He used a Middle Eastern black lime, broke it up into powder, and rehydrated it with clarified lime juice from the centrifuge. Then he drilled holes into large chunks of ice and injected the citrus essence into the center of each cube. It’s a pretty labor-intensive process, but it makes for a cocktail that evolves as you drink it: the dilution of the ice introduces more and more of the citrus to the flavor profile.

A cocktail that ends differently than it began is “for me, part of the fun,” says LaCount. “It makes your drink interactive and ever-changing.” That’s a sentiment shared by the inventive Domingo-Martin Barreres of Market (100 Stuart Street, Boston, 617.310.6790). He’s working with a cocktail that changes its nature as well, but this metamorphosis is even more conspicuous: his aptly named Chameleon Cocktail changes color instantly before your eyes. To begin, he infuses Bombay Sapphire gin with dried blue butterfly pea flowers, fresh ginger, and sugar in a sous-vide machine, which is typically used for cooking foods in vacuum-sealed pouches under low heat for long periods. Sealing off the cocktail ingredients ensures that the alcohol doesn’t evaporate when heat is introduced. The gin, which comes out a bright blue color, is then strained off and chilled. Meanwhile, Barreres chills a martini glass with ice laced with lemon juice. When the ice is removed, some of the juice continues to coat the glass. Then he adds the blue gin, which reacts with the citric acid, turning a bright pink.

 

TINKERING WITH TEXTURE

Bartenders aren’t just playing with flavor and color: texture is another variable that can be tweaked for wild results. At Market, Barreres has done experiments with a spherified mojito preparation — essentially a bite-sized mojito jelly or “caviar.” Spherification, which turns traditionally liquid ingredients into more solid forms, is a technique made famous by El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, one of the world’s most widely renowned chefs.

It’s also being used behind the bar at Deuxave, where Vincent Stipo is working with ginger caviar for his RumRunner cocktail. He begins with ginger syrup, introduces a touch of citric acid to “enhance the acidity and balance the sugars,” and then stabilizes it with sodium alginate — “a flavorless gum that helps to increase viscosity.” Using an eye-dropper or, for a larger sphere, a spoon, he drops the syrup into a water bath seasoned with calcium chloride, which firms up the caviar. “When the two liquids touch, a sphere is automatically formed around the syrup,” Stipo explains. He drops the resulting ginger pearls into a cocktail of blended rums, pineapple purée, tarragon, and bitters to add a finishing burst of flavor.

Stipo has also worked successfully with dehydration, creating fruit garnishes that gain an added sense of texture and new dimensions of flavor. In one instance, he imbued a lemon chip with cinnamon flavor by boiling thin slices of lemon in syrup and then dusting them with the spice until crisp. Elsewhere he’s played with Ultra-Tex 3, a tapioca-derived starch used to thicken fruit purées. “This is big, because oftentimes my purées contain citrus or other fresh fruit, and heat will affect the taste and color. The last time I used it was to make a black-cherry purée thicker. I wanted to use it as a garnish, by painting — yes, with a paint brush — the inside of a Pimm’s cocktail and then pouring the liquid in.” 

At Blue Inc., LaCount is playing with states of matter too. Take her Two-Timin’ Bastard, a devious riff on the classic Suffering Bastard. It’s essentially two cocktails in one glass (hence the name). LaCount fills one pint glass with ice, bourbon, citrus juices, simple syrup, and bitters. Meanwhile, in a second glass, she mixes gin, Becherovka, and a dash of cranberry juice over ice. Returning to the first glass, she tops it off with liquid nitrogen and inserts a long straw. The liquid nitrogen freezes the bottom layer of the cocktail and provides a solid base on which to pour the contents of the second cocktail. “Then you splash ginger beer on top and add two small straws,” she explains. “You can then drink from the large straw, which has been frozen to the bottom half, and the small straw — and get two drinks at once.”

 

THE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE

All this may sound like a lot of work to go to through just to make a cocktail. But rethinking how we drink is worth it, Maul tells me while manning the mini-grill at Clio, cooking cherries and oranges for his version of an Old Fashioned. (The changes in color and flavor that happen to foods at high temperatures are the result of something called the Maillard reaction, if you’re still paying attention to the sciencey stuff.)

“Thinking outside the box stimulates imagination, which makes one think outside the box and on and on,” Barreres says of his “perpetual-motion potions.” He calls the added work addictive. “Imbibing is a sensory experience. I don’t care what anyone says: if there are two equally balanced cocktails, the one that has an interesting story, technique, or garnish will always be better. Would you rather drink out of glass or plastic? Exactly.”

Behind-the-scenes preparations like these can make a guest experience memorable, agrees Stipo. “There are so many small details high-quality restaurants take the time to perfect that may often go unnoticed, but the intangibles are what help us to exceed expectations.”

And stand out from the competition. “Everybody in the world makes a gin and tonic. I want to make one no one else is making,” says Maul. “If you want this one, you have to come see me; these are going to be unique to here. People go to their favorite restaurant to get chicken done the way they like it because that’s how they do it there. Everyone makes chicken. I want to make the best chicken gin and tonic you’ve ever had.”

Given the way these types of experiments are progressing, I wouldn’t be surprised if he means that literally.