Published on June 4th, 2013 | by Regan0
Mixology Unchained: The Cocktail Trends of Tomorrow
by Regan Hofmann
There are those who hate the term “mixology,” who feel that it brings pseudo-science to a profession that should be more artisan than architecture. To them I can only apologize, as its use is unavoidable when talking about the final event of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Mixology Unchained. To be fair, it was the best use of the word in a long time; the event tasked eight bartenders from around the country with coming up with a cocktail that would embody the next big trend in drinks-making. The trick: they could only use vodka (Svedka was the night’s sponsor) so simply picking an unknown spirit and calling it the next big thing wouldn’t work. These guys dropped some serious science, making them true mixologists even without the degree from MIT.
It was all the brainchild of Tobin Ellis, whose Las Vegas-based Social Mixology collective hosts creative cocktail events around the country. Ellis’s prediction for the future was good old-fashioned hospitality — something we think a lot of bartenders in our fair city are already on board with — and he gave it to everyone who stepped up to his part of the bar, along with a vodka-tonic made with his own homemade tonic, dark red in color from the botanicals and bark infused therein and deliciously earthy in flavor.
San Diego’s Erick Castro expanded on the on-tap concept seen in cocktails like Gin Palace’s gin & tonic and Saxon + Parole’s Manhattan by serving a pre-carbonated vodka and pineapple soda straight from the keg. The only at-the-bar addition was a slap of fresh mint – a true timesaver for busy bars and a dangerously refreshing drink for what was an unseasonably hot day.
The third station on the lower level was the showstopper, thanks to Dave Arnold pouring Bill Nye levels of liquid nitrogen across the bar. Though Booker + Dax‘s Arnold could write the book on cocktail mad science (and has written the book in kitchen science, from his previous life as head of the French Culinary Institute’s Culinary Technology department), he limited himself to just one: “nitro-muddling” fresh herbs in large quantities to preserve their fresh flavor and eliminate that “picking leaves out of your teeth” feeling that has ruined many a mojito. His Thai Basil Gimlet was startlingly green, brightly citrusy and astonishingly fragrant from the powdered herbs.
The other five participants had their stations up at the rooftop bar, which became eminently more pleasant as the evening cooled and the old-time jazz band began crooning. Don Lee, formerly of PDT and the Momofuku restaurants, had a vaporizer steaming with an aerated version of the cocktail he was pouring, so the adventurous could lean over and take a deep breath, then take a sip, getting a one-two punch of the same cocktail. Kansas City’s Ryan Maybee took a different spin on technology with a virtually interactive cocktail, straws tagged with a QR code and texting instructions that both led to a website where the recipe could be downloaded or shared via Twitter, with further links out elaborating on ingredients (like the Root Beer Milk from Shatto Dairy, a revered KC producer) and techniques (like a YouTube video demonstrating how to dry shake a cocktail).
San Francisco’s Camper English, meanwhile, had a choose-your-own-adventure setup, serving plain vodka-sodas to be doctored to your taste with droppers in bottles containing the five flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory) and a few textures (cooling, astringent – think wine tannins – and pungent). Though some played by the rules and added just the right amount of sweet or savory, most drinkers couldn’t resist making themselves the cocktail equivalent of the high schooler’s sneaking-from-dad’s-liquor-cabinet mix: a little bit of everything.
The final two both played with the idea of incorporating food and cocktails, a conversation that continues every time a restaurant opens with an ambitious cocktail program (we’re looking at you, Alder). On the literal side, Alexandria, Va.’s Todd Thrasher created a pupu platter-inspired drink-and-hors-d’oeuvre-in-one. The “Pupu 2 You” served up a larb-inspired spring roll balanced carefully over a cocktail made with duck sauce soda – made in house, obviously. On its own the drink was…startlingly sweet but savory, but consumed as Thrasher suggested (“Take a bite, then take a sip”) it was a faithful recreation of the mealtime experience, and a delight for how well it worked.
L.A.’s Zahra Bates, meanwhile, took the food out of the experience, creating a five-course meal entirely from drinks. It began with a champagne jelly, cleverly topped with a sodium bicarbonate powder that, when activated with lemon juice, fizzed like real bubbly. Then came a Last Word-flavored grape, a Bloody Mary tomato, a clementine-passion fruit shot with a parmesan espuma crowning the top and a salt-and-pepper rim, and finally a coffee marshmallow. It was the most charming, if the most unwieldy – as the crowd started to gather, the careful step-by-step instructions were abandoned and drinkers were handed just the shot, which was a tidy encapsulation of the concept. Like all new innovations, the first go-round was not quite scalable – like the first cell phones, the ones that required a separate briefcase to carry the transmitter. But the idea was there, and some day, we’ll get the iPhone version: sleek, quick, and crowd-pleasing. Bartenders just need to keep putting time in for R&D – or signing up for events like this.
Regan Hofmann is an unaccredited supertaster who writes about food and drinks around New York City. She has lots of opinions, which she shares on Twitter.