Friday, 10 June 2016

The Secret Past of Molecular Mixing—According to Mixellany

[This article previously appeared on theworldclassclub.com in May 2016]
by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown

"You have to know the past to understand the present.” — Carl Sagan, Astronomer

Molecular mixology is the crucible of cocktail trends. By nature it is and will always be the frontier of mixing. Pioneering new concepts are born by testing the limits of ingredients, engineering new ways to combine and present flavours. However, this is hardly new. An article in a Chicago newspaper describes a customer’s amazement at ice spheres in cocktails in a Chicago bar. The article went on to say that bar also used perfect 2-inch cubes to control dilution. This is hardly impressive, except that article appeared over a century ago—in 1898. 

Here’s a remarkable molecular mint julep: whiskey redistilled with mint to create a clear mint whiskey. Then load the still with water and mint to create a mint hydrosol. Infuse sherry with saffron for 10-12 days. Strain out the saffron, and combine the sherry with an equal measure of sugar to create a saffron sherry syrup. Build a julep with the clear mint whiskey and the mint hydrosol. Add the sherry syrup, bringing the classic colour and a beautiful flavour to the drink. 

What’s truly remarkable about the recipe above? It’s one of a series of variations that appears in a book from Dublin, published in 1753. 

Jelly shots. Most bartenders today consider them to be modern abominations. Most bartenders have never seen the original recipes from their inventor, renowned chef Alexis Benoit Soyer who created them during the 1840s. Professor Jerry Thomas was so enamoured with Soyer’s work he included at least half a dozen of Soyer’s recipes in his 1862 book, The Bar-Tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks, including Soyer au Champagne. He also tried to get a job in London working for the great chef. Unfortunately the admiration wasn’t reciprocated. Thomas ended up working down the road at the American Bowling Saloon in the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. 

While jelly shots are easy to serve, it is important for bartenders to ensure people are not over-served, as the alcohol is somewhat more concealed. However, even responsible service is not new. Professor Jerry Thomas himself remarked: “the strength of the punch is so artfully concealed by its admixture with the gelatine, that many persons, particularly of the softer sex have been tempted to partake so plentifully of it as to render them somewhat unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.” Bear this in mind even if your guests aren’t quadrilling. 

How fast can you bring a drink to a boil? A microwave takes as long as a minute to bring a cup of water to a boil. A kettle or urn keeps it at a boil, but depletes the dissolved oxygen, flattening the flavour. In the past, bartenders could bring a drink to a boil in five seconds using a loggerhead. However, this rapid temperature rise added certain flavours. These flavours—internal to hot drinks from the time, and to drinks still made today—have sadly been lost.

The loggerhead is a uniquely designed fireplace implement. They still appear on eBay mislabelled as fire pokers. With a shorter handle and a large lump of metal as opposed to a sharp point they are as useful for poking a fire as mittens are for playing piano, but that lump of metal holds a lot of heat. Leave one in the fireplace until it becomes red hot. Don’t plunge it into a drink. The liquid expands so rapidly it launches out of the vessel leaving the bartender soaked and the cup empty. Instead, touch it to the surface. Then lower it gently into the drink, touching bottom on a five-count. Now, the drink is not only boiling but sugars in the liquid have caramelised and touch of charcoal is introduced, giving drinks a unique and historically accurate flavour. Working with red-hot pokers is very dangerous, so due care must be taken as ever around open flames such as fireplaces. 

Barrel and bottle ageing of cocktails has become all the rage. Bars are even discovering that the char or toast and the conditioning makes an enormous difference. Harry Johnson, author of The New and Improved Bartenders Manual (1882), would be proud. He felt every good bartender should know how to care for products in barrels and to use those barrels to ensure superior spirits, even of the same brand carried by other bars. He lamented that more spirits were being sold exclusively in bottles. Jerry Thomas advocated bottled cocktails. There is no question that mixed drinks mature in bottle, as demonstrated by many great bartenders today. Leo Engel, another giant from bartending history bottled his punches, remarking on how well they mellowed over time. 

While molecular techniques such as the dry shake seem recent, unlike ice, the cocktail shaker has a longer history than most people would imagine. Centuries before the U.S. patents often cited as indicating when they were invented, the cocktail shaker predates the United States. The “doppelfosbecher” meaning double-barrelled beaker was a set of equal-sized tins that fit seamlessly together. These were common in German taverns back to the 15th century. The mixing technique they used, throwing, was sadly lost around the beginning of the 20th century and is only now returning. This technique gives a drink the clarity of stirring with better aeration than shaking. A couple old New York bartenders were overheard around 1895 watching a young colleague fill a shaker, shake a drink and strain it into a glass without throwing the drink. One turned to the other and called it the death of the profession. 

Even the word mixology has a long history. While Webster’s Dictionary claims ‘mixology’ was first used in 1948, we’ve traced it back as far as 1872. 

There are many more great new molecular discoveries mouldering in the pages of old books and newspapers. They are waiting in the past for the next bartender who wants to shape the future. They can be found through newspaper archives, both free (such as chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) and by subscription (such as newspapers.com, newspaperarchive.com and britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). These may not be the base of every new invention, but more often than not, lasting discoveries will have their roots firmly in history—and there is no question there are still countless new ideas waiting for today’s molecular mixologists.