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Five Things Every Cocktail “Mad Scientist” Should Know

Last week I attended the annual cocktail conference/bacchanal known as “Tales of the Cocktail.” (Yes, the same event through which Lot 18’s Elana Effrat took her crazy spin.) This is the fourth time I’ve attended – and every year, something knocks my socks off.

This year, it was a trio of “mad scientist” cocktailians: Dave Arnold of the French Culinary Institute; Harold McGee, food scientist and author of “On Cooking;” and Tony Conigliaro, a London-based mixologist who is known for his spirited experiments like aging cocktails in glass bottles at Connaught Bar – a direct precedent to the barrel-aged cocktail craze sweeping American bars today.

All of these pioneers are interested in pushing the boundaries of cooking, mixing, and presenting through experimentation and play. They bring lab equipment into the bar and kitchen, and produce some incredible experiments.

The three gathered on a panel to discuss the role that science plays in the food and beverage world, and showed off some of their projects. And Arnold decided to infuse Absolut Vodka with mint and caraway during the course of the seminar.

Dave Arnold explains how the Rotary Evaporator (Rotovap) works. Essentially, it extracts and concentrates flavor molecules by first evaporating the flavors into a vapor, sending it through a vacuum system, and then chilling it and condensing it back into liquid format. Read more about it here

The final result: caraway-mint infused vodka, in an eyedropper.

Though their discussion and demonstration, here’s what I learned about “mad scientists” and their cocktails.

1.Cocktail “mad scientists” are more interested in flavor than in the scientific method. “The goal isn’t to be a scientist, it’s to make something delicious,” Arnold insisted. “But we use science as a basis.”

2.Still, you should take good lab notes. Says Tony Conigliaro, “If you have a eureka moment and you don’t write down what you did, you spend the next few days trying to remember what you did. That sucks.”

3.Playing with your food is encouraged. McGee offered four basic tenets for bringing science to the bar or kitchen: Be curious; trust your observations; play with your food; be skeptical.

4.Don’t be a showoff. Don’t use science in food or drink just because it’s fashionable,” Arnold advised. In fact, “If it’s all about flash and gimmickry, usually I don’t want the drink.” Case in point: The previous evening, I’d had a classic Aviation cocktail served with a sodium alginate “cherry” at the bottom. It was a bartender showoff move that detracted from the drink. “It’s like eating a bath bead,” a dining companion observed.

5.A “mad scientist” is only as good as his ideas, and his tools. Parting wisdom from Dave Arnold: “ordering lab equipment on eBay means opening yourself up to a whole world of biohazard hurt.” Order new equipment from a reliable resource like PolySci and WillPowder.

If you’re interested in making your own experimental cocktails, check out David Arnold’s blog and Harold McGee’s website.